Conference Report: Stage the Future

by Dr Christos Callow Jr.

Stage the Future: the first conference on science fiction theatre took place in Egham, UK, on April 26-27, 2014, sponsored by the English Department of Royal Holloway and the Centre for Contemporary Literature in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. I’m excited to announce that due to its success, we’re currently planning a second Stage the Future in the US; you can find our more about the conference at the Stage the Future website, the conference page on facebook or on twitter (@stagethefuture) to keep up-to-date.

Stage the Future 2014 was an unprecedented gathering of sf and theatre academics, writers, actors and directors; there was a mix of performances, video presentations and talks. The first day started with an enthusiastic keynote speech by classicist and awarded sf critic Dr. Nick Lowe who focused on the history of sf theatre and made references to Ken Campbell’s Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, the plays of Ray Bradbury and Ralph Willingham’s study Science Fiction and the Theatre (1994).

The first panel had a mostly historical approach too; Dr. Claire Kenward talked about the history of lunar exploration in English theatre, covering a period of time from 1590 to 1905, Glyn Morgan on Noel Coward’s alternate history 1946 play Peace in Our Time and Monica Cross on the jukebox musical Return to the Forbidden Planet based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the 1956 film Forbidden Planet.

Next, Brittany Reid spoke on Inflatable Frankenstein, Radiohole’s stage adaptation of Frankenstein, Christina Scholz spoke on the film Deep State, directed by Karen Mirza and Bradb Butler and written by China Miéville, in the context of Augusto Boal's “Theatre of the Oppressed”, and Jo L. Walton gave a paper on Chris Goode’s plays Hippo World Guest Book and Monkey Bars. Kelley Holley, the literary manager of the Science Fiction Theatre Company in Boston, started the next panel, giving a paper on sf theatre and memory. John Hudson’s paper was on writing sf for the stage, using Bella Poynton’s work as an example (to quote twitter, Glyn Morgan tweeted: “Fascinating parallels between Shakespeare's career and Bella Poynton's Models of Space and Time.”) The panel concluded with a talk by Tom Hunter, director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, who presented his theory of Replicant Theatre, arguing that all theatre is sf since theatre is “a man in space.”

The first day’s final panel started with Carol Steward’s skype presentation on theatre monsters and the theatrical tradition of Japan, including the visually rich work of contemporary theatre-maker Yukio Ninagawa, followed by Whole Hog Theatre’s talk on their stage adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (reminding us all that nothing is unstageable.) The day concluded with a surprise performance by Bob Moyler and a team of Royal Holloway acting students who performed a robot dance/revolution inspired by Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Čapek is the playwright who coined the word “robot”, meaning serf labour.)

The second day started with a keynote on contemporary sf theatre by Dr. Jen Gunnels, theatre editor at the New York Review of Science Fiction. Inspiringly passionate for sf theatre, Jen gave a fantastic talk with references to the work of contemporary sf theatre-makers Mac Rogers, Prof. Jay Scheib and August Schulenburg, emphasising on the fact that sf theatre is not something forthcoming but a contemporary theatre that is already here.

Next was the European sf theatre panel; Dr. Mariano Martín Rodríguez talked on Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne’s 1928 play Wings Over Europe, and theatre director Natalie Katsou presented a monologue from her stage version of the Ancient Greek myth of Persephone. In the next panel, Dr. Martin McGrath gave a hilarious talk on Alan Ayckbourn’s sf plays, arguing that he introduces sf to an audience that wouldn’t normally watch it. Prof. Boyd Branch spoke next on Arizona State University’s course The Theater of Science, the work of neuroscientists on the “chemistry of morality” and the project/theatrical experience Neuro (here’s a link to more information on the project). James Martin Charlton presented his play Been on the Job Too Long and talked about the challenge of writing AI characters. The post-apocalyptic theatre panel was next. Tajinder Singh Hayer spoke about his play North Country, set in a future Bradford, Dr. Stephe Harrop discussed Joanna Laurens’ Poor Beck, first produced by Royal Shakespeare Company in 2005 and Susan Gray talked about her play Terra Firma, which was performed as part of the Camden Fringe Festival in August 2014.

The last panel was on robots and theatre. Dr. Carrie J. Cole gave a most entertaining paper on sex and robots, with reference to the New York-based Sex with Robots Theatre Festival. Dr. Louise LePage talked on how the Uncanny Valley has been explored in the theatre, using the following plays, Elizabeth Meriwether’s Heddatron (2006) and Seinendan Theatre Company’s Three Sisters, Android Version (2013) as examples. Finally, the theatre company Superbolt were there to discuss their play titled Uncanny Valley in which they use physical theatre to bring their robot characters to life. The conference concluded with a plenary discussion chaired by sf scholar and novelist Prof. Adam Roberts, with Dr. Nick Lowe, Dr. Jen Gunnels, Prof. Isabella van Elferen and Tom Hunter.

Although still alive in our hearts, the conference was unfortunately not filmed; arguably, the next best thing is live-tweeting. Depending on the narrative you prefer, here is a link to Kelley Holley’s storify of the relevant tweets and to Tom Hunter’s storify, whose tweets are in reverse chronological order, ultimately proving the relativity of time.

If interested in sf theatre, you can join The Forum for Science Fiction in the Theatre, a growing online community of science fiction theatre scholars, writers and theatre-makers which Jen Gunnels has started on Facebook. You can also have a look at the essay Susan Gray and I wrote on ‘The Past and Present of Science Fiction Theatre’, published in the July 2014 issue of Foundation. And you can always email to get in touch.



Banner image by Dan Coulter under a CC BY-NC-SA license.


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