This sci-fi play blends eerie phenomena with human emotion — and no two nights are the same

Birds making odd sounds. Flashes of purple in the sky. Unidentified men in black suits behaving suspiciously. Stranger things are coming to the New Brunswick stage.

Stranger things are coming to the New Brunswick stage in Ryan Griffiths' 'Fortune of Wolves'

Fortune of Wolves. (Matt Carter)

In film and literature, science fiction makes up a sizable chunk of the market. But when it comes to theatre, the genre is relatively rare compared to other kinds of storytelling. This is part of what makes Ryan Griffith's new play Fortune of Wolves unusual.

The play follows young man named Lowell as he makes a 13-month road trip from Dartmouth, N.S. to Tofino, B.C., interviewing people along the way. As his journey continues, eerie phenomena begin to percolate in the background. Birds start making odd sounds. Flashes of purple randomly light up the sky. And an unidentified group of men in black suits are up to something strange, though no one seems to know exactly what it is.

Fortune of Wolves. (Matt Carter)

Narrative theatre usually aims to understand what makes people tick. Since it often operates in alternate realities, sci-fi might seem a less likely platform to do this. But for Griffith, the genre is an equally valid place to explore our inner workings as any other.

"Writing science fiction doesn't limit your ability to explore the human condition," the Fredericton-based playwright says. "You can still get to the core of our emotional nature, the way Shakespeare or Ibsen do, and it may even be more accessible because it's a genre a lot of people understand really well. With this play, I wanted to give audiences a world where crazy things are happening, but you can still look at human beings in an honest way."

With this play, I wanted to give audiences a world where crazy things are happening, but you can still look at human beings in an honest way.- Ryan Griffith, playwright

Aside from genre, Fortune of Wolves is also unusual in its performance structure. At a whopping 70,000 words in length with more than 80 characters, the whole thing takes roughly nine hours to perform — a daunting prospect to stage or to watch. But doing it all in one go was never Griffith's intention. Instead, the four actors, who have each memorized different sections, roll dice in advance of the show to determine which parts of the text to do that night.

"I wanted to introduce the element of randomization, something that mimics that experience of a young kid travelling cross country talking to random people," Griffith says. "There are roughly 25 million different combinations that can manifest each night and you only meet around 18 per cent of the characters in one performance. I might be biased because I love all of these characters so much, but I think people may want to come back more than once, which would be great."

Fortune of Wolves. (Matt Carter)

Whether it's scoring return visits or enticing non-theatre goers to come out, expanding audiences for the art form is one of the goals of the play. Canadians love our kitchen sink dramas, quirky historical plays or snappy one-person-and-a-chair shows. But Griffith sees a value in our theatrical institutions being more open to other kinds of work.

"People often have very definite ideas of what the next great Canadian play needs to look like," he says. "It's an industry where full-fledged productions get harder and harder year after year, and the focus is moving to things that are easier and cheaper to do. If you're pitching something with a cast of 20 and a space ship, not many companies are going to be interested. At the same time, science fiction can be more accessible than other genres for people who don't usually see plays, which can mean increasing audiences for theatre. And that's great for everyone."

Fortune of Wolves. Written by Ryan Griffith. Directed by Thomas Morgan Jones. October 12 - 22, Open Space Theatre, 55 Whiting Road, Fredericton, N.B.