Back to the future – Theatre as a qualitative enrichment of new narratives

By Mathias Huppenbauer


Causal chains and leaps in time

In the 1980s film trilogy Back to the Future, the teenager Marty McFly travels around in time with the help of a time machine designed by Dr. Emmett L. Brown in 1985. In total, he travels at different intervals over a period of 130 years. In doing so, he moves both into the past and into the future.
His appearance in the respective time has an impact on the developments in reality there and thus also leads to changes in the actual real time of Marty (1985) through the new life courses initiated by his actions.
In the first part, Marty travels back in time and inadvertently prevents his parents from meeting and falling in love with each other – instead, his mother falls in love with him. This changes the future timeline. Marty realizes that he needs to bring his parents together so as not to jeopardize his own future birth. In the end, he succeeds.
In the other two parts, time travel is used to prevent tragic events in the future and in the past or to manipulate events in the past in such a way that the subsequent development has a positive effect on the narrative ego in the future – i.e. manipulation of the past in one’s own favor.
Each time travel creates a new timeline. Timeline 1 is the starting point of real time (1985); at the end there are 8 timelines.

BTTFTimelines.png: Ritchyderivative work: Yevgen Lasman (talk) – BTTFTimelines.png, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12004000

The concept of time used here is that of a causality chain, i.e. the sequence of events. The effect occurs after a cause or at the same time as it. All events in the past are therefore immutable and cannot be influenced by current events. The future arises from present events or actions, which in turn lead to resulting causal effects. If, however, one changes an event in the past in the hypothetical narrative space of a possible time travel, the present and future also change in this idea, in the form of causal chains. However, the development of time always flows in the direction of the future.

Time narratives

There are many considerations and calculations for capturing and defining time from different sciences. For further consideration here, in addition to the descriptions of the film, the following are interesting:

Deviation, reversal, or overcoming the regular flow of time in the narrative

If time events are told, the regularly assumed, constant and forward-looking flow of time can be reversed by, for example, a backward narration of a story. Linear events can also be overcome by time jumps or deviations can arise through slow motion or time-lapse in the field of tension between narrative time and narrated time – i.e. stretching and tightening of the narrative event.

Subjective perception of time

The subjective, evaluative perception of time in relation to the passing of objective time is expressed in colloquial formulations: (no) time, time passes (not), taking (not) time, gaining/losing time, giving/stealing time from someone, killing time, time runs away, time stands still…

Futures Literacy and Time Travel

The goal of Futures Literacy is to enable people to develop alternative ideas about the future on individual or social issues. This is done through the analysis of the past and the resulting perception and action in the present to the reflection and questioning of the idea of the future, which, according to the theory, is conceived from assumptions shaped by the past and the present.
Here, too, the basic assumption is that of a causal, forward-looking flow of time with causes and effects. The preoccupation of Futures Literacy is like the time travel of Marty McFly.

The journey into the past

If I change an assumption from the past (or the present), how does my sense of the present and my idea of the future change?

Methods for this include CLA and work on myths and beliefs in relation to the deconstruction of the past, or the Future Wheel in relation to the deconstruction of the present.

The journey into the future

What probable and/or tragic events or developments do I anticipate in the future and which ones would I actually like to see?

Methods for this are, among other things, all steps of a Future LAB.

The journey from the future to the present

If I assume the best future, for myself or society, what would I have to do differently in the present and near future in order to get closer to this idea of the future?

Methods for this include backcasting.


The insights that can emerge from these time travels are important tools to become Futures Literate. However, theoretical considerations are not enough to mobilize people to do something different. It takes strong narratives to which we feel emotionally connected. We need a qualitative enrichment of the narratives through as many detailed descriptions as possible and through a real experience, feeling and savoring of these narratives – that’s what theatre and storytelling can do.

Theatre of the Future

Theatre here does not mean the classic plays on stage. Theatre here means the new, joint, spontaneous development of one’s own narratives or the presentation and expansion of individual narrative fragments.

… and the journey through time

In theatre, the actors can spontaneously travel through time. It is possible to jump back and forth in the flow of time, stretch events in the narrative and/or grab time, and an experience can be told backwards from a starting point. Different narrative strands can be presented at the same time at the same narrative time.

… and the absurd

In the theatre, perspectives are spontaneously changed, roles are reversed, events are changed and completely new things are developed. It is not necessary that something makes sense. In this way, it is possible to go beyond what is first introduced, to expand our imagination. To try things that are unfamiliar.

… and the spontaneous occurrence

If there is no finished piece, what is to be told is created in a joint, spontaneous act of improvisation with different settings. In contrast to storytelling, which empowers each person individually to write and tell good narratives, the story is written by several people at the same time – in the act of improvisation. This means that not only the imagination of an individual, but the creative power of an entire group is used, which is able to create complex and completely unexpected images by means of spontaneous associations.

… and the feeling

But above all, in the theatre, an imagined situation can be depicted as realistically as possible and, this is the difference to film, can also be experienced in one’s own body. How does it feel to live in my own future? What exactly am I doing in the morning after getting up, for example? What does the world I live in look like and what impact does it have on my life? How do I find this? How does this time feel for me?


What changes in my attitude and behavior when I change myths and beliefs in me? What influence does this in turn have on my interactions with other people?

This means that theatre can bring all the considerations of Futures Literacy methods to life and pretend that they are real life narratives. The experience and the feelings we have at the moment of the game leave their mark on reality. It is not only a story told, but also a story experienced. We can connect with this experienced history and draw strength from it for the path of change – because doing something new or different is always exhausting at first.

“Marty, the future isn’t written. It can be changed… you know that. Anyone can make their future whatever they want it to be.”

Back to the Future

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