If you're tired of watching plays performed by, you know, people, this weekend offers Houstonians another option with the premiere of the play Space Junk: Do People Dream of Electric Children? Instead of using human actors onstage, all of the characters in the one-act comedy will be performed by drones.
Yes, you read that right: drones, as in the flying aircraft operated by remote control. But don't worry, Judgment Day isn't here yet – humans will still be involved in the production. Three off-stage actors will voice the drones, while others act as pilots and operate them.
Space Junk follows a trio of drones on a spaceship who, a century after a mysterious disaster wiped out the ship's human crew, are still running simulations to try to prevent another disaster. However, the drones have yet to find any other humans and have started to turn a little…strange. Over the course of the play, the drones mimic human behavior in order to puzzle out what makes people, and all intelligent life, tick.
“The drones are trying to cosplay as humans in order to understand how to run the ship and why humans did what they did,” explained Mel Petersen, the play's director as well as one of its writers and producers. “They're kind of stuck between this mentality of what we built technology to do, which is serve, and then at the same time we're not there…They haven't reached the point yet where they realize they need to evolve.”
Petersen called Space Junk, which was inspired by classic science fiction works as well as schlocky B-movies, “a coming-of-age story for drones.” She believes the production is the first in the world to use drones as its only characters. “There's a technology we've created and left behind. And now they have to figure out how to live without us,” she explained. “Like when we move on from our parents and have to live our own lives.”
The production is also multidisciplinary, in that it will also use the drones' camera functions to broadcast film images onstage. At some point, Petersen teased, audience members might see themselves up on the big screen.
Koomah, one of the production's voice actors and writers, and Petersen had long had an inside joke about using drones in a play, Koomah said. Koomah had joked about attaching marionette puppets to the drones, or even just throwing some wigs on the flying machines – but Petersen, a founder of the Houston production company Amatol Productions, was fascinated by the idea of using drones in art. She wanted to explore not only how emerging technology affects humans, but how humans affect technology. “Eventually, well, what if we invented a technology one day that was almost like children, that could grow and learn and become its own race of beings?” Petersen wondered.
Petersen took this idea and applied to the Idea Fund, a re-granting program for Houston-area artists funded by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and won a grant to create the play. The entire writing and production process ended up taking a year, said Koomah, a self-described intersex-bodied trans/queer artist and performer.
Part of coming of age is reckoning with one's unique identity, a topic the play doesn't shy away from. Koomah's character, the commander, never really takes on a gender, while writer and voice actor Stephanie Saint Sanchez's navigator drone is Latina. And because the drones don't have human bodies, any audience members' perceptions involving bodies, race and gender are stripped away.
“It's very rare that I see myself represented in the arts and media, and I think that's true for Latinas, for LGBT people,” Koomah said, adding that the production members – many of whom identify as part of Houston's Asian, Latino and LGTB+ communities – drew on their personal experiences to make their characters feel real. “Our goal is to, in a way, be able to create accurate representations – even if it's through a drone, right – of other peoples, other gender and sexual minorities, other ethnicities.”
Of course, the writers aren't unaware of how politically controversial their choice of medium is: Generally, militarized drones are used less for creating art and more for killing people. The whole plot of the play is almost an ironic commentary on that controversy – instead of killing or spying on people, Space Junk's drones are looking to save people, Koomah pointed out.
“Yes, you should be afraid and concerned about technology and where it's going, but you should be fascinated and intrigued by it too,” Petersen said, explaining how she was inspired by sci-fi films such as A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which consider humans' fear of new technology from the machine's perspective. While drones don't yet have true artificial intelligence, they may one day.
“At a certain point, technology will have its own rights and personalities,” she said. “Maybe we need to walk a mile in another being's shoes and consider what they go through.”
“Space Junk: Do People Dream of Electric Children?” will be performed at The Pilot on Navigation theater, at 5102 Navigation Boulevard, on September 23, September 24, September 30 and October 1 at 7 p.m, and at 2 p.m. on September 25 and October 2. Tickets are $12 pre-sale, $15 at the door and $6 for children and seniors.