Sci-fi as a genre doesn't get much stage time. For whatever reason, playwrights often hold out against the creative allure of dystopian futures, space travel, and artificial intelligence, while fiction, TV, and movie scribblers have been diving deep into the genre's possibilities for decades.
There is, however, the occasional exception, like Florida-based playwright and writer Irene Pynn. Pynn won last year's What If? Productions Playwright Competition with her play How to Field Dress an Android, an account of a futuristic hunting trip in which the hunters are a couple of humans seeking a heart that will save a woman's life, and the hunted are androids — who, it so happens, look and act exactly like the humans who are trying to kill them. The play is getting its world premiere this week as part of What If? Productions' annual Play Fest.
Like the best science fiction always does, Pynn's play addresses vital societal questions: What does it mean to be human? And how human does one have to be before it becomes OK to start taking away their basic rights? "I think the question of what it means to be human has captured the minds of writers and audiences forever," Pynn says. "But certainly in science fiction, if you go back to when it was becoming established as a genre — with Frankenstein — we're still looking at the idea of civil rights and being good to people, in spite of whatever clashes may happen in society. A lot of people, if they're not fans of the genre, may not realize that science fiction, and fantasy as well, both remark on the real world pretty closely. They're just using a metaphor."
In How to Field Dress An Android, that metaphor is hunting robots. There are three characters: Alan, a man who is opposed to hunting but is doing it this once to harvest a heart to transplant into his wife; Parry, the older, macho trip leader who is also Alan's boss; and Eliza, Parry's assistant. Throughout the course of the play, Alan is forced to face his conflicting feelings about killing androids in intense, often shocking, ways, while Eliza and Parry present opposing — sometimes violently so — messages about what it means to pull that trigger.
Pynn has written the story so skillfully that it forces the audience to address their own buried beliefs about who is worthy of being treated fairly (and just what "fairly" means) while never leaving the spot of forest in which Alan, Parry, and Eliza live. Questions of feminism, hunting animals, human rights, assault — all are bound up in the act of field dressing an android.
For Pynn, this all happened quite naturally as she was writing. "When you start asking 'What constitutes humanity?' which is what I was doing in this play, it kind of goes from there — at least, it did for me — to ask 'Why only humans?' or 'Why is only this type of person or that type of person worthy of specific rights?'" Pynn says. "Looking at the question of hunting in particular, is you shoot a deer, is that wrong? Some people will say yes, and some people will say no."
From there, Pynn made the leap that took the play into the realm of speculative fiction. Now, she asked herself, if you shoot a robot, is that wrong? "That's obviously a very different question, but I started thinking, 'OK, is it wrong if the robot expresses fear and pain and begs you to stop? And do we look at certain people as if they're no more human than an android would be?'"
Those are highly complicated moral questions, and that's part of the reason this play took Pynn a long time to write. Another reason is that her characters are all complex people with complex motivations — even, and perhaps especially, the play's villain, Parry. Parry is an older man who wistfully reminisces about shooting his first deer back when he was a kid, and letting it bleed to death for half an hour; in the play's unspecified future setting, shooting animals for anything but meat has been outlawed. His innate brutality really comes to the fore once the androids he and Alan are there to shoot start running around.
Parry would be a pretty flat character were it not for his paternal, genial qualities — he thinks of himself as taking Alan under his wing, initiating him into this manly sport, and Alan, to his detriment, finds that attention hard to resist.
Pynn says she loved writing Parry, as she usually loves writing all of her villains. "When I was young and reading science fiction, I'd find some stories with great characters, both good and bad. But then there were always these ones where the bad guy is so obviously bad — I'd think, 'Who'd follow that guy?' So I've always asked myself to think really hard about my villains, so I can get at who that person really is," she says.
Like most theater companies, What If? rarely produces sci-fi plays, so Artistic Director Kyle Barnette was intrigued when How to Field Dress an Android showed up in his inbox during last year's Playwright Competition. "Sci-fi is such a tech-heavy way of storytelling, so of course it lends itself better to the art of filmmaking," Barnette says. "However, this particular play has the human experience at its heart — it uses the elements of science fiction to frame a very human story about acceptance and basic human rights."
Pynn hopes that more writers will begin to explore sci-fi as a legitimate way of storytelling on the stage; right now, she's usually the only person writing in the genre at the many play festivals she participates in. "It's my favorite genre," she says. "I also write short stories, and I fit right in there, but for stage writing it's not as common, so I try to use it as much as I can."
Barnette would welcome seeing more high caliber sci-fi productions as well. After all, this play contains the kind of weird excitement that realist dramas, for the most part, just can't offer. "[Pynn] has brilliantly used sci-fi to tell a much broader story — while also allowing us to rip out android brains and dismantle very human-looking robots. It's pretty awesome to have a play like this come across your desk."