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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Some Echoes Of The Pub From Another World

It’s been a week since we had The Pub From Another World and we’re following it up with a couple of links for people who just can’t have our one night only event stay one night only.

First up, you can see the video made by one of our Founding Artistic Directors, Brian Markley, here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1L28OHv7_Ec (part one)

and here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vixjkZbKXaI (part two)

Actually, you might not have realized this, but virtually every show we do is recorded and you can find the footage here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/SFTheaterPub

Second, on May 12, Theater Pub had a special preview reading of The Pub from Another World at Borderlands Cafe, adjacent to Borderlands Books, which specializes in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror/mystery genres, making it the perfect place to tell tales of unicorns, mad scientists, surrogates, and superheroes. Just as the bar remains a bar, the cafe remained a cafe, the sounds of coffee grinding in the background giving the audience the true Theater Pub experience.

Thank you to Alan Beatts and Jude Feldman for their support of Theater Pub, and we encourage you to pay a visit to Borderlands, the bookstore from another world, at 866 Valencia St.

Sad that you missed it? Thank Taylor Gonzalez for recording the performances! Turn on a coffee grinder and it’s just like you were there.

https://www.box.com/s/zc9c60nru8tos0ck1gxo

The recorded pieces, in order of presentation, are:

Horny
The Progress of Perception
The Overnight Exchange
Origin Stories

Thanks to everybody who made it out to the show and we’ll see you in June when we present James Joyce’s The Dead!

The Pub From Another World Arrives Tonight!

Tonight, for one night only, Cafe Royale transforms into THE PUB FROM ANOTHER WORLD, an inter-dimensional crossroads where theater is not bound by the constraints of reality! It’s a world where time travel is possible, where unicorns exist! From the minds of eight Bay Area playwrights—including a four-year-old girl featured on Boing Boing (http://boingboing.net/2013/03/02/horrorsf-play-by-a-four-year.html)—come imaginative tales of everything from superheroes to surrogates, monsters to mad scientists, and other flights of fancy. This night of staged readings will be talked about for all eternity by those afflicted with immortality, so don’t miss it!

This strange brew of stories was concocted by Timothy Kay, Audrey Kessinger, Sang Kim, Allison Page, Sunil Patel, Bridgette Dutta Portman, Kirk Shimano, and Marissa Skudlarek. The intrepid troupe of actors includes Giovanna Arietta, Sam Bertken, Andrew Chung, AJ Davenport, Colleen Egan, Caitlin Evenson, Paul Jennings, Timothy Kay, Dan Kurtz, Meg O’Connor, Sunil Patel, Peter Townley, and Olivia Youngers.

The wormhole will be open for one night only: Monday, May 20, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale. Admission is free and no reservations are required for this journey, but we recommend you come early for the best seats. Hyde Away Blues BBQ will provide food for all human guests.

The Producer From Another World

In preparation for this month’s Theater Pub, The Pub From Another World, we interviewed producer Sunil Patel about his vision and process for this show.

Take Me To Your Leader

Take Me To Your Leader

Who are you, in a hundred words or less.

I am a voracious consumer of stories in any medium—television, film, video game, book, comic, music, anecdote—who loves words more than anything. I love to create new stories, but I also love introducing people to stories I love. I’m a pop culture fan, a geek, a nerd, and when I love something, my first instinct is to share it. As of this night, I am a writer/actor/director/producer. By day, I work in drug safety and write about people with explosive diarrhea.

How did you get involved in Theater Pub?

I made my Bay Area theater debut with the Thunderbirds in 2010, and it was my first time onstage in seven years, so I was excited to get back into theater. And lo and behold, Theater Pub was holding auditions for The Theban Chronicles, and they didn’t even need monologues! I had gone to the February Theater Pub (the Valentine’s Day show), and it looked like a fun group to work with. I was in three of the four plays, and I got a death scene, and I’ve become more and more involved since then.

So, where did this idea come from?

At the Theater Pub retreat, we were asked to come up with pitches for the next year of Theater Pub. I was excited to be a producer, as I had previously only produced halftime shows, but I didn’t know what to suggest. I didn’t know any obscure plays I wanted to put on. I’ve had an idea for a murder-mystery Theater Pub for a couple years, but I hadn’t gotten it off the ground and I wasn’t going to pitch it if I didn’t think I could write it in time. We had talked a lot about inclusivity, though, and it suddenly hit me: I could create a space for new work. I’m a genre fan and a theater fan, but I don’t see a lot of genre theater, so why not give genre writers an opportunity to write for theater and playwrights an opportunity to write genre? I had the sense that the plays I wanted to see—whether or not they were being written—were not being produced because people look down on genre, so I was going to stand up say, “I will produce your genre plays! Let your geek flag fly!”

What defines something as “genre” and specific to these genres, what defines something as Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy?

I am by no means an expert and trying to define “genre” will result in hours of heated conversation in the company I keep, but I see “genre” work as work that uses or is informed by established tropes—which is sort of saying that genre is genre. In general, however, when someone refers to “genre” work, they usually mean the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres, which are the genres that least resemble the real world. These works tend to take place in a world that is definitely not our own for one reason or another: hence The Pub from Another World.

Defining each genre is just as tricky as defining “genre.” To me, horror is not just about the obvious elements—ghosts, vampires, serial killers, etc.—but about evoking that visceral, primal fear. And in the best horror, the scary thing isn’t just a scary thing but a manifestation of a real, relatable fear. Similarly, sci-fi is not just about spaceships and time travel and aliens but about taking real science and extrapolating the implications. Some people prefer the term “speculative fiction,” which handily eliminates the need for science and brings in more dystopic fiction. These imagined futures can tell us a lot about our present.

Fantasy may be the easiest genre to identify thanks to its long, long history; today, the stories of Greek mythology can seem like fantasy, what with gods transforming into animals and people being magically brought back to life. Fantasy can be speculative as well, but, unlike science fiction, it has less basis in reality. My goal with this project was to tell unreal stories that have real emotion.

We don’t often think of these genres as applying to the theater, but there are many examples of each. What are your favorites in each category?

The first horror play that springs to mind is Nathan Tucker’s Dionysus, which kicked off the first Olympians festival. It really captured that sense of visceral horror. Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman had one of the most horrifying jump-scares I’ve ever experienced in a theater. And, although they’re a bit more comedic, I love Tim Bauer’s Zombie Town and Kirk Shimano’s Love in the Time of Zombies; both are great examples of the sort of genre theater I’d like to see more of.

I haven’t seen a lot of sci-fi theater, but I read a lot of great sci-fi scripts on the reading committee for Cutting Ball’s RISK IS THIS experimental theater festival a couple years ago. Consider for a second the fact that sci-fi theater is considered “experimental”; could that be why we see so little of it? Two of my favorite scripts—which have received readings but no full productions, to my knowledge—were Garret Groenveld’s The Hummingbirds, a wickedly funny Brazil-esque tale set in a bureaucratic dystopia, and Richard Manley’s This Rough Magic, which uses science fiction ideas to examine basic human truths about how we interact with our families and people in general. I also think Josh Costello’s Little Brother (adapted from the Cory Doctorow novel, produced at Custom Made Theater Company)—one of my favorite plays in recent years—counts as near-future dystopian sci-fi.

I also haven’t seen a lot of fantasy theater, although one of my favorite theater experiences was a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The best example of the sort of fantasy theater I’d like to see was Stuart Bousel’s Giant Bones (adapted from Peter S. Beagle short stories), as it transported the audience to a fantasy world and told stories as compelling as any in the real world.

As the producer, you have a lot of inside knowledge of this event- what are some things you’re really looking forward to sharing with the audience.

Personally, I’m just looking forward to sharing all eight plays with the audience, since they’re all very different and I think there’s something for everyone. I’m also very excited about my cast, since most actors play multiple roles, and I think it will be a real treat for the audience. AJ Davenport, Colleen Egan, Peter Townley, and Olivia Youngers all play three roles, no two alike. But with regards to inside knowledge…in Audrey Scare People Play, the monster, Scare People, is described as being “an octopus monster with wings,” and Meg O’Connor is attempting to make that costume. So I can’t wait to see it myself.

Did the unusual subject matter pose any particular challenges to the process?

See above re: octopus monster with wings. For the most part, however, no one wrote anything too outrageous because they were conscious of the limitations of theater and Cafe Royale specifically. You can do genre theater without a lot of special effects!

This show has a teaser at a bookstore. Tell us more about that and how you made that happen.

I have a good relationship with the people at Borderlands, and my original pitch included the preview reading because people who shop at a genre bookstore are more likely to see a night of genre theater, and vice-versa. It was a way to benefit my favorite bookstore and my favorite theater-in-a-bar. I floated the idea past Alan Beatts, the owner, and he was very receptive. And, to my surprise, he immediately suggested using microphones to broadcast throughout the store and draw people toward the reading and recording the reading as a podcast, which I hadn’t even considered. He wanted to make this the event it deserved to be.

We know you don’t drink, so what’s your favorite thing to order at the Cafe Royale on Theater Pub nights?

Coke. It’s the nectar of the gods. Not the Elder Gods, just the regular gods.

Don’t miss The Pub From Another World, playing one night only on May 20th, at 8 PM, for FREE, at the Cafe Royale!

Announcing The Line Up For May’s “Pub From Another World”

Audrey Scare People Play
by Audrey Kessinger
Audrey tries to get Scare People out of her house.

Support Group for the Mortally Challenged
by Bridgette Dutta Portman
Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

The Overnight Exchange
by Kirk Shimano
What if you had someone sleep for you? Would you miss your dreams?

Days of Future Whatever
by Sang Kim
Kevin time traveled. Kevin time travels. Kevin will time travel.

Mrs. Youngblood
by Allison Page
One psychotic nanny. One terrified girl. Three knives.

Origin Stories
by Sunil Patel
Two superheroes walk into a bar. Who walks out?

The Progress of Perception
by Timothy Kay
A mad scientist enhances his sight and doesn’t like what he sees.

Horny
by Marissa Skudlarek
You can have a unicorn, or you can have sex.

Don’t miss The Pub From Another World, on May 20th at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale!