Mark Fisher asks why science fiction gets short measure on the stage

TELEVISION gives us regular helpings of Star Trek, Dr Who, and The X Files. Cinema provides a steady flow of blockbusters from Star Wars to Independence Day. Publishers supply enough stock to fill dedicated sections in book shops. When it comes to theatre, however, science fiction rarely gets a look in.

Since the Czech dramatist Karel Capek coined the word robot in his 1921 play RUR (the title stands for Rossum's Universal Robots), the stage has found little room for sci-fi. A handful of examples come to mind - Tom McGrath's The Android Circuit, Ken Campbell's Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, the trash musical Return to the Forbidden Planet, and the pastiche puppetry of Thunderbirds FAB - but they are memorable for their rarity, not their profusion.

Why this should be is a question the designer/director Stewart Laing is asking in a one-off workshop performance at Glasgow's Tramway based on a set of stories by J G Ballard. His experiments are at an early stage, but he wants to explore the genre's theatrical possibilities. ''Science fiction is so visual,'' says Laing, the Scottish designer of the Broadway musical Titanic. ''It depends on landscape, or on special effects. I think it's because of the visual side that it's never taken off in the theatre.''

Having grown bored with the ever-bigger sets he has been asked to work on, designs that are technically impressive, but intellectually undemanding, Laing says his desire now is to put across visual ideas verbally. ''The thing about

J G Ballard is that he's not dealing with aliens, or monsters from outer space, he's dealing with inner space. Doing it in the theatre when you don't have the resources of film, you have to deal with your visual effects much more imaginatively. Either you use tricks to do it, or you can try and describe the visual ideas, and that's what I'm interested in.''

Glasgow playwright David Greig suggests the reason for

science fiction's neglect is that theatre cannot afford to subdivide an already small audience on the basis of genre. His unperformed play The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman he once Loved in the Former Soviet Union is about two cosmonauts left in space after the break up of the Eastern bloc countries. Set in a recognisable present, it sits on the cusp of science fiction, but it exemplifies the dramatist's belief that plays can be set anywhere and at any time.

''There isn't an industry behind theatre as there is with cinema and novels, so we don't have a big enough market to split it into genres,'' says Greig. ''Genre comes with commercialism. The primary problem about science fiction in the theatre is having to see cardboard technology. It's about representing technology in a way that's not naff. But science is a very fit subject for plays, and I like to try and use it.''

If anyone is able to overcome the genre problem, it should be Alan Ayckbourn. As Britain's most successful living playwright, he has the trust of a large audience. It so happens that he's a bit of a sci-fi buff himself. His latest play, Comic Potential, follows in the steps of his futuristic Standing Room Only, Henceforward, Body Language, and Communicating Doors, and is set in a humourless future where every TV soap star is an android.

''I am interested in the allegorical properties of science fiction, the way one can use the medium to reflect the present day,'' says Ayckbourn. ''It keeps cropping up in my work, although I never call it science fiction because people get a little jumpy about it. Theatre can do domestic sci-fi that doesn't require high technology. If you want to take on the full might of the Spielberg empire on a budget of #10,000, you're in for heartache. Science fiction can be about the nature of what is going to happen to the human race, and that is where theatre can do it - certainly I'm doing it.''

He continues: ''I will soon want to write about the future family: what will happen to the family unit which has been slowly disintegrating in the past few decades? All the projections one could write about in theatre would probably not interest film and television, because it is less spectacular. But I think it is just as interesting. What will happen not to the planetary system, but to people? One has to boil it down to that ingredient that

theatre deals with best.''

He adds: ''I enjoy the freedom it gives you to re-invent the world. That is often denied you if you're stuck in the present day. Adult audiences, every bit as much as children's audiences, love the invitation to loosen their imaginations.''

n Phase 1 (J G Ballard project) is at Tramway, Glasgow, tomorrow; Comic Potential is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until September.