The following was written by E. Michael Blake for the World Science Fiction Convention in 2000…

A Fairly Brief Introduction to Moebius Theatre

Moebius Theatre is a Chicago-area troupe devoted to live performance of science fiction. Launched in 1976, the troupe has operated steadily since then, with considerable turnover in personnel but overall continuity in its purpose. SF convention attendees in the Midwest know Moebius Theatre mainly for its bare-stage shows of troupe-written sketch comedy, and if the troupe has a lasting legacy, it may be the body of SF sketches created by participants. When opportunities arise, however, Moebius Theatre also works to adapt well-known narrative SF for performance (as with the 1999 audio-only adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau) and to present what has already been adapted for the stage (as with the production of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles at Chicon 2000).

The troupe grew out of the frequent fannish gatherings that sprang up in Chicago in the mid-1970s. These gatherings revealed that a handful of extroverted, audience-hungry convention fen and another handful of more withdrawn, but no less ego-driven, writerly types shared an interest in putting science fiction on stage. This being Chicago, they were all inspired by the improvisational comedy of Second City. These fen being young and not very well-heeled, they followed that inspiration to develop SF for the stage that ran counter to the trend in movies of ever-more expensive special effects. Appealing to the audience’s imagination through cleverness in writing and acting was both satisfying to creator and observer alike, and extremely cheap.

The first three shows were small-scale affairs involving adaptations of dialogue-heavy short stories, SF improvisations, and the first few finished sketches. The fourth show, at WindyCon 4 in October 1977, was Stage Wars (or, “Who’s Biggs?”), a parody of Star Wars. This show, reprised the following spring at MiniCon, gave Moebius Theatre a large and enthusiastic audience in fandom that the troupe has generally managed to retain in the years since. The show had a large effect within the troupe as well, before it was even performed; the many participants who assembled the show (17 the first time, 20 the second) approached the scriptwriting and staging with an eagerness and teamwork that carried over to other projects, months and years later. While it was tempting, however, to switch entirely to film parodies (the post-Star Wars attitude of the major studios could have made that possible) the troupe ultimately chose to continue exploration of new, original SF specifically for live performance, and fortunately the audience (within and beyond SF fandom) went along with it. In the years since then, Moebius has parodied existing SF works from time to time, but not on as large a scale as in Stage Wars.

For an outfit that often exists on a bare stage (and the “stage” is often a few hotel risers at one end of a ballroom), Moebius Theatre has not lacked ambition. The troupe moved beyond its usual geographical limits by performing and hosting at fan cabarets at WorldCons in Phoenix and Boston. It jumped its subcultural limits by performing at colleges, in bars/nightclubs, at gatherings of MENSA and the Space Development Conference, and at Chicago Public Library branches. It broadened its definition of what constitutes a performance through SF-based “environmental theatre” (including murder mysteries, one of them at a World Fantasy Convention) and deadpan bogus programming at SF cons. It ventured outside the comedy comfort-zone with serious SF efforts, including Moreau (see above), Karel Capek’s play R. U. R. at Chicon V (1991), and Four Hundred Years Out, performed both within fandom (CapriCon 8) and without (in a director’s showcase at the Theatre Building). It even blurred its supposed amateur status by staging four long-running sketch shows in storefront theatres in the early 1980s (garnering reviews showing that Moebius belonged there at least as much as many other troupes did) and by putting various troupe works on broadcast-quality video through Chicago Public Access. (Laugh all you want about public access, but this outfit kept inviting us back, rebroadcasting what we’d done, and letting us use terrific equipment for free. Where’s the downside?)

As is appropriate with any group effort that’s this old, there’s a mythic vagueness about Moebius that makes it difficult to reduce what the troupe has done to raw numbers. There have probably been as many as 160 participants, about 80 separate productions, and around 150 performances, though it’s not always clear what one should count as a “show”, especially in the old days when a gathering of three people swapping improvised lines for ten minutes in a semi-public place at a convention was sometimes later thought of as a “show” by participants and audience alike. The troupe has managed to be more scrupulous about the actual written material (including improvised-line-swaps that were later considered good enough to write down): Moebius participants have created eight plays, nearly 300 sketches, two murder-mystery scenarios, more than 30 song parodies, and at last count about 15 hours of bogus convention programming.

The troupe’s success may have as much to do with the acuity and eagerness of the audience as it does with the same traits in the participants. The Midwestern fannish audience is probably as hip to bare-stage and improvisational techniques as the performers are, and it is willing to support whomever will put on a good show. This has helped the development of another troupe, Spacetime Theatre, which was organized by former Moebians who chose to explore performance improv more than Moebius has done.

What’s next for Moebius Theatre? That all depends on who’s around and what they want to do. The troupe has always been steered by its most active participants, and so should it be. Nit-pickers could probably separate Moebians into about fifteen generations, most of which are at least on speaking terms, but all of which eventually face being seen as irrelevant in the eyes of those who come later. Doom has been predicted for the troupe many times in the past, but somehow it has endured–clinging to that core idea of creating science fiction for live performance–and continues to be ambitious. There hasn’t been a webcast yet…