Pursued By A Bear: “What’s the best way to write fantasy for the stage?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Why aren’t there fantasy plays?  I think it’s really strange that fantasy is such a big genre in fiction and film (not to mention video games) yet we really rarely see this onstage.  Do you have any tips for writers attempting a sci-fi, surreal, or fantasy plot?  We need more of this onstage.”

You only need look at the success of the latest Star Wars film or the insatiable desire for everything Harry Potter to realise there’s a huge audience for fantasy and science fiction out there. Why does this so rarely translate to the theatre?

Let’s deal with the most obvious reason first; fantasy films today are outlandishly expensive to make.

Gone are the days when Ray Harryhausen worked almost single-handedly to create the jerky, miniature monsters of films like Clash of the Titans. Each frame of Avatar took forty seven hours to render, and the budget of the film came in at over $200million.

Theatre just can’t compete in this regard; a reported £12.5million was spent on the stage show of Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately the enormous expenditure didn’t prevent the show being labelled a flop by many critics.

Looking at the theatre from a purely monetary perspective (because who doesn’t love to do that), there just aren’t enough seats to justify a budget of millions. A worldwide cinema release can reach millions of paying customers overnight, allowing Disney to spend $378million on the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. The film made $500million in the first ten days after its release.

The Theatre Royal, where Lord of the Rings was staged, has a capacity of 2,196. If ticket prices averaged £50, the show would have to sell out over 100 performances before it earned back the £12.5mill production cost. That’s if we’re not counting running costs and other overheads.

Cost is definitely a prohibitive factor when we talk about fantasy in the theatre.

Why is money important though?

Think of what all that dosh gets you; these movies are shot in the most exotic locations on earth, the characters are either CGI or decked out in highly elaborate costumes, and the special effects require thousands of man-hours to produce.

The upshot of this is that today’s audiences expect their fantasy to look like reality.

The effects in fantasy films have become so intricate and painstakingly perfect we often only know they’re special effects because we know walking, talking trees don’t exist. It’s almost impossible to render a three-dimensional, realistic Ent onstage in the way Peter Jackson can on film.

Watching any kind of fantasy or science fiction story unfold on stage takes a far greater leap of imagination than it does to see these things in a cinema. I’m not saying people aren’t capable of making these leaps, watch the original Star Wars or King Kong and witness how willing we were to suspend our disbelief back then.

All I’m saying is that today’s audiences are a little bit spoilt. We don’t have to see past the rigid, mechanical movements of Jaws and imagine a real shark because the sharks in today’s films look exactly like real sharks. A man flopping across the stage in a rubber shark suit while two actors in black bodysuits ripple a blue sheet in front of him just won’t convince us anymore.

As a counter-argument, just to play devil’s advocate to my own cynicism, I do love seeing shows like The Lion King which are so creative in their use of costume and puppetry you immediately get swept along despite the obvious lack of realism. Not everything has to be picture-perfect; if the spirit and imagination are strong enough a show can be captivating without being obsessively detailed.

What I mean to say is the physical limitations are problematic but they don’t entirely rule out the possibility of staging fantasy or science fiction material. It’s about finding a creative way to make the impossible possible.

Moving on from special effects, the audience play a significant role in what gets staged and what doesn’t. Lord of the Rings was made into a musical for the stage, I suspect because musical theatre is the only form of theatrical entertainment with wide enough appeal to command the epic budget required.

I haven’t done a survey on this, but if there was a huge audience out there for fantasy or science fiction theatre it would probably be happening. Although we theatrical types like to think art rises above the shallow, evil constraints of capitalism, we are unfortunately still victims of the unforgiving market forces of supply and demand.

So why wouldn’t theatre audiences want to see a stage play of The Chronicles of Riddick? I suspect because most of us go to the theatre to witness humanity laid bare with all its flaws and contradictions. We can watch space operas on TV or in the cinema, whereas we go to the theatre for an intimate experience. We want to see highly detailed characters brought to life in exquisite emotional detail, as opposed to armies of flawlessly rendered but largely anonymous creatures facing off on a battlefield.

When I go to the theatre I want to see drama played out on a far more personal and human scale. I want to look right into a character’s psyche; understand each decision they make and see their desires evolve throughout the evening.

If you’re writing a fantasy or science fiction play, it has to be first and foremost a piece of theatre. There are certain tropes of these genres which make it difficult to really intimately explore the human condition. There are often a large number of characters and locations, there are a lot of deeply ingrained stereotypes (the mysterious elves, the grumpy dwarves, the wise wizards), and there are often multiple, overlapping plot-lines.

Most intriguingly for me, the fantasy genre often draws a very distinct and obvious line between good and evil; there’s no sympathy for Sauron. Sauron is evil, whereas Gandalf is good. Theatrical audiences want to see shades of grey; if a character is presented as evil we want to know what made him that way.

Okay, so maybe Sauron is plotting to kill everyone, but how does he feel about being a disembodied eyeball? Does he love his mother? Was he bullied at school? Is there a Mrs Sauron? What are his interests besides mass genocide and staring?

Fantasy and sci-fi rarely take the time to paint their villains as human (or as possessing the traits we commonly think of as humanity) because in these fantastical worlds the idea of pure evil is firmly established and accepted.

There’s also often an element of social commentary in theatre. A great play examines the human condition, it doesn’t just tell a story, it asks questions. We want to come away from the theatre thinking about what it means to be a human being and how we can reconcile our experiences with those of others.

Fantasy can be a powerful tool in merging entertainment with political or social soul-searching. Thinking of Avatar in particular, questions are raised about colonialism, environmental preservation and racial conflict. However, given the sheer size of the film, the tightly plotted narrative and large number of action sequences, there isn’t room to really explore these issues in great depth. The intimate nature of the stage gives us the opportunity to dive right into almost any issue and examine it from a uniquely personal perspective.

We can dedicate the entire running time of a play to exploring a single conflict between two characters. Imagine if Avatar had been two hours of Sam Worthington discussing responsible environmental conservation with a giant, blue Zoe Saldana. Would it have been a box office hit? I doubt it very much.

But could it play in a theatre?

I don’t really see why not. It would beg the question though; why make it a fantasy play? Without the spaceships, glowing trees and dragons you’d need a good reason to make one character a giant, blue alien. Find that reason and you can make it work.

All of the above is of course nothing but my personal opinion. I would be very happy to be proved wrong about all of it. Films like Lord of the Rings and Avatar have achieved great success by surprising audiences, they were unexpected leaps forward in visual storytelling. There’s no reason why you couldn’t catch us all off guard with an incredible piece of fantasy theatre.

First of all you’ve got to find a story that needs to be told. Secondly, it has to lend itself well to the medium of theatre. Think about what makes your story work better as a play than as a film, novel or computer game.

I hate to use a business analogy, but one of the techniques entrepreneurs swear by is to look for a gap in the market. If you feel there’s a gap in the theatrical landscape for fantasy and science fiction material which you can jump into I’d say it’s worth exploring. Maybe you can give people something they don’t even know they want.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

3 thoughts on “Pursued By A Bear: “What’s the best way to write fantasy for the stage?””

  1. The Royal Court Theatre’s ‘X,’ which is on right now, has been very popular, I think. People keep asking me whether I’ve seen it. It’s very sci fi/horror with minimal special effects. Many people like a kind of cultural science fiction, sort of like Planet of the Apes, where just a few suggestions of a different world, a few changes in language, a beep here, and a light there, form a different kind of world. I don’t think these have to be expensive. Take Wonder.Land at the National Theater? All that expense to create and put up the visual of video game and it was rather boring. I think Pursued by a Bear needs another column on this telling us how to suggest these differences in effective ways.

    1. I don’t think Pursued By A Bear knows. Actually the latest Harry Potter is coming to the stage. I think that the base of everything is brilliant characters, JK Rowling’s characters are brilliant. Lets watch and see.

  2. I found most of the points written here quite illuminating in theory but not in praxis. Taylor seems to gloss over fact that The Lion King and the other fantasy-based productions mentioned here are epic both in scale and in BUDGET. With the kind of money these companies have, I’m quite sure they are able to compete on par with other fantasy mediums.

    I came here actually to look for advice on how small-scale productions or artists are able to create fantasy on stage since the topic is apparently WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO WRITE FANTASY FOR THE STAGE. I understood the philosophy behind the writing but I would have appreciated more if Taylor had used examples from small-scale productions who have successfully written fantasy on stage and how they have done it in praxis. That would have been more helpful, I think.

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