Staging the Supernatural:
Theatre Magic and Genre Storytelling
by Artist-in-Residence / Director Holly L. Derr
In the Fall of 2015, I was teaching a First-Year Experience seminar called Speculative Fiction in New Plays. As a first-year seminar, the course had to be interdisciplinary, so for each genre play we studied, the students also read academic articles and book chapters about that genre, ranging from literary criticism to pop culture studies, to gender studies. To set the tone for the course, we first read Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Ann Radcliffe. In preparation for reading Romeo & Juliet & Zombies, by Melody Bates, we read Romeo and Juliet as well as essays on death and the plague in Elizabethan England. In preparation for studying Universal Robots, by Mac Rogers, we read about the implications in Asimov’s Three Principles in the fields of engineering and robotics.
Thanks to the NY6 Consortium, we were able to bring several of playwrights featured in the course to campus for a demonstration and panel discussion about what has variously been called geek theater, genre theater, and speculative theater. In addition to Bates and Rogers, Adam Szymkowicz, Stephanie Cox-Williams, Joan Jubett, and Andrea Hairston participated in Staging the Supernatural.
The evening began with a scene from Romeo & Juliet & Zombies, staged by Jubett and acted by Skidmore students Ziggy Schulting, Kate Glowatsky, Woodrow Proctor, and Madison Caan. Then Andrea Hairston’s collaborator, Pan Morigan, showed us a mask she made for one of Andrea’s shows and performed a “conjure song” on the banjo. A fascinating discussion followed on the business of new plays, the challenges of using special effects on stage, and the necessity of making theater that does not aim to stand-in for television or film but is purely, theatrically theater.
Yet, the connection of genre plays to genre films and TV is undeniable. The popularity of movies and shows about alien invasions, vampires, superheroes, and monsters means that plays that use those myths get a boost in audience appeal and, hopefully ticket sales. But it also means that these plays have the chance to take these deeply ingrained archetypes and archetypal stories and tell them, not just for the fun of special effects, but also for their potential to reveal and reflect upon contemporary social, political, and economic, issues.
The syllabus for Speculative Fiction in New Plays gave students the options of writing, at the end of each unit of study, either a short expository paper or a short play using the genre we studied in that unit to deal with a larger social problem. The assignment yielded a play about a zombie invasion on campus that addressed overcrowding in campus housing and mistrust of the administration; one set in the midst of the economic crisis in Greece; and one in which a college student time travels back to the beginning of a party every time he has eight beers, eventually learning that successfully picking up a girl is not the key to breaking the loop, but rather listening to her when she says she’s not interested and leaving her alone is.
On writing speculative fiction, writer Ursula K. Le Guin said, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and it’s obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and can even imagine some real grounds of hope.“
Hopefully, the Staging the Supernatural event at Skidmore College planted such a seed in the minds of attendees, because imagining better ways to live is, in my opinion, what theater is for.