Bryant Dillon, Fanboy Comics President: For those unfamiliar with Sci-Fest LA, can you tell us a little about the festival and your one act, “Human History,” which is included in this year’s show?
Joel Silberman: Sci-Fest is an annual science fiction theater festival that produces new “genre” plays starring actors from franchises like Star Trek, True Blood, Lost, and so on. This year’s fest includes new work by Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman (Gaiman came last weekend and loved it.), and the play I wrote, “Human History,” is a satire about politics and race that I summarize as Dear White People meets Battlestar Galactica.
BD: What can you tell us about your creative background, training, and how it led to your inclusion in Sci-Fest LA 2015?
JS: It’s funny, this play is in many ways kind of a full circle for me. Long story short, when I was in high school, I wrote a play about race for a Martin Luther King Day assembly that ended up really making some waves and changing some things at the school. Seeing that happen at the age of 16 was the reason I decided to pursue a career in entertainment in the first place, but I actually stopped writing stage plays (in favor of TV and screenplays) in college. After I saw Sci-Fest last year and loved it, I thought, “Maybe I should try writing a play again.” And, the result was this sci-fi allegory about identity and history.
BD: What was the inspiration for “Human History,” and what do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
JS: The inspiration came out of a conversation about Treyvon Martin with a white friend of mine (I’m white too, btw, in case you couldn’t tell from the super Jewish last name.), and I was trying to put that event in the context of history. At some point, my friend said something like, “Look, obviously what happened to African Americans was terrible, but it’s not like everything was peaceful in Africa before the Europeans got there.”
And, I countered with the suggestion that if aliens came to Earth and killed off most of the human population, colonized and strip mined the planet, sent humans to another planet to be slaves, kept those humans in horrible conditions even after slavery ended, subjected them to rampant terrorism, and warehoused them in decrepit prisons for minor offenses that the aliens themselves weren’t subject to, we would not look at the unpunished murder of a human as an isolated incident. It wouldn’t matter that there were inter-human wars on Earth hundreds of years ago, before the alien race came. We’d be outraged, and rightfully so.
That became the basis for the play, and that recontextualization of our past and present is what I want audiences to take away. But, the alien-ness of it also allows it to breathe and be funny and not be pure polemic, the kind of thing people can watch and have fun.
BD: Were there an unexpected elements brought to “Human History” by the talented director and cast? Anything you initially saw one way that turned out entirely differently?
JS: Watching this incredible acting and directing team work has been one of the most enjoyable and gratifying creative experiences I’ve had thus far. Every single person in the show is just so smart and wants to play every angle of every line. That doesn’t always happen, and it’s particularly vital on this play, where the tone is supposed to be funny but the themes are so heavy. These actors pull comedy out of every possible moment, and the directors have really helped them do that. I’d been afraid that a director might take it down the road of melodrama, but they very successfully avoided that.
The biggest element in the final production that I just hadn’t thought as much about is the characters’ physicality. I’m a very dialogue-driven person, so it hadn’t occurred to me that when the aliens talked about their God (who is named “Marshbarglablar”), they would of course have some accompanying physical gesture. I also hadn’t thought about what a high five looks like 500 years in the post-apocalyptic future. Those physical things are some of the biggest laughs in the show.
BD: What do you feel is the real importance of science fiction as a genre, and why is it important for that genre to be present in the stage theater medium?
JS: I think science fiction is an important genre in part because it allows us to move the things we think about in our own world into a different world where that doesn’t have as much baggage. I always talk about the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard gets tortured by an alien race and how, unbeknownst to me at the time (I was 10.), it would deeply inform my ethics and politics down the road. It’s no coincidence that Star Trek featured TV’s first interracial kiss and first non-comedic same-sex kiss. It’s not just interstellar travel that becomes possible when we move outside the confines of our own, narrow worlds.
The importance of stage is, I think, a little different. There’s an intimacy with theater, of being physically in the same room with someone, that can’t be replicated in film. There are lots of things that film can do that stage can’t, of course, but the big thing film can’t do is give you that sense of sharing a pure moment in time with the performer, of being a guest in the house that they’ve made.
BD: You’ve also written on quite a number of “geeky” topics (from the discovery of Earth-like planets to why Bojack Horseman will change television) for a number of outlets, including the LA Times. What are your feelings on “geek” culture becoming more and more mainstream, and which articles of yours do you think our readers might enjoy checking out?
JS: I’m thrilled that geek culture is going mainstream, though I feel like it’s much more about the advancement of technology than the triumph of a culture. Film technology has allowed superheroes and spaceships in movies to look way cooler and do way more awesome stuff than they could 20 years ago, and the super-rapid advancement of technology has made previously implausible things seem totally possible. (I joke that technology is changing at such a rapid rate that we all feel like time travelers.)
If people are interested in some of my writing on “geekier” topics, I’d recommend my pieces on Bojack, Breaking Bad, NASA, Interstellar, TV psychopaths, and Tinder.
BD: We are Fanboy Comics, so we always like to ask our interviewees what they are currently a “fan of.” It doesn’t have to be specifically comic or sci-fi based or even timely. We’re just wondering what you’re currently enjoying that you could recommend to our readers. So, what are you a fan of?
JS: Well, I recently rewatched the “Far Beyond the Stars” episode from Deep Space Nine for the first time since it aired, and it really is just a perfect hour of television. Totally would have won an Emmy if it weren’t science fiction.
If I’m honest though, the biggest thing I’m a fan of right now is Sci-Fest, and I feel like I can say that because my own play is just one small part of the festival. Getting to see people like Armin Shimerman (Deep Space Nine), Eddie McClintock (Warehouse 13), Tim Russ (Voyager), and Patricia Tallman (Babylon 5) doing a play together is so much fun, and it’s fun to watch them having so much fun. Gates McFadden (Gates McFadden!) from Star Trek: The Next Generation will be doing a reading of a story that’s a finalist in Sci-Fest’s short story competition on Sunday (the 24th), along with Shimerman and stars from Stargate, Fringe, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’d be psyched about going to see all this stuff just as a fan! Being a part of it myself is just a really, really awesome bonus.
BD: Where can readers find more information regarding Sci-Fest LA 2015 and the opportunity to catch one of the final performances of “Human History?”
JS: “Human History” is part of the “Night A” lineup, which is presently sold out, so we are adding ONE EXTRA PERFORMANCE on Wednesday, May 27th, at 8 p.m.. Would love to sell it out, as well! That said, if you show up 30 minutes before a sold-out performance, you might be able to get the ticket of a no-show. It’s just not a guarantee.
That all being said, I very strongly recommend that people come check out the excellent “Night B,” for which tickets are still available, as well as the “Radio Show” (famous actors performing a very cool 1930s radio drama) and The Roswell Awards (famous actors reading aloud the five finalists for Sci-Fest’s short story prize). And, for the last weekend in May (28th-31st), “Radio Show” is packaged with “Night B” as a double feature!
Basically, anything you go and see at the festival is going to be good, and I’d say that even if I didn’t have a play of my own in it. I’m just honored to be included. All the info is at Sci-Fest.com.
BD: Finally, are there any upcoming projects you want to mention before we wrap up? Also, where can people find you and your work online?
JS: I’m preparing a project for the upcoming TV pitching season and may be shooting a short film over the summer. I’ve basically learned that everything in Hollywood’s a roll of the dice, but it’s nice to have some dice to roll. Links to all my published work, past and future, are compiled on Muck Rack, and I have my own website, www.wordpeggio.com.