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Novel Production Spotlights The Aliens Among Us
October 12, 2016
Photos: (top to bottom) UNC Charlotte student-actors Chester Wolfaardt, Tykiique Cuthkelvin and Kobina Fon-ndikum star in Annie Baker's The Aliens (photo by Danny Tulledge)
UNC Charlotte students and faculty crossing the quad over the next couple of weeks may come across an unexpected drama—and at first, it might seem like real life.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker’s The Aliens takes place behind the fictitious Green Sheep coffee shop in rural Vermont, where two disaffected dreamers, KJ and Jasper, discuss music, Charles Bukowski, and plans that never reach fruition. When bespectacled high-schooler Evan enters this salon of slacker philosophers, the two older men decide to take the younger one under their wing.
Baker’s quietly unassuming, Obie-winning drama has been praised by The New York Times for its subtle scenes that “move at the loping pace of real life," and for its halting, silence-studded dialog, where meaning is slowly revealed while KJ, Jasper and Evan uncover profundities amongst the mundane.
Director (and UNC Charlotte Lecturer) Jay Morong has taken the unusual step of moving The Aliens outside for its performances (Oct. 14, 15, 20-22 at 6 p.m., and Oct. 16 and 23 at 2 p.m.; ticket info here), staging its elliptical scenes among the hustle and bustle of campus life in the Arts Quad behind Robinson Hall. Charlotte Viewpoint talked with Morong about the unexpected benefits of outdoor theater, lobbying for smoking onstage and the challenges of directing a play that seems on the surface to be about nothing.
Much is made of the language in this play. In fact, it’s been compared to Chekov, where meaning accretes gradually. What is your take on the dialog?
All playwrights create a certain style and tempo for their dialog, but there's a natural progression in the way Baker’s people sound. There might be heavy, meaningful ideas that she has crafted, a nugget of truth that pops up in the middle of what a character is saying, but that also happens when people hold a conversation in real life.
In our day and age, where people talk less and less to each other because of technology and the fast pace of life, it’s interesting that Baker has reverted back to this style. Maybe that’s what people are relating to. They want to see people talking to each other, and for it to feel natural. Maybe it’s nostalgia for conversation, because people don’t have conversations now in the 140 characters in a tweet, or in instant messages and Facebook posts. Baker captures the simplicity of people talking to each other—or how people used to talk to each other.
Does that make The Aliens a difficult play to direct? Is it a challenge to keep some tension and momentum going?
An actor's impulse is to do the next thing, to get to the next moment. That's driven by the actor thinking, "What is the audience going to think when we just sit here for 30 seconds and don't do anything?" One of the interesting things about directing this play with college-age actors for essentially a college-age audience, is that there's a tendency to think, "Is our audience going to be able to stay with us?' That will be a challenge because of audience expectations. They see movies where there's half a second from one thing to the next, and this play kind of sits for 45 to 50 minutes each act. You're in these small slice-of-life scenes that move at their own pace. It's hard to train an audience to understand that even though there doesn't seem to be much going on, there is in fact a lot happening.
The truism about stage directing is 90 percent of it is casting. Is there a grain of truth in that?
For a play like this I think it might be 100 percent.
How did you cast the three parts? What told you, "That's my KJ, that's my Jasper"?
Some of the casting is not just about who is right for what role, but (how) everyone fits together. That became my focus with this play. It came down to this group of guys who seemed to work well together, especially so with KJ and Jasper.
Tykiique Cuthkelvin is an interesting choice for Jasper. Jasper's not an angry guy, but he has this pent-up anger. There's a darkness about him. Tykiique seems very light, but he's able to tap into something that shows that even though somebody looks a certain way, underneath the surface there might be entirely different things going on. So Tykiique surprised me. You wouldn't think that he was going to play this dark tortured person.
When Chester Wolfaardt walked into the (audition) room, I saw KJ. He looks the part to me. Chester brought a lot of things to that role that I would never have thought about with that character. I saw KJ as a Big Lebowski type. In some ways, that's how the character is written. Chester definitely has elements of that, but his KJ is much more aware than I had envisioned the character. That adds a level of gravitas to Chester's performance as the play goes on. He brings a level to KJ that I didn't see in the text. That's a great thing to get from an actor.
We have two actors playing Evan. One is Kobina Fon-Ndikum. He's our main Evan, and we have an understudy for Evan. His name is Quinn Watt-Riback. They both captured Evan's innocence.
The play takes place in the yard and alley behind a coffee house. Why did you decide to stage the play in an outdoor environmental setting?
One of the things we try to do at UNC Charlotte is urge students to start thinking about theater in different ways. One way to think differently about theater is to get out of the mentality that you have to be in a traditional theater space. Working in a found space or something more environmental is a key element for training students for the 21st century.
Actors and designers gain valuable training from an outdoor production. Actors have to adapt to being outside, especially where our stage is. It's in the center of a quad where students may be walking back and forth to class while the actors are in the middle of a performance. The scenic designer had to figure out how to turn this space into a theater.
There's also a ton of smoking in this play. When we decided to do The Aliens I said, "You realize there's smoking on every other page." I felt the smoking was integral to the characters—they smoke and they talk. If we did the traditional fake smoking in the black box theater, where you're two or three feet away from an actor, it would just read poorly. Because of fire code and safety concerns, you can't light a cigarette in the black box. We needed to be somewhere where we could light up. So I said, "why don't we do it outside?" You smell the smoke, and you see it. It adds a level of detail to the production.
Also, an outdoor show gets us outside of our building, even though we're only in front of the building. It's not just creating an experience for the actors and the designers. It's also an experience for the students at our university. People may be walking by and say, "what's going on?' They might only stop for 10 minutes, but it engages us with the campus in a way that will be impactful for our department and for the college at large. It's like saying, "Hey, there's art going on all around us."