It's little wonder Gordon Dahlquist's newest play is science fiction. The first words of the upcoming Undermain Theatre world premiere,Tomorrow Come Today, were penned at a 10-day silent retreat in West Texas.
"It's not just not talking," the Brooklyn-based playwright explains over lunch at All Good Cafe. "It was eight-and-a-half days of no gesturing, no eye contact, really no communication. Everyone there does this together."
The playwriting retreat, led by Erik Ehn, another playwright familiar to Undermain, approaches the words on the page with an almost Buddhist or Zen mentality. For Dahlquist, who's spent much of his career in science fiction, this was the perfect milieu for creating a futuristic dystopia where the affluent can upload their existence into a digital cloud, hop from body to body, avoiding -- at all costs -- death.
"In a roundabout way this play is about losing your sense of place," says Dahlquist, munching on a BLT with avocado. "It's hard for me to think about appetite, desire or sex, without thinking about how these nerves work. I really like avocados, but if I'm in a number of different bodies, and some of those are female, it's really difficult for me to think about how those bodies interact with appetite or sex."
Dahlquist swaps Ponce De Leon's fountain for robots, who transfer the human personalities or soul to its new flesh. This body-hopping story asks a much larger question about what defines humanity, but it also requires something very specific of its cast: several actors play the same character. Think Freaky Friday meets The Dallas Opera's Death and the Powers.
To pull this off in believable, subtle ways, the cast -- comprising strong Dallas actors including Jenny Ledel, Montgomery Sutton, Ricco Fajardo and Shannon Kearns -- have been working with a movement coach to make the transition seamless.
"We wanted there to be a thread that ties together the characters who are the same person," says Undermain's co-aristic director Katherine Owens, who is directing Tomorrow. "They also all have to play robots, so that was a challenge."
For Owens, putting science fiction on stage was well worth the challenge, as it tends to be the oft-ignored genre of theater, despite of its popularity in other media. Part of that has to do with the contemporary prevalence of irony and the proliferation of the fun, campy B-science fiction (you can see an example of this onstage through October 19 in Dallas Theater Center's Rocky Horror Show). But both Dahlquist and Owens agree that when it's done right science fiction is the perfect framework to present capital-T truths an audience might already know.
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"[Tomorrow Come Today] is a play is about a world that we're not in yet, but it is true we are experiencing these unpredictable and often shocking encounters with technology," says Owens, "as well as the advances in medicine that allow people to change their faces and to live longer. We put so much of our lives into the Internet. We're already uploading things to the cloud."
Owens describes this season at Undermain as being dedicated to the stories of worlds on the brink of great change, from Annie Baker's The Flick, which is about the death of film, to The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls by Meg Miroshnik -- an increasingly prevalent story about change in Russia.
"My play hopefully lets an audience see some things that they already know but with a fresh perspective," says Dahlquist. "You'll see discussions of climate change and social responsibility rooted in the work. The world is a slippery, ever-changing place, and I think Tomorrow Come Today acknowledges that."
Tomorrow Come Today opens in previews at Undermain Theatre September 16 and runs through October 11. Tickets start at $10 and are available at undermaintheatre.org.