by Ed Fortune
Ariella Como Stoian is a queer playwright and immersive and interactive theatre-maker who specialises in speculative fiction and magical realism. Their latest work is Hive, a queer, cross-generational, sci-fi play exploring family, shared memory and the meaning of home. We caught up with Ariella to find out more.
STARBURST: How would you pitch Hive to someone who reads a lot of dystopian fiction?
Ariella Como Stoia: I would say Hive is an example of soft world building, where the impact on lives and relationships of a speculative world is shown in the everyday. I’d say while some elements of Hive’s dystopia are exaggerated and fantastical, a lot of it is close and recognisable, slightly heightened, but definitely not a world where humans have emigrated off planet to mine more silicon and live in a replicated exclusionary status quo run by a benevolent yet misguided AI or something.
It’s a gentle apocalypse, like our own. And the dystopian themes speak more to how we live with uncertainty and imagine beyond catastrophe, in this case, when we’ve lost someone or something, and we’re trying to reconfigure our sense of home and family anew. Where nothing is easily resolved and, in fact, gets more wildly, delightfully chaotic. So it’s not 1984. That’s what I would say. And then I’d probably ask what they were currently reading.
What makes this weird fiction?
That question is a bit of a spoiler! But I suppose it is weird fiction in how elements of the story sit at the axis of fear, awe, and the sublime, which can’t be understood in literal, pragmatic parameters. The play holds dread and fascination with the unknown, something that hardly fits in the human mind but is inspired by its imagination and limbic-system production value. This multiplicity and warring complexity are also the joy of the piece. I would say the strategies of weird fiction are central to how the characters in the play – Ria and Salve – connect, disconnect and reconnect, blending quasi-sci-fi with weird nature and inexplicable magic.
I hope I’ve been both subtle and informative here. I may have said nothing.
What inspired this show?
Like many things, it’s made of many parts.
At the beginning of the year, I was commissioned to write a piece for The Space on the Isle of Dogs, so Hive became situated through that relationship, sense of place and history of rapid development.
A lot of which sits close to my own experiences around the loss of home, family, and displacement. I’ve also weathered storms and heat waves and experienced disrupted migration patterns that have driven waves of moths into the cities they were flying away from. Plastering windows and doors to the point you can’t see out past their many legs and wriggling confusion.
I would say as well my experiences of grief have been key inspirations in this show, and my relationship with my mum, who is a single working mum like Ria. Whodathunk? I am a non-binary, queer writer, and the character of Salve is a non-binary teen whose identity is never in question in the play. They never have to explain themselves or come out. Rather their story is about processing radical changes in their family structure in a turbulent world and figuring out how to hold and remember someone who gave them acceptance, strength and love. To process a shared yet distinct grief together, as well as having to address the material impact of a loss and subsequent decisions around their home.
Casual representation of queer identities is hugely important to me, as well as discussions being had around grief and change that doesn’t try to solve or resolve anything fully but rather sit in the messy, loving strangeness that grief brings and how it transforms the world, whichever world that may be, but how we remember together.
Then all of these many ideas filtered through my brain, which happens to process and understand through storytelling, particularly through lenses of sci-fi, worldbuilding and the gloriously odd.
Who is this for? It is intended for a mostly queer audience?
I would say Hive is not just for queer audiences, though I’d obviously love all kinds of queers to show up. I think the central relationship between single mum/conservationist Ria and adventurous teenage kid Salve is very relatable for everyone, even if you’re not coming from a direct experience of their context. At the heart of it, the piece is a poetic romp about love, loss, and how you communicate with someone who is going through a very similar experience to you in a weird, complex world. Highly relevant to a number of folks, I’d imagine, and the story is very invested in this relationship between a parent and teen struggling to connect, as well as their previous multi-generational family dynamic.
Why theatre? What does theatre bring to this story that other formats don’t?
Great question. I’d say the imaginative possibilities that theatre provides. I’ve always felt that there was an expansive scope to theatre that could allow you to both question how we understand and construct our reality but playfully and joyfully imagine new possibilities. In a way, the play almost operates like a game of DnD where you’re being offered descriptions of a world that you’re imaginatively collaborating on, collectively making a story more real, more tangible.
Hive tells its story through the tensions between the aural and visual, expressing the inner and outer dynamics of its humans in an unusual, speculative setting. Their interweaving thoughts, whose rhythm is shared between characters, explore the relationship between a parent and child after the loss of the third pillar of their family, ‘Nan’, and their closeness throughout separate, similar journeys that occupy the same space. This world is built on stage through lyrical language and offers made to an audience’s imagination.
These poetics, the radical empathy this represents and this weird-fiction metaphor is uniquely expressed by theatre in this case and its potential for collaborative, non-naturalistic storytelling.
Why the Edinburgh Fringe?
The Edinburgh Fringe is a place of discovery and community with many willing audiences, and so you learn so much about your work. Hive is an experimental, non-naturalistic play in a lot of ways. Though sometimes when words like experimental are used, I’m a little like, is the way I think and experience the world experimental? I don’t know. Not deliberately. Categories for being a human… The fringe is a place of chance and connection. This is ‘Hive’s’ first outing, and we want to find lots of different folks it speaks to and offer this atmospheric, encompassing world to anyone we can. As well as taking a chance on many other worlds ourselves.
They are thousands of shows at the fringe. Why should Starburst readers seek this out?
It’s a unique experience, gorgeously immersive in its multidisciplinary design and wonderfully distinct in its style of storytelling. Honestly, it is a bit of an unexpected time. Beautiful and eerie, with love poured into it from every member of the team. It’s a brilliant bunch of people working together to realise an adventurous story. Taking you on a journey that allows you to feel and process without demanding a particular response from you, a gentleness held alongside its wild scope. Why wouldn’t you give it a go? It’s cool and genre work, human with a touch of eldritch. Someone said it was like Solaris; someone else said it was like if Annihilation met Studio Ghibli. I’m not sure I agree completely with these takes, but it’s obviously lovely to get the comparisons, particularly to Ghibli. I’m here for it all and looking forward to more references and responses. Nerds assemble.
The Mushmoss Collective list LARP as an inspiration. What sort of LARP have you drawn from in your recent works?
Another great question! Our recent show ‘You wake up/octopus’ (CPT, Theatre Deli, The Space) was developed structurally with inspiration from Nordic Chamber LARP, mixed with a more compositionally-driven, experimental (there’s that word again) play akin to happenings, or collaborative live rehearsals. ‘You wake up/octopus’ is about chosen self, transformation, becoming and memory. It’s a completely silly, otherworldly endeavour where you play one tentacle of a newly conscious octopus who might decide to go to space. So it’s like interspecies roleplay meets a TTRPG, but then you build a spacefaring vessel out of fabric and light with strangers, sharing in the creation of the story, world and soundworld.
Additionally, this show takes place in a shared archival space, filled with games and co-created artefacts, fairy lights, projections and flowers, called the ‘Memory Tree’. Visitor responses and contributions influence the stories that then take place in this archive, developing a collective, joyful, ongoing lore, repositioning what memories we value and how we might collaborate on empathy. (Did someone say tentacular thinking?) Structurally, we were both onboard into the world and shared ‘character’ through interaction and immersion with the ‘Memory Tree’ as well as debriefing post-shows.
‘Hive’ is not interactive, nor does it involve roleplay. It is a traditionally end-on play, but I would say it values these same principles and an imaginative relationship with an audience. Honestly, I’d love to do an immersive, interactive version of the story set in an actual multi-level construction site. But I guess one highly ambitious thing at a time.
How would you describe your process?
I would say my process is made-up of layering and finding resonances between ideas. I’m very driven by rhythms, musicality and humanity in my writing. My work is often referred to as poetic, but I think that’s more to do with a playfulness or irreverence toward language than any kind of sonnet stanning on my side. I’m intuitive, multi-disciplinary, and really excited and enlivened by collaboration between different practices. I’m a tad non-dramatic in my art and really like there to be space held open for audiences or players, as the situation may be. As you’ve probably gotten by the amount of times I’ve used the word, I highly value imagination and possibility. I’m very driven by story, even when it may not be the foremost way of creating meaning in a piece. I’ve only had one commercially viable idea in my life (for a reality tv show), and I hope one day it’ll fund more of our immersive art about jellyfish and space-moths. Or it’ll be stolen and make someone else millions because I keep bragging about it loudly in public. Either way, I won’t shut up about it until I’ve willed it into the world, and that’s my process too.
What media are you currently enjoying?
I’ve been playing Tears of the Kingdom, and as a part of playing TotK, I’ve been on Reddit reading about other people playing TotK and watching other people play TotK on YouTube, as well as consuming all the timeline and Zelda lore videos.
I don’t know if I’ve been enjoying this, though.
I’ve also been reading Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ for the first time and watching Boots Riley’s ‘I’m a Virgo’.
While we’re in Edinburgh, we’ll be presenting a scratch of new work, ‘Do plants sleep’ for Summerhall Surgeries. It’s a WIP gamified experience about energy management and choosing to rest, equating everyday tasks with the scope and scale of adventure, i.e brain fog=swamp, etc. Interwoven with quiet reflections, found moments and mutual care with a plant. It’ll be on later in the year for Theatre Deli’s Social Model…& More Festival in London this November.
But we’re hoping Hive has a future life beyond the fringe. We’re looking for the right home!