Theater Around The Bay: The Rise of Geek Theater

Sunil Patel returns in another guest blog.

Last year I produced a Theater Pub night of sci-fi/fantasy/horror theater called The Pub from Another World. In one night, we saw plays about superheroes, clones, unicorns, time travel, and monsters. Theater Pub was no stranger to genre theater, having put on Lovecraft adaptations, Love in the Time of Zombies, and a Pint-Sized Play about a genie, but I wanted to see more, being a fan of both SFF and theater. It seemed a rare beast to me, especially given that we owe the word “robot” to Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R. I made it to my mission to bring more genre theater to the Bay Area…and then two days after The Pub from Another World, Shotgun Players premiered Lauren Gunderson’s cloning drama, By and By. Perhaps genre theater wasn’t as rare a beast as I thought.

As Hardison from Leverage frequently proclaims, it is the Age of the Geek, and geek culture and theater are intersecting more than ever before. In February David Dean Bottrell raised over $80,000 to produce the 1st Annual Sci-Fest, a science fiction one-act play festival in Los Angeles boasting actors from shows like The X-Files, Lost, and Supernatural. The festival alternated two evenings featuring works by sci-fi greats Ursula K. LeGuin and Ray Bradbury in addition to new works. I enthusiastically backed the project and was fortunate enough to attend one show in May, where I got to see Ando from Heroes give a hell of a nonverbal performance and Langly from The X-Files deliver philosophical monologues while floating in space. The festival received many positive reviews, and submissions are now being accepted for the 2nd Annual Sci-Fest!

The Sci-Fest Kickstarter declared that apart from Ray Bradbury, “few writers have ever experimented with presenting compelling science fiction stories on stage.” As if responding to that very statement, a couple months later Jen Gunnels and Erin Underwood launched a Kickstarter for Geek Theater, an anthology of science fiction and fantasy plays, and raised nearly $4,000. The anthology collects over a dozen plays of various lengths (and one monologue) from current playwrights, bringing more visibility to theater about zombies and robots. I’m only familiar with a couple of the authors, one from comics and one from short stories, so I’m excited to discover new SFF playwrights.

Jen Gunnels is no stranger to sci-fi theater, though, as in April she was the keynote speaker at Stage the Future: The First International Conference on Science Fiction Theatre, an academic conference focusing on topics ranging from Ancient Speculative Theatre to Performing the Non-Human and the Post-Human. “This conference is the first of its kind and hopes to raise awareness of the need for a new theatre that is already here; a theatre that has its roots in the past and its eyes on the future,” the description reads, echoing my own desires. And like the first Sci-Fest, the first Stage the Future found success and is now accepting proposals for its second year.

Like her co-editor, Erin Underwood’s passion for sci-fi theater also took her to England this year, as in August she spoke at the World Science Fiction Convention in London (also known as Loncon). Staging the Fantastic, a panel that also included Geek Theater contributor James Patrick Kelley, asked “Is this a golden age for genre theatre?” In fact, Loncon itself featured seven stage productions, including an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Anubis Gates by World Fantasy Award winner Tim Powers and a hilarious production of The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) with jokes about Babylon 5 and the Joss Whedon oeuvre.

While it’s clear that traditional geek theater is alive and well, recently I’ve noticed another form that truly marries a love of geekery with the power of theater: the live reading. This July at San Diego Comic-Con, voice actors from Adventure Time performed an original radio play written by current head writer, Kent Osborne. Although the Adventure Time panel in 2012 also featured a live reading, this event was both separate from the official panel and a ticketed event, speaking to the popularity and appeal of the performance. A few days later, Naughty Dog hosted The Last of Us: One Night Live, with live performances of the score and key cut scenes from the acclaimed survival horror game. While the idea was met with some skepticism, reviews of the event were positive—the music and voice acting were praised in the game itself, after all, and I’d buy tickets to The Walking Dead: One Night Live in a heartbeat—and attendees were treated to a special epilogue scene written and directed by Neil Druckmann (writer/director of the game).

No one has embraced the theatricality of the live reading quite like Welcome to Night Vale, however. The weird, surreal podcast about a radio show in the strangest town in America has developed a massive following, and last year they began doing live shows. These shows sell out in minutes, and I’ve been lucky enough to attend two, one at the Booksmith and one at the Victoria Theater. Creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor met via the New York Neo-Futurists, and lead actor Cecil Baldwin performs with the New York Neos (I also saw him perform with the inaugural San Francisco Neo-Futurists). The influence is evident in the live shows, which similarly pay no attention to the fourth wall and bring the audience into the show. For one night, the audience is in Night Vale and part of the story. At the Booksmith we collectively killed a man with our minds. In the Victoria Theater we feared for our lives as an escaped Librarian slithered in our midst. A live reading can simply be actors reading from a script or it can be a transformative, transportive experience.

Is it just me or is this an actual trend? Science fiction theater festivals! Science fiction theater academic conferences! Live performances of video game cut scenes! I can’t wait to see where the intersection of geek culture and theater takes us next.

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area writer and actor. See his work at http://ghostwritingcow.com or follow him on Twitter @ghostwritingcow.

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Working Title: Shotgun Dreamscapes or The Waking Neo Futurist Life

Will Leschber looks into The Future.

The Neo Futurists are coming. They are preparing to hit the Bay Area in the near future. But, who are they? And more importantly does their pastiche, mash-up theatre structure serve a purpose? One could also ask this of Waking Life, the unconventional 2001 indie film by Richard Linklater.

Let’s begin at the future.

I was fortunate enough to catch a performance of The Neo Futurists’ “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” in Chicago last week. They are self described on their website (neofuturists.org) as “a collective of wildly prolific writer/director/performers who create: Theater that is a fusion of sport, poetry and living-newspaper.” Although this company is a new revelation to me, they have actually been around for 25 years.  The company name evokes art in transition; Something that flagstones a bridge between theatre today and audiences of tomorrow. Their mission is to create “work that embraces those unreached or unmoved by conventional theater inspiring them to thought, feeling and action.” This postmodern approach to theatre combines improvisation, short-form timed theatre, unconventional entertainment structure, narrative dance/movement and other performance forms as a way to provide a new kind of theatrical experience.

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The rundown looks like this: the audience receives an order menu of 30 play titles as they enter. If you are picturing Chinese take out, you are on the right track. When the performers shout “curtain!” throughout the night, anyone in the audience is invited to shout back a number 1 thru 30. The first number a performer hears, that play is up next. The goal is to get through 30 plays in 60 minutes. Each night is different from the last. Nightly the order re-shuffles and new plays are written and swapped in each week. The structure itself and the extensive possibilities are exciting. It is Jack of All Trades Theatre with all the positive and negative connotations. In that, I mean the Neo Futurists provide scatter gun entertainment that hits in the keys of Comedy, Drama and the myriad spaces between.  I do wonder if the parts, in this case, are more than the sum. Of the 60 plays, I can remember a mere handful. Yet, I enjoyed them all. This eclectic theatre satisfies so many tastes in a structured form that doesn’t allow the performance to master any one. Herein lies the purpose and also the frustration. I was not as moved as King Lear nor did I laugh as hard as Noises Off. However, in a third of the time, I laughed and felt empathy for honest connections and was wowed by breakneck athletic theatre. That’s the point:  shotgun entertainment. The target audience will be hit in one way or another. Certain parts struck me. Different part may strike you. I found myself thinking about and talking about the performance days later. This for me is a benchmark of essential art. Something that stays with you. Something that isn’t easily shaken off. While I wasn’t blown out if my chair in awe, I am eager to return and pick up more pieces.

Like the piecemeal form intrinsic to Neo Futurist theatre, Richard Linklater’s 2001 film, Waking Life is told in vignettes. Genre is flipped about and narrative storytelling falls to the brief whimsy of shifting dreams.  Our lead character, played by Wiley Wiggins, travels through a dreamscape in which he alternately interacts with or simply observes others in omniscient third person. Wylie watches psychiatrists discuss the purpose of love. He witnesses the heated rant of an overly political cab driver with a megaphone. He discusses purpose and identity in our waking lives and whether we sleep away our lives to only live truly in our dreams. He is told the last words of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian  who on his death bed said,  “Sweep me up” and Wylie wonders whether his current sleep is eternal. Will he wake? How linked are we all though common experience and reincarnated dreams? Not only does Linklater play with story structure, he plays with the way the film is visually conveyed.

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To further emphasize the unstable dream state of on main character, Linklater filmed live action and then animated over the top of that. This process is called Rotoscoping and although it has been around for almost a century, Richard Linklater is the first director to use digital rotoscoping for an entire feature length film. The characters float through this shifting foreground of vivid dream creatively matching form of storytelling with content within story. Structurally the New Futurists and Waking Life operate in a similar way, separate pieces creating a larger whole. The difference lies in tone. The Neo Futurist production “To Much Light Makes the Baby to Blind” has parts linked by structure but is not unified in tone. Waking Life uses structure to enhance the story and layers on a unifying tone that echoes a searching philosophic tone rounded in uncertain melancholy.

Both are unique in the best way possible. The film and theatre piece attempt to forge an experience with irregular, eclectic building blocks. The chances taken are purposeful and ultimately elevate the smaller parts to a better whole. The goal is to provide an uncommon experience instead of a conventional narrative.  The Neo Futurists offer an intelligent,  interactive, sprinting-fun experience sprinkled with topic musings.  Waking Life offers a meandering and pensive stroll down a dream lane that looks at “life and how we perceive it” (Wiggins). If you are looking for something different, you’ve found it.

Look for the San Francisco debut of the Neo Futurists in the near future. And find Waking Life to for digital rent or purchase on Amazon and Vudu.

Logo-home-header. 2012. Photograph. neofuturist.org, Chicago, IL. Web. 22 Oct 2013.

                Waking Life. 2001. Photograph. Walkerart.orgWeb. 22 Oct 2013. <http://www.walkerart.org/calendar/2011/waking-life>.

                Wiggins, Wiley, perf. Waking Life. Dir. Linklater. Fox Searchlight PIctures, 2001. Film. 22 Oct 2013.