Something Wicked Awesome This Way Comes

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By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked awesome this way comes – and I am not referring to the vernacular of my east-coast ‘80’s childhood or my bastardization of the Bard. I have been asked to serve as blogger/dramaturge for the upcoming Sci-Fest (sci-fest.com), LA’s first-ever festival of science-fiction plays, and a whole month of science-themed theatre sounds pretty awesome to me.

Between now and the festival (which is in May), I will be adding the occasional “bonus blog” inspired by some of the concepts explored in the nine pieces, seven of which will be world premieres. Yeah, that’s right. Seven of Nine. It is a sci-fi fest indeed!

At first blush, science and theatre don’t seem like natural bedfellows (although they do both tend to involve a lot of experimentation). But what seems at first to be a pairing destined to be less peanut butter-and-chocolate and more grapefruit juice-and-milk is actually quite exciting and long overdue. How do I know? Because Ray Bradbury showed me.

Bradbury’s 1940’s short story (later a play) Kaleidoscope will be the centerpiece of the festival, and the producers could not have chosen a better ambassador to bridge the two worlds. On the surface, he is a natural: he is a Grand Master of science fiction, an explorer of many genres including the theatre, and he did most of his writing in various haunts across Los Angeles. (Muscle Beach being my favorite of his choices – where better to be inspired about life on other planets?) But what makes Ray Bradbury a perfect representative of the festival is the same thing that makes him one of the greatest American writers of any genre: he understood that science fiction isn’t really about the science at all.

Science fiction, which Bradbury called the “robot child” of fantasy, was not an easy nut for him to crack at first, despite his love for the supernatural and fantastic. It wasn’t until his twenties that he cracked the code with “King of the Grey Spaces”, a story rejected by every science-fiction magazine at the time (it was published instead in Famous Fantastic Mysteries) because it was “a science-fiction story that was not a science-fiction story,” but rather a tale of a tested friendship. It so happened that the test in this case was space travel, but what Bradbury had discovered was that the best writing was rooted in his own human experience, with the occasional science-y thing sprinkled in. He would later write, in a 1980 essay, that “all science fiction is an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.”

Great science fiction is more emotional exploration than technological. It is problem solving through experimentation. Or, to again turn to the words of the master, “we are all science-fictional children dreaming ourselves into new ways of survival.” What is more dramatic – more theatrical – than that?! In Kaleidoscope, the setting is space, but the story is death. Accepting it, fearing it, fighting it, mourning it… The beauty of putting such a story on the stage is that nothing else comes close to the power of feeling another human experience such visceral emotions in the same room as you, only a few yards from your face.

As visually spectacular as the movie Gravity is, I found myself (spoiler alert!) barely batting an eye when George Clooney floated away into space. Are you kidding me? It’s George freakin’ Clooney. I should have wanted to run down the aisle toward the screen and throw myself after him Viking funeral-style. But when your brain is too busy trying to process the how-the-crap-did-they-do-that technology of it all, it’s hard to get emotionally attached. Even to the (once and forever) sexiest man alive.

Which brings me to the last reason I am so excited about the idea of science fiction on stage: because it IS still science fiction, after all. Kaleidoscope does revolve around (70-year-old spoiler alert!) seven actors floating in space, and that definitely presents a bit of a challenge when done live. I have absolutely no idea how the minds behind the festival are going to pull it off, but I am certain it is going to be fun to see them try! Will they achieve Superman-level feats and make me “believe a man can fly”? I suppose there’s a chance, but that’s not the point. The magic of theatre is that it is magic we make ourselves; theatre – like science fiction – is a group exercise in imagination. Who needs Sandra Bullock’s hair to stand on end?

Once again, the great Ray Bradbury himself said it best when he cautioned not to get too precious about the details of story or genre, for fear of losing the larger goal. “Let us remain childlike,” he wrote, “borrowing such telescopes, rockets, or magic carpets as may be needed to hurry us along to miracles of physics as well as dream.” Man, that guy could write.

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