Christina Allaback is the Artistic Director for Trek Theatre, a new theater company out of Eugene, Oregon that seeks to bring Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes to live public performances.
Could you talk a little bit about your background and your involvement with Trek Theatre?
I have been doing theatre for thirty years. I have a bachelors in Theatre, a Master’s in Theatre History and a Ph.D. in Theatre studies. I had a theatre company in Chicago after my undergrad that did feminist sketch comedy. And I’ve been an actor, comedienne, costume designer, sound designer, director, among other things. After Chicago, I got my master’s degree in the hopes of coming back to Chicago and getting a better day job, but I enjoyed the scholarship and teaching aspect of the art, so I went on to get my Ph.D.
I joined Trek Theatre because I had always wanted a sci-fi theatre company and a free theatre company and with Trek Theatre I can do both. The mission of Trek Theatre is to develop an appreciation of science fiction through theatre and of theatre through science fiction and explore the potential of both as instruments of social change by providing free, family-friendly performances of science fiction to the community. I very much want to do theatre that is accessible to everybody.
Many people say that theatre is dead, but I feel that theatre is just inaccessible to a lot of people, in that it costs money and most people cannot relate to the stories and characters in a good deal of theatre today. I see a lot of theatre about white middle class or upper class people. Or theatre that pats its liberal audience on the back, telling them what they want to hear and making them feel all warm and fuzzy for being liberal. I want Trek Theatre to be a theatre company that everyone can enjoy, no matter what their socio-economic status, if they have kids or not, if they are 18 or 100.
Why do you think that Star Trek provides opportunities for discussing social issues?
What I love about Star Trek, and also science fiction in general, is the ability to discuss social issues in a different context. It is very similar to Bertolt Brecht’s theory of historification. Historification in theatre is a theory in which you present a play about a historical situation, but are really commenting on a contemporary issue that may be a controversial, “hot button” issue. Theoretically, the audience will think more critically about the issue through historification rather than being reactionary to an issue they feel strongly about. For example, Brecht wanted to comment on WWII, so he wrote a play about the Thirty Years War that happened in Germany during the 17th century. I feel science fiction is very much like historification in that it allows the audience to think critically about a contemporary issue by placing it in an imagined future.
Is there a reason why Trek Theatre focuses on episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation? Do you feel that all of the series are good about raising awareness of social issues/problems?
We focus on TNG because that is what the founders wanted. They liked Portland’s Trek in the Park, but were TNG fans. Next summer we are changing this. The Oregon Musical Theatre Festival is commissioning us to produce a musical. We decided, thanks to fan suggestions, to do an adaption of Amok Time from the original series. It will be entitled Pon Farr: A Green-Blooded Musical Love Story. While Amok Time is really more about relationships than about social justice, I feel all the series are good about social issues and the original Star Trek is no exception. It was an innovator on the discussion of social issues on television and in popular culture. And the series has always had a commitment to diversity, as well.
Do you think there is less of a stigma today in being into “geek culture” or science fiction in general? If so, what do you think has changed in society to allow for that?
There is less of a stigma today about “geek culture,” very much. Being “nerdy” is “cool.” What has changed in society to allow for that? Well, I think it is quite complicated and I’m not so sure if it’s a good thing. My first reaction would be that it is a form of incorporation or appropriation. The “status quo” has a history of appropriating underground subcultural style and capitalizing on it. For example, seeing “hippie” or “boho” style clothing in a high fashion department store is an example of this. I think this has been true with sci-fi/nerd culture to a point.
We’ve seen a lot of reboots and big budget movies and television shows based on sci-fi and fantasy. The new Star Trek movies cater to the non-Trekkie. The Lord of the Rings (although fantasy) really brought Tolkien to the mainstream. I feel there has also been a “dumbing down” of sci-fi in the “mainstream” that makes it more palatable for an audience. For example. the new Star Trek movies were made by someone who was not a fan of the shows. The new movies really are just action movies and do not focus much on social issues. The new Doctor Who series is very much based on action/adventure and effects, much more so than the classic series, which I felt was very much about social commentary. However, these new reboots have inspired people, especially younger people, to seek out and enjoy the Star Trek series and classic Who episodes.
What is your favorite Star Trek episode and why?
This is hard! Right now, I’d say The Outcast from TNG’s fifth season. This is the episode where Riker falls in love with an alien from a species that has no biological sex or gender. However, some members of this species feel they have a gender, but have to keep it secret from society. While telling a love story between a human and an alien, this show is actually exploring the oppression of the LGBTQ community. It was really quite revolutionary television for its time. What makes this episode good is that it is a love story, social commentary, there is a court scene (which is always great for theatricality), and it doesn’t end with a catharsis. For me, these are all ingredients for a great story. It leaves us with a dyspeptic feeling at the end, inciting us to change.
Who would you consider your social change heroes?
I love Augusto Boal and Bertolt Brecht. They were very much innovators of 20th century theatre.
Bertolt Brecht opposed traditional Aristotelian theatre, which encourages passive observation. He wanted his audience to think critically about what was happening on the stage in the hope that they would leave the theatre empowered to make change.
Augusto Boal was a Brazilian theatre artist who was known for his Theatre of the Oppressed and explored ways oppressed people can use theatre as a “rehearsal for the revolution.” He takes Brecht a step further, I feel, in that he has the audience take part in the theatre to empower them to go out a fight their oppression.
Locally, I’d like to say Abigail Leeder is my social change hero. She works with the Sexual Wellness Awareness Team at the University of Oregon. They do really great work and use theatre to educate students about sexual wellness. I’ve done workshops with the group and they are great students and hard workers for social change. Abigail is doing great things.
What gives you hope for the future?
Students. I teach adjunct when I can and current students think more progressively than students did when I was in college. They are very active and politically aware.
What do you think are the most significant obstacles to social change for the better in the future?
Peoples’ unwillingness to change and adapt, their lack of empathy, their inability to think critically, and money.
What books or movies would you to recommend people interested in social change?
Books: Theatre of the Oppressed by Augusto Boal, Ain’t I a Woman by bell hooks, Aloha Betrayed by Noenoe K. Silva, Brecht on Brecht (a collection of essays), Society and the Spectacle by Guy Debord, The Most Radical Gesture by Sadie Plant, Contemporary Plays by Women of Color ed by Kathy Perkins and Roberta Uno
Movies: Ethnic Notions, Paris is Burning
What plans do you have for Trek Theatre and where would you like it to go in the future?
Since this summer has been very well attended and we received a lot of donations, I think I’d like to make Trek Theatre a non-profit organization. While I want to keep doing Star Trek episodes, I also want to do other science fiction and also sci-fi plays written by local authors. In two summers, I plan on producing Forbidden Planet in the Park and I’d also like to do a Doctor Who radio play, as well as an adaptation of a local author’s science fiction short story.
I also would like to pair up with other organizations whenever we do a show and have some discussion or events. For example. I’d love to do The Outcast and get some LBGTQ organizations involved somehow.
Interview by Joseph Orosco for Anarres Project (September 2015)
Photo Credits: Tom Kochevar and Sean Jacobs.