On Writing SF Theatre Part 2: Minding the Info Dump

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As part of my writing SF Theatre series, I thought I would explore the topic of worldbuilding and explaining concepts (not because I’m thinking of a way to articulate this for my thesis or anything) through the art of dialogue and dramaturgy. Science Fiction has been said to operate under the influence of a novum, a concept of unfamiliarity, to transform or transport what may have been a seemingly normal plot. Because of this, we have the infamous info dump – whereby a stranger comes to the land looking for answers and through either dense dialogue (which can impair its spark and buzz) or through little nudges here and there to the appendix or pages of information in the story itself (the novel, of course). For theatre, even though heavy dialogue is what we usually expect, this rather leaden dialogue can drown the character. Of course, this is what typically characterised Science Fiction, but I propose some ways in which we can take the load off, so to speak. Mac Rogers’ The Honeycomb Trilogy (2012) is a great example of this – spanning an arc of past, present and future of a huge plot point and the world that emerges from each part of the time line.

A good place to start, I think, is notice the hints of information you can pick up and gather when eavesdropping into a conversation. We hear all sorts of verbal cues and hints, deictic mentions of time, space, hedging, diversionary tactics and so on, and that’s even before the parenthetical; the body language, the gestures, the collective subtext. This is by no means exhaustive!

1.      Add details gradually

Unless we’re in those plays that break the fourth wall, we’re more often than not as an audience imposing, eaves dropping into a situation that’s occurring “ouside of our notice”. Therefore we must, before writing such a situation, at least have in mind what each character knows at what point (I have this in the back of my mind when I’m writing, so that I don’t slip out of character unintentionally and ruin the effect). This, combined with the situation, can help you decide how much the character withholds and how much they relinquish. As with most things, the happy medium is the key. It looks a lot less like info dumping when the details unfold for the audience. They (and the actors – learning all those terms, histories and details in big chunks isn’t so fun to perform) will probably thank you for it!

2.      Taskscape/Landscape

This is something I’ve been researching; Tim Ingold’s idea of the taskscape, whereby we identify with a place in time and space by how we interact in it, rather than simply describe what we see. Our individual realities are therefore gauged with how we engage with the world in terms of our activities and our reactions to them. It has been used, in this case, for anthropological reasons, but I’ve found it of interest to apply to the theatre. Mike Pearson’s In Comes I (2006) deals with this in terms of historical and community play, so why not extrapolate this to understand the creation of speculative and alternative worlds? How characters engage with each other, how they communicate, what is deemed socially excusable and so on is a great way of detailing the landscape without the unrivalled visual detail of the film. Mac Rogers’ Honeycomb Trilogy (2012) deals with this very effectively – how the house for the domestic scene in Advance Man is used set wise for different contexts. Concepts we take for granted are being rewritten in the way characters react and communicate with each other in the subsequent plays Blast Radius and Sovereign (this is an understatement but I want it to be spoiler free!). My play Fishbowl starts with a twist on a wedding ceremony as it would be under more dystopian conditions – the couple’s fingerprints are merged, along with their past surveillance analysed and reported. The minister in this case is the rather ominous, sarcastic and overall odious character of the lawyer. In my play A Christmas Gift (2012), festive rituals are unpacked as Megan teaches the mechanical simulacrum of her late husband Adam her routine of how she spent Christmas with his real life counterpart.

3.      Science as Theatre

The reason why Science Theatre is so popular (as opposed to SF Theatre – you can see my blog post on this for what I believe to be the distinction) is the prevailing theme of the demonstrative in Science.  Lab experiments, from Michael Faraday’s lectures to the (if not increasingly diminishing) science practicals at school have strengthened this deep connection between the two seemingly different areas. If we don’t have the chemicals for the explosion (or haven’t been given the go-ahead from Risk Management), then we can use analogy in order to explain concepts. Film could do this quite effectively but with Theatre, this is a different form of engagement. I’m thinking of Terry Johnson’s Insignificance (1982), where Marilyn Monroe illustrates to Einstein the Theory of Relativity using toy trains, a torch and a figure of Charlie Chaplin as an example. August Schulenburg’s Deinde (2012), an SF play, sets the scene with a chess match to gently introduce us into the idea of the novum, an enhanced intelligence device in the midst of a rapidly mutating virus.  We can feel more involved with the action rather than create distance, for us to watch anything we please from the comfort of our seats. Theatre can also, with this lessened focus of visuals, rhizomatic thinking; creating connections in our heads rather than us engaging directly with the image or symbol.

These are just a few things that I consider when writing SF Theatre; some of which I’m developing into a coherent argument for my thesis. As I believe this is my last post for the year, I wish you all a Happy Christmas and will get set to blogging in the New Year! In fact, my next blog will list things to look out for SF/F Theatre related in 2014.

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