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Directing Science Fiction Theatre

As many of you know, Tess and I have recently participated in TALOS, the first Science Fiction Festival of London. Overall it was a great experience but we encountered some challenges on the way that we feel that we should share with you - especially with other developing creatives!

Of course, the first challenge we faced was the question of 'how on earth do we stage this?'. Science fiction film and literature is typically filled with high budget technology, amazingly vivid worlds and creatures beyond our wildest imaginations. In a London fringe theatre, with zero budget and only a projector to hand - this was a little daunting! I decided that, without too many frills, it would be important to focus on the story and characters.

I was very lucky in that the script I had to work with was fantastic! Susan Eve Haar has a very clear, poetic voice and developed characters with goals, intentions and behaviours that created incredible tension. We worked in the rehearsal room using a lot of uniting, finding objectives and then creating psychological gestures for each unit (1 Point for Mr Chekhov). This physical punctuation created a lot of strong imagery pulled from the text that we were able to then feed into the performance.

We also worked on Meisner runs, or 'Meisner Lite' if you're familiar with Jaq Bessal's techniques. The two actors - Molly Rose Barton and Panayiotis Patsias, found new areas to explore each time they repeated a line. This kept the performance fresh but also allowed the actors to find their own journeys, I only framed them. It was an interesting experiment in working from a text, as it changed every time, however Molly in particular found some lovely areas to breathe and really find the stakes of the situation.

Being able to use these techniques in the rehearsal room meant that we were able to stage an interesting and engaging story about a couple and their struggles with their relationship, infertility and sexuality that fit into the Science Fiction framework by virtue of its content. The play is set in the near future when cloning is a possibility, and as such the options for infertile couples are limitless technically but so contraversial morally.

Another challenge that we encountered were the strong opinions held about Science Fiction, strong but incredibly varied opinions. It was clear that there was going to be no way to satisfy everyone in the audience and this was reflected in the reviews - some disliked the subtlety of Science Fiction elements in Paper Doll, others enjoyed the storyline and the fact it focussed on a relationship breakdown within a Sci-Fi world.

Again, the only way I could foresee dealing with this, was to focus on presenting the story and in particular the relationship as clearly as possible on stage. Then, using the projector and sound effects, I was able to take the subtext and layer the performance with more Sci-Fi elements.

I used audacity (such a wonderful free sound editing software) to create a warped, glitching soundscape that coincided with the female character's internal struggle. Every time her world shifted or her views were challenged, a glitch in the lighting or sound would occur. There was a ceiling fan sound, very subtle, in constant rotation that would stop when she got what she wanted from her partner. And an old Edwardian ballad that I warped, played at the beginning, the central plot turning point and the end. This created alienation effects and made the audience question what was real and not real, as such bringing the question of cloning, consent and the implications of replication to the foreground.

All in all, as I said, it was a great experience working on such an interesting genre. My recommendation to anyone starting in this area would be to focus on the relationships in a piece of theatre (humanity is what humans love to watch) and use Sci-Fi elements to create the world the play exists in, work with designers to pull subtext and layer a performance so that it all works together to create an engaging and Sci-Fi aesthetic. Be aware that not everyone will react the same to your piece and that Sci-Fi is a genre very well defended by passionate people! On that note it's important to manage expectations of what is being presented - don't claim to be high-tech National worthy pieces unless you are... Fringe pride! Take the wins where they come, and use every note or challenge to build yourself to become bigger and better!

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