by Gail M. Burns
In 2020 Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield attended “American Dream Study,” the Forest of Arden Company‘s site-specific performance in Columbia County, NY, and invited director Michael Arden to come to Williamstown and collaborate with the WTF’s Community Works program to produce something similar here. Eric Berryman, an FOA member, and playwright Jen Silverman, whose plays Dangerous House (2018) and The Roommate (2017) were produced at the WTF, came on board to devise and write with the FOA and Community Works companies, and ALIEN/NATION was born.
ALIEN/NATION is an “immersive theatrical experience.” It is two shows in three acts – the Walking Show which you watch standing up, and the Driving Show, which you watch from your car – with a shared second act. Everything takes place out of doors on the Williams College campus. Three real life incidents were used as jumping off points – the occupation of Hopkins Hall by African-American students at Williams and the Apollo 11 moon landing, both of which happened in 1969, and the purported alien abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961. The cast of 38 includes Equity, non-Equity, and Community Works performers.
I have worked diligently to gather resources that present as complete a picture of this complex theatrical experience as possible, and I encourage you to read and watch them all. I was fortunate to get to speak with Michael Arden, Eric Berryman, and Jen Silverman shortly before the show opened. Williamstown native and Community Works participant Deborah Burns (no relation to me) wrote about her experience, and audience member Ben Davidson was kind enough to contribute his explanation for some of the technical preparation potential audience members need to do.
In addition I spoke to some people who had attended the ALIEN/NATION Walking Show and they had all enjoyed their experience and spoke highly of all the hard work and close coordination that had gone into creating and performing this cutting edge theatrical experience. The few issues they raised were technological rather than artistic, which is why I encourage you to read the instructions CAREFULLY and ask questions in advance so that you have the best opportunity to enjoy your experience.
Author’s Note: I have NEVER written about a show as technically and technologically complex as “ALIEN/NATION” running July 20-August 15, 2021, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. While I have linked to resources that describe what you will need and what to expect, I will not try to explain those details here. Suffice it to say that you need VERY SPECIFIC pieces of equipment in order to see and hear the show. I strongly recommend that you read all the instructions and ask any accessibility questions before you buy your tickets.
Interview with director Michael Arden
BERKSHIRE ON STAGE: What brought you to Williamstown?
MICHAEL ARDEN: I’ve worked here before. I took my Equity card here in 2002 and done some small-scale projects. When I did the “American Dream Study” in upstate NY with The Forest of Arden, Mandy said she wanted me to do something like that here. Plans were uncertain for a while because of COVID but then we decided to bite off more than we could chew and do two shows in one! We wanted to engage the Equity, non-Equity and community casts – 38 performers in all – together and create an immersive learning experience for all.
BoS: Tell me about The Forest of Arden Company.
MA: I started the Forest of Arden Company in LA in 2012, then took a hiatus to do other things. We reformed during the pandemic to do “American Dream Study.” Our mission statement describes our company ethos and how we work. https://www.theforestofarden.com/about
BoS: How would you sum up the shape of the play?
MA: ALIEN/NATION is two immersive experiences that are somewhat linked and tied together. The Walking Show focuses on events at Williams College surrounding the occupation of Hopkins Hall in 1969 and the Apollo 11 moon landing that same year, but we’re breaking it out in a kaleidoscopic way. The Driving Show focuses on the definition of the word alien, using the story of Betty and Barney Hill’s alleged abduction by aliens in 1961 as the blueprint for how we perceive alien abduction in art and media. The Hills were an interracial couple – she was white and he was black.- at a time when that was much less common and more socially stressful back then.
BoS: What role do the physical locations play?
MA: The Walking Show is mostly focused on campus, we’re doing the scenes about the occupation of Hopkins Hall right on the steps where the real life events took place. It is rare that you get to see a story come to life around you in the space where it occurred. We’re taking stories from people who were there at the time and letting them tell them in their own words.
BoS: So far this has been the rainiest July on record in western Massachusetts. How has the weather impacted your rehearsal schedule?
MA: The rain has prevented us from rehearsing outside and the Equity COVID regulations prevent us from doing so inside, so who knows if we’ll get to do a run through before an audience sees it! But this is a test of zen and the human form and adaptability. The only way people have achieved greatness is through collaborative.
BoS: Why should people come see this show?
MA: ALIEN/NATION is a technological and logistical feat that incorporates the audience as a part of the adventure. The shows are inspiring and educational. For instance in the walking show you’re watching the moon landing and in driving show you might get abducted by aliens. They make you feel like a kid again. And we have some of the most talented performers!
BoS: How accessible is this show, and for whom?
MA: We have worked hard to make the shows as accessible as possible. The walking show is wheelchair accessible, although we advise coming with an assistant. People will have no problem hearing because the audio is piped directly into your earbuds through your SmartPhone and, in the case of the driving show, through your car stereo.
Interview with playwrights Eric Berryman and Jen Silverman
JEN SILVERMAN: I saw the “American Dream Study” piece that our director, Michael Arden, and his Forest of Arden Company did in upstate New York in 2020 and I was very taken by it. I immediately saw the possibilities of doing something similar in Williamstown, but I knew there needed to be another creative mind involved, and it quickly became evident that mind belonged to Eric.
ERIC BERRYMAN: When I was invited to work on ALIEN/NATION they had me at “Black People & Aliens”! I am big on aliens and the idea that ancient civilizations here on earth were visited by aliens. From my grandmother, who raised me, and from my great-grandmother I was aware of the student protests of the 1960’s and 1970’s, like the one here at Williams in 1969 when the Afro-American Society occupied Hopkins Hall. The period between the end of the civil war in 1865)and 1975 was really the Black American Classical Period. The stories and the people active at that time are so foundational to Black history and American history. That was a time when oppressed people stood up to say ‘We need more.” The American movements for civil rights and human rights that started during that period have spread throughout the world.
EB: The two shows – the Walking Show and the Driving Show – tackle the same ideas through different lenses, characters, and scenarios. The overall theme of both shows is how we
as a society encounter others that are alien/different from us and what we do and don’t do to make each other feel welcome. We are looking at feeling alien, feeling “othered”, from a 21st century “now” perspective, even though some of the events depicted happen in the 1960s.
JS: The responsibility for writing and devising has shifted from show to show and from moment to moment. It started with Eric and me doing lots of research and curating, then we included the Forest of Arden cast and then the Community Works folks, and each piece started to take on clarity. Our roles shifted too, to curating the text and bringing the archival material to the table. Our job was sometimes write and sometimes to listen, respond, research, and be ready to pivot in response to what we heard and learned.
EB: Before we came to Williamstown we created a barebones script for the company to work with. We wrote down how things could be structured, then when we got into rehearsal some worked and we finessed the ones that didn’t. One scene changed because we uncovered new information on a real life person. We had been wrong, so we made the changes. The performers really influenced who the characters became. Jen and I had to ask: Do we write and create a character and then cast that? Or do we take a very interesting performer and discover who to create?
We had made a trip here on a freezing cold March day to scout locations, and our director, Michael Arden did a lot of that work too, so when we arrived here and got to work on June 20th we kind of knew where the walking show would be set. The driving show was really challenging to craft. Where can you see well from your car? Can you have cars in those places? We owe so much to our incredible stage management and tech crews for their assistance to make it all work.
JS: Because the two shows happen concurrently you have to see them separately, but you can see one without seeing the other and come away having had a full theatrical experience. There are a few props and set pieces, but mostly the sites are the sets.
EB: Be prepared that this is not a traditional beginning/middle/end narrative, everyone will witness these scenes in different order, do not feel pressured to get or understand a narrative, different story and feeling might emerge for every person. You might connect with two-to-three of eight stories being told, but the accumulation of scenes tell a complete story. I was quite freeing as a writer to create separate but connected scenes that can combine in different way to tell a story.
JS: We have looked at the shows in all different configurations to make sure that each part is speaking to the story. (When asked if the experience was like the poem about https://allpoetry.com/The-Blind-Man-And-The-Elephant The Blind Man and the Elephant where each blind man touches a different part of the animal and comes away with a very different idea of what an elephant looks like. Ms. Silverman replied:) I would say that everyone will encounter the elephant doing different things, but everyone will come away saying ‘I met an elephant.’
EB: The Community Works folks are involved in both shows. The Equity, non-Equity, and Community Works performers all appear in scenes together, and you probably won’t be able to tell which is which.
JS: [At the time of this interview] we’re in rehearsals, doing run throughs, giving notes and making adjustments
EB: We’re not making grand changes but tiny tweaks changes. Right now it is a race to the finish. The torrential downpours have been making it tricky for everyone to negotiate, but the performers are so gracious and understanding. This is what theatre people do, this is live theatre. We have to think ‘How can we get this done?’ There’s always a solution.
JS: There is a solid infrastructure of attendants who can help audience members navigate technology and logistics. We’ve worked to minimize any potential confusion and help audience members feel invited in and safe. You will be very well taken care of when you are here.
EB: When you buy your tickets you will be e-mailed a checklist that explains what you need to do in advance and bring with you.
Remarks by Deborah Burns, Community Works cast member
Gail Burns invited me, as a local, to add some thoughts about Alien/Nation. This original production is set in Williamstown, my hometown, in 1969, the year I graduated from Mt. Greylock Regional High School. There is so much I could say.
She suggested I write about the show (which both my daughter, Tess, and I are in) from the inside. I thought, I don’t know about the inside, but maybe I can write from the edge of inside.
But first, she asked, what did I think this original immersive production is about. Here goes!
- Alien/Nation is a layered show about how America handles “otherness.” How you can feel like an alien in your own country, your own academic institution, your own hometown, your own family, even your own self.
- The show explores the experience of not quite belonging, and how the outsider looking “in” often has the shrewdest and most astute perspective. Perhaps we’ve all felt like aliens at times, but for some people it’s an every-day reality.
- The show looks at insider power, societal or institutional, and who wields it, and how it can be handled gently and shared generously—or taken for granted and manipulated thoughtlessly, cruelly, and violently. And how power and the desire for it grow more dangerous in divided times, like the ‘60s and like now.
- The show listens to the secrets we carry, whether half-buried memories or hidden wounds, how they mark us and how we handle them and (perhaps) heal over time.
- The show highlights the musical-theatrical highway from Grease to Hair with possible nods to Rent and Hamilton, from “Moon River” to the 1969 lunar landing to today.
- And of course, the show’s about Covid, and how it too has left its mark on us, and art, and our world.
- Ultimately, strong positive values emerge, of careful listening and learning, compassion, creativity, curiosity, collaboration, commitment, and fierce courage.
One principal story in Act 1-Walking pulls many of these themes together—the takeover of Hopkins Hall by the Williams Afro-American Society in April 1969, in an effort to achieve a better experience for Black students. Preston R. Washington, the president of the Society, had presented a set of demands to the College, which was represented by the 30-year-old provost, Steve Lewis. The show explores this history, and the positive outcome that fundamentally transformed Williams. The words of Washington and Lewis are woven into the soundscape.
I assisted the creative team with some historical research, mostly because I wanted to help the production be true and feel authentic to the local community. Along the way I discovered something I hadn’t known about my father, ProfessorJames MacGregor Burns. When a group of townspeople were planning to make a hostile counter-protest against the Hopkins occupiers, my father walked down to the American Legion to talk them out of it, speaking as a fellow veteran. I don’t know whether he had a real effect (although the counter-protest did not ultimately happen), but I was proud of the courage it took to tell an angry group something they didn’t want to hear.
My father may have had Preston Washington, a political science major, as a student. If so, I bet the professor learned as much from the student—about leadership, in particular—as vice versa.
My dad would have loved this show’s honesty, depth, bravery, and playfulness. Every time I walk from our company Green Room (in a tent) to my station at the start of the show, I pass Lehman Hall where he lived in the 1930s and where my daughter Tess lived about 75 years later. It’s one of the many ways this experience links for me the deep dreamlike past and the present reality. For people my age, the current times feel much like the 1960s.
A key theme of the show is outsiderness; yet this company has been one of the kindest and most inclusive groups I’ve ever been part of. They have welcomed us locals into their world and fill every moment with inventiveness, joy, honesty, playfulness, courage, discipline, and superb organization. And Williamstown has in turn been most welcoming to these artists who came here from around the country and around the world.
These professionals—actors, writers, choreographers, stage managers, music crafters—are young but already exceptionally advanced in their field. You might be having a casual chat with someone, thinking you and they are on the same wavelength. Then a bell rings, it’s showtime, and that person turns from a regular mortal into someone whose feet are so light that he or she is riding on air, they dance as if they are weightless, as if they’ve become a bird.
And then you learn that they’ll be back on Broadway when it reopens in September, or are writing a musical that’s about to open Off Broadway, or are managing a touring production of a Broadway show, or they‘ve won a few Tonys, and so on.
Their personal stories—all of ours—have become part of the script, which is built almost entirely from real conversations, real memories, real historical documents—the experiences of company members and of the characters they portray.
Meanwhile, the weather this summer has provided its own turbulent drama. And there have been a few technical glitches, to be expected with a brand-new concept depending on smart phones. On the other end of the technological spectrum, a classic Studebaker car has become a veritable character in the show with its own comic predicaments, including running out of gas!
Ultimately, Art feels like an antidote to the pandemic. It stirs those buried emotions, it thaws our frozen selves and lets us weep and laugh, it offers beauty and lyricism even in the formal starkness of a vaccination center. Its highest values are creativity and connection, and those are the qualities that will help us build the fairer, kinder, and healthier world we need.
Instructions for Ticket Holders from the Williamstown Theatre Festival
ALIEN/NATION is an immersive theatrical production, comprised of two related yet unique experiences—ALIEN/NATION—WALKING which can be enjoyed by foot and ALIEN/NATION—DRIVING which can be enjoyed by car—in multiple locations around Williamstown. Each is a stand-alone piece and can be seen by purchasing tickets on separate evenings and in any order.
Technology is a large component to this production. Bring an adventurous spirit! Patrons will be required to download the free RAVE app from the Apple AppStore or Google Play Store to experience this production. Here’s a short video to show you how to download and set-up RAVE.
Due to the time-specific nature of ALIEN/NATION, we are unable to accommodate any latecomers; please arrive 30 minutes prior to your curtain time to ensure you have enough time to park, check-in, and be onboarded.
ALIEN/NATION—DRIVING must be experienced with at least two people in their personal vehicle (a driver and a navigator). Vehicles must have a functioning FM radio, auxiliary cable, and two functioning headlights. At least one of the participants in the vehicle must have a fully-charged personal smartphone with a data plan that will need to connect to the car stereo. The vehicle’s Bluetooth-enabled system or wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto technology will not work for this production. Patrons will only exit their vehicles for Act 2, and they must wear a mask and maintain six feet of social distancing at all times during this portion. Patrons are encouraged to dress appropriately for the weather (in the event of rain, umbrellas cannot be used during the performance).
For ALIEN/NATION—WALKING, every participant must bring a fully-charged personal smartphone with a data plan, as well as wired headphones, and any necessary headphone jack adapter (if the smartphone requires one). Wireless earbuds are not recommended because Bluetooth connectivity can impede the enjoyment of the performance. Patrons are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes and dress appropriately for the weather, as they will be walking and standing outside for a couple of hours (in the event of rain, umbrellas cannot be used during the performance). It is recommended patrons travel lightly and leave large bags at home to keep hands and arms as free as possible. Where there are steps, stairs, and uneven ground, alternate accessible pathways will be available. Patrons will be walking in small groups of up to 15 people with audience members who may not be in their household; patrons must wear a mask and maintain six feet of social distancing at all times.
Rain Policy: This production will perform in light rain, and the Festival may postpone the curtain time slightly so that the show is able to perform. If the Festival must cancel a performance before the show begins, then the Box Office will reach out to patrons directly within 48 hours and try to exchange them into another performance (subject to ticket availability). If the Box Office is unable to accommodate an exchange, patrons will be offered an opportunity to donate their tickets back to the Festival, or if requested, receive a refund. If a performance is stopped and cancelled due to weather after the first act, then the performance will be considered fulfilled, and unfortunately, WTF will not be able to exchange or refund tickets.
Simplified Walking Show Instructions by Ben Davidson
- Wired headphones are strongly preferred. The latest iPhones don’t have a traditional headphone jack, but many come with wired headphones that plug in via the lightning port. You can also borrow an adapter from the theatre festival that allows you to plug standard headphones into the lightning port.
- Ahead of the show, you will receive an email with instructions. This email will tell you how to download “Rave,” an app available in the app store on iPhone or Android. You should make sure you sign into the Rave app, which it prompts you to do when you first open it after downloading.
- You should arrive at the show with Rave downloaded, wired headphones, and a fully charged phone. When you check in, you will receive a sticker with a QR code (like a barcode) that you can scan using your phone camera. When you scan the code, a website link will pop up which you will click and which will take you to the correct video in the Rave app.
- The app will provide audio and video for a portion of the show that includes walking through campus, guided by both the app and by performers in the show. The walking portion does move at a moderate pace to keep with the pacing of the show. Importantly, there are check-in guides and festival staff who will help with any hiccups when you arrive!