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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Cowan Palace: Zombies: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without (Killing) Them

We’re starting a new dramaturgy column where Ashley Cowan, local actress, director, writer, gets to regularly ruminate on whatever we’re putting on this month. She kicks off her column today with some thoughts on Zombies, what makes them tick, and why we can’t get enough of them.

It’s a zombie paradise these days. From AMC’s “The Walking Dead” to Brad Pitt’s upcoming “World War Z” to Theater Pub’s very own “Love in the Time of Zombies” by Kirk Shimano. The pool of zombie-themed films, books, and games released within the last decade would probably take at least two zombie lifetimes to swim through; in fact, on IMDB alone there are nearly 1,000 zombie titles.

It’s a curious development to harbor such an obsession with creatures that are by definition, brainless. What is it that we feel so connected to these undead little rascals? Where does the fascination come from?

Well, for one thing, zombies are a monster for everyone. They don’t need a full moon to shape-shift or a superhuman thirst for blood matched with impossibly sparkly skin. They’re just ordinary folks who have suffered an unfortunate nibble and developed into hungry, mindless, wanderers. They’re pretty simple.

Simplicity is something of a luxury in these complicated times. Life for us non-zombies hasn’t exactly been a piece of cake. Our economy is like a fifteen year old without a license: prone to crashing. Jobs, money, and even basic survival needs can be a struggle. Somehow, along the way, visions of an idealized future appear to have halted and without that sense of personal development and advancement, a preoccupation with the undead seems almost natural. While our surroundings become complicated by technology advancements, new means of communication and abundant social media there still remains a sense of brutal desolation coinciding with modern emptiness. When you consider the uncertain, politically divided, and frightful mindset that governs most of the world, why wouldn’t you want to escape to land of simple necessities? A Zombieland, perhaps?

But when did the preoccupation begin? Well, some believe things started centuries ago. Derived from African and Haitian folklore surrounding voodoo doctors, the word “zombie” came from those who were thought to have the ability to resurrect the dead into brainless shells so that they could then be sold as slaves. These voodoo-practicing doctors would dispense a potent drug to bring people into a near death state and then after they were thought dead, they would be buried and later dug up to resume a life as a servant. Pretty pleasant, right?

Historically speaking though, one of the oldest documented examples of the undead comes from the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, a 2,000-year old poem. Within this seasoned text, Ishtar travels to the underworld and promises, “I will raise up the dead and they will eat the living.” Ah, a lady ahead of her time.

While colorings of zombie qualities have painted their way throughout the canvas of history, the masses have been acquainted with zombies mostly via film. The first zombie film, Abel Gance’s “J’accuse” graced the silver screen in 1919. Described as an anti-war melodrama, the piece featured soldiers who rose from their graves to invade the lives of the survivors. Political reactions were often reflected in films following “J’accuse” as movies were regularly used as a place to reflect the devastations of war, which progressed the zombie film genre.

George Romero’s “Night of The Living Dead,” released in 1968, became another example of an iconic piece of the zombie history. Things are grim, a sense of claustrophobia haunts each shot, and the undead are looking for a party. And by party, I of course mean human flesh. Like other films of its kind, the concept is basic: kill the cannibals who can only be stopped by a blow to the brain or join the masses.

The wonderful thing about zombie dramas is that they can represent any number of societal nightmares. Worried about atomic weapons? A zombie could help channel that. What about genetic modification? Sure, zombies eat that up. Racism? You, got it. Consumerism, violence, death? Obviously. You get it. Zombies provide a tangible scapegoat: a force to destroy hidden within these apocalyptic shadows.

With zombies comes the promise of a new existence. Life would have the excuse to change. There would be no government or bills to pay. No boss to report to or morality to uphold. Everyone would have the chance to be a hero and change the rules of humanity; even the underdog would have a chance to win. All you have to do is survive the zombies. Fight the fear and forge ahead. Hoping that perhaps we could be one of the select few to survive the impending apocalypse.

Whether it be through film or play, book or comic, video game or fantasy world, there’s something almost romantic about the idea of zombies trying to take over. So embrace this entertainment trend and enjoy “Love in the Time of Zombies”. Because when the zombies attack, it’ll be nice to know that the Theater Pub gang is prepared and ready to make a new paradise of plays and beer for both the living and the undead.

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at https://twitter.com/AshCows.

Playwright Kirk Shimano Talks About Love In The Time Of Zombies

We took a moment to chat up Kirk Shimano, the mastermind behind our October rom-zom-com, Love In The Time Of Zombies. This show is actually a first for Theater Pub: a fully produced full length play that isn’t based on prior material (like Boar’s Head and Measure For Measure were), and it turns out it’s not just a first for us…

Kirk Shimano looks nice enough… but his mind is a twisted play-pen of the Devil.

This your first full length to get produced?

Yes it is!

How does that feel?

It’s hard to know where to start! It’s exciting, for sure, but also intimidating. Watching the cast assembling the story in rehearsal has been a little surreal – watching these scenes that have only existed inside of my head being played out by real people. So in a word, it’s exciturrealidating.

Tell us about this play. Like… what is it about?

It starts with four survivors of a zombie apocalypse piling into an abandoned cabin in the woods. But while they’re prepared for the standard finding-love-while-running-from-zombies scenario, they’re not prepared for a mysterious woman who challenges their whole concept of what it means to be human. Lives are changed and people get eaten, but ultimately it’s about how our strongest emotions can either hold us back or propel us forwards.

How did it end up on the Theater Pub stage?

The first incarnation of this story was a one act that was presented by the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco back in the spring of 2009. I was encouraged by the connection the audience made with the characters, so I decided to expand the story, shifting the focus and adding two more characters to the mix. Two years later, the full length version of this play was presented as a staged reading by Wily West Productions. It was paired with Juno En Victoria, written by Theater Pub artistic director Stuart Bousel. Originally that led to this play being added to the No Nude Men season, but when that fell through the zombies found a new home at Theater Pub.

What’s the process been like so far?

It’s been amazing collaborating with Claire Rice, the director of the piece, and watching her work with the actors. I always find myself surprised by how much there is to fill in – even though all of the dialogue is already on the page, the actors have to construct a convincing reality from moment to moment. I’m fortunate to be working with a director and a cast who see the story in the same way that I do.

Originally, this play isn’t set in a bar, so what have you had to do to make this play doable at Theater Pub?

The biggest change has been to make the audience an active part in the play. The bar environment makes everyone more aware of the other audience members around them and we wanted to use this to help build the atmosphere. We’re having the audience play the part of the zombies surrounding the cabin. It fits right into the story, and hopefully the audience will enjoy the play even more when they get to make zombie noises throughout it!

What is it about zombies that we’re so interested in?

Zombies are the monsters that are closest to humanity. You can tell your friends, “Man, I was a total zombie at work today” and they’ll know exactly what you mean. Try inserting “swamp monster” into that sentence and it just doesn’t work the same. Zombies are people who are just a little more brain-hungry.

I think the closeness is also what makes them terrifying. The person who you trust most in the world could go zombie and turn on you in a second, and you’d understand why they were eating you while being entirely powerless to do anything about it

Can you think of any other zombie plays or movies that might have influenced you?

There wasn’t anything that was a direct influence, but I’ve definitely enjoyed a bunch of zombie things which I’m sure have affected me in one way or another. I like 28 Days Later for proving that there were plenty of new ways to approach zombies and Shaun of the Dead for injecting fun without losing any of the crucial elements of the genre. I really enjoyed The Walking Dead (the comic more than the TV show) for asking the question: “You’ve survived the initial outbreak. So now what?” Also Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive / Braindead for going way over the top and making it work.

What’s your favorite zombie related thing of all time?

I’m going to go with something a little more recent and say the trailer for the video game Dead Island. I never actually played the game it was advertising, but the trailer is really a masterful three minutes of storytelling that provides an emotional wallop. If you haven’t seen it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZqrG1bdGtg

Runner up: the dinner scene from Dead Alive.

Who wins in the undead show down- zombies, mummies, vampires or ghosts?

Ghosts are too insubstantial and mummies just don’t want it bad enough. I think a vampire could take down a zombie in a one-on-one cage match, but not being able to go out in the sun is a HUGE handicap. The vampires could pull it off if they have the right leadership, but if even one of the Twilight crew is involved then zombies all the way.

In the event of a zombie outbreak, what is your plan?

Costco.

Don’t miss Kirk Shimano’s Love In The Time Of Zombies, directed by Claire Rice, playing October 15, 16, 22, 29, 30, only at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco.