Science–fiction or speculative fiction, is a literary genre, with an image problem. While mainstream writers, like Margaret Atwood, can write dystopian fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale, most of them resist their writing, being categorized as “sci–fi”. In popular culture, this much maligned genre. immediately conjures up images of “Space operas” like Star Wars, Buck Rogers, or Flash Gordon, but as a literary tradition, it goes back to writers, such as, Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, who defined its conventions. By the 1920s, it had became entrenched in “pulp fiction” magazines such as Amazing Science Fiction, who paid pennies a word to a generation of “golden age” science fiction authors such as Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Frederick Pohl.
Judith Merril, was an early and female part, of what at the time was exclusively a male dominated profession. She started reading, writing and collecting science fiction in the late 1940s. She was a rare female voice, in a group of writers, that were almost exclusively male. Married to Fred Pohl, she made her name editing a highly regarded annual anthology, the Best of SyFy from 1958 through 1970. Her collection of materials eventually became the “Spaced Out Library”, in Toronto. She was a science fiction writer and editor, feminist, cultural theorist, and anti–war activist.
Sadly, most of the people reading this article, will never have heard of Merril, but trust me, when I say, that she was an important figure, who abandoned living in the United States, to settle in Toronto in 1968. She became a fixture at Rochdale College, the University of Toronto residence, that spawned Coach House Press, and Theatre Passe Muraille, that was the centre of “counter–culture” in the era. Frank Zappa, and his “Mothers of Invention”, made a point of swinging by, whenever they were in town. It was that kind of place, where one could easily score some weed, at the time, when the rest of Toronto was fairly conservative.
As a young teenager, around 1979, I had the chance to meet and interact with Merril, as she had a regular gig, providing “educational commentary” on TV Ontario’s airing of the Tom Baker episodes of the BBC television program “Dr. Who”. She would comment on the wider themes, and social issues giving background and context, to what other wise was an entertainment program. I attended a few of the tapings, of the 108 segments that she recorded, almost all of which have since been wiped from the TVO archive.
Which brings us to, Artword Theatre, who is producing Whoever You Are, a play written and directed by Ronald Weihs, based on a 1952 science fiction short story by Judith Merril, at their cosy theatre venue at the Artbar. I had the opportunity to sit in, on a short part of a technical rehearsal, to get a sense of what the production was about, and then to have a long conversation with the playwright.
Ron tells me that, “When we first did the play, back in 1997, it was a different era, it was a more positive time, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War. Before 9/11, It was hard for us all to imagine the paranoia of 1952, back at the start of the Cold War, which was when Judith wrote her story. Now in 2019, we completely get the fear of the other — the “Alien”, as so many populist politicians, have used these irrational phobias as a platform in order to get elected. This fear, is not real, it is a construct.”
Projected on the wall is a logo for the “Solar Defence” organization, while suspended in mid–air, is local actor Pamela Gardner, in front of a large video projection of the interior of a space–craft, in the role of Private Fromm, piloting a small space craft on the rim of our solar system. Using a specially designed harness, she effortlessly creates the illusion of weightlessness, turning head over heels at various points.
Local musician, and recipient of the 2013 Hamilton Arts Award for performance Dave Gould, is tweaking the knobs of a small mixing board, while playing an assortment of handmade musical instruments. He creates live computer like sound effects, without actually using a computer. In addition, he also plays the pilot, of a different scout–ship, “Sergeant Bolster”, projected as a giant talking head, on the video screen.
While Gardner, and Gould, are the only performers in the theatre, the production features another three actors, who appear in pre–recorded segments, that Gardner, interacts with. Local favourite, Paula Grove, plays a public relations expert, while Jay Shand and Jordan Campbell, play the military men at Phobos base, on one of the moons of Mars, who must decide how to “respond to the Alien incursion”, into our solar system.
Merril’s story concerns a “first contact scenario”, with an extraterrestrial species. They have returned piloting a lost earth space ship, that returns heading towards Earth, but is snared in a “web” — a force field barrier, that the Terran forces are using to keep the “others” from entering our system. She wrote the original short story in 1952, at the height of the paranoia around communism and the McCarthy era “witch–hunts”, that attacked ordinary people for their leftist politics, as somehow “un–American”.
Gardner hanging suspended in mid air, reminded me of a production of MacBeth, at the Fringe a few years back, that featured the three witches hanging on silks while incanting “Black Magic” spells. She is forced by the harness to remain fixed to one point, moving vertically, but the illusion of movement is provided by the video being projected behind her which gives the sense that she is also being propelled horizontally, through the spacecraft.
Weihs, stops the action momentarily, to work through a specific section of video and Gardner’s movement, to create a specific image that he wants. He wants it all to happen at a synchronized tempo to Gould’s soundscape. Gardner at this point is hanging upside down, suspended from just one ankle, which looks rather painful.
“We did the first version of the play, in the original small Artword theatre space on Portland Avenue in Toronto. The production opened in November 1997, about two months after Merril died. She was at least able to read the stage version and give it her blessing. Her main comment, was not to lose the sense of fear and paranoia, that drives the story forward. She was also clear, that the play was mine, to explore the themes and social issues contained in her original story.”
Back in the mid 1990s, Weihs was working with Merrill on writing her memoirs. He recorded a pile of oral histories, getting her to recall the specific details of her life. This work eventually led to the publication of the book Better to Have Loved, written by Merril’s grand-daughter Emily Pohl Weary. She was an American citizen, who fled to Ontario, in 1968, after the violence at the Chicago Democratic Convention, that year. Many fellow US writers, chose voluntary exile in Canada, in this era, some of them, simply trying to avoid being drafted to fight the Viet Cong in Southeast Asia. Jane Jacobs is another writer that settled in Toronto, in the same era, finding a welcoming community of like minded people.
“The alien species, notes that human beings tend to subjugate and make pets of any species that they encounter in space. As a result, they live in constant fear that another species, may do the same thing to them. A “web”, or force barrier is created to protect mankind, but that barrier also serves to contain humanity, to keep them from the stars, as well. It is an interesting metaphor for right wing “populist” parties who divide humans into “us and them”. A crisis ensues, when a small scout ship returns to our solar system, with no human life aboard. The “aliens” are flying the ship, which is ensnared by the barrier. Gardner, plays the commander of the small earth ship, sent to meet these creatures.”
There are several differences between the original 1952 short story, written for a pulp sci–fi magazine, and Weih’s stage version. “One of the characters, General Harrison, was much, much older, but we have cast a much younger actor in that role. Also Private Fromm, was male, as the popular image of a pilot at that time was a clean–cut young man. In our version, the astronaut is female.”
Ron Weihs, wrote some witty and sparkling dialogue between the two scout–ship pilots, in place of the paragraphs of exposition, in the original short story.
“One point that I want to make, is that the play is fun, in performance. It is not too earnest, and it gave us the chance to play with stage conventions. To use all the toys and trickery, that modern stage technology provides us.”
It is certainly a rare thing, for a local theatre to offer, a story like this, to our community, and for that reason alone, I think it is worthy of support from local audiences. I will see it myself, early in the run.
WHOEVER YOU ARE
Adapted from a short story by Judith Merril
Written and directed by Ron Weihs
At the Artword Artbar,
May 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 24 at 8:00pm
May 18, 25, 26 at 3:30pm
May 12 at 4:00pm
15 Colbourne Street, Hamilton