By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Sunday crack of noon on a harsh fall day. Four guys, slightly bleary and hoping coffee will change that, are sitting around talking in a chilly theatre.
The director and cast of The Aliens, verbal high-achievers all, are getting themselves ready for a day rehearsing a piece where, as the playwright’s stage directions indicate up front, “at least a third — if not half — is silence.”
The play is Annie Baker’s The Aliens. And the three characters in this funny, minutely observant 2010 breakthrough play by the much-awarded young American playwright — a couple of 30-ish guys and later a 17-year-old high school kid hanging out behind a small-town coffee shop — probably don’t speak a single complete sentence before trailing off into pauses that, as prescribed, “should be at least three full seconds long.” With “silences that should last from five to 10 seconds” with further extensions as needed.
This has taken some getting used to, say the three actors in Taylor Chadwick’s What It Is production opening in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series Thursday.
“You say something, you wait for 30 seconds, you say something again,” grins Chris W. Cook. He plays KJ, who seems to have been hanging out behind the coffee shop with his friend Jasper ever since they didn’t graduate from college. “It doesn’t seem like it should work. But it makes sense; it just takes a while to get it into your body just how much of it is communicated without speaking….”
Evan Hall, who plays Jasper, laughs in sympathy, along with Michael Vetsch, who plays the kid Evan (a double-Evan confusion that has led to Chadwick regularly mixing up acting and character names). “Living through those! Onstage 10 seconds feels like an eternity…. so uncomfortable, so awkward until you’e done it a few times. I’d start to hold my breath….
Director Chadwick, who has a comradely rapport with his trio of rising Edmonton stars, nods vigorously. “A lot of waiting! A lot of laughter comes from that…. They’re just staring at each other. And we’re making people watch!” (laughter from all).
“In rehearsals we’ve spent a lot of time talking about what’s really going on. In some of the scenes, especially later on, the silences say more (than the words) about the questions being asked.”
Cook, who partners with Chadwick in the What It Is arts podcasts (and has appeared in Chadwick’s revival of the raucous black comedy Nighthawk Rules), cites the stage directions at the top of Act II which indicate that KJ “sits by himself, thinking. He sits by himself for a long time. This should be at least 20 seconds. Finally he says ‘If P then Q’.”
“Usually you take 90 per cent of the stage directions and keep 10. Just the opposite here…. When we’ve struggled, and then gone back to the stage directions, we’re, like ‘let’s try this! Why did we try anything else?’”
Chadwick, Theatre Network’s marketing director, says “Annie Baker has created such a strong map of how to get through the play — the stage directions, the punctation, the costumes, what the set looks like, all very specific!” After an early read-through he remembers telling the actors “guys, if we don’t fuck this up, it’s going to be pretty great. All the pieces are there….”
Chadwick muses on his choice of this mysteriously engaging play, with its smart but inarticulate, stalled characters. “It really spoke to me: it’s a play about working through tough parts of your life. And it’s also about discovery, about characters who fail and succeed. And it doesn’t put any judgment on them…. It’s about loneliness. It’s a snapshot of life. Characters are never talking about one thing; they’re talking about several different things….”
“When I read the play I saw opportunities for actors to work on something really rich. And I wanted to challenge myself…. I just knew I was interested in finding out what was at the core of it.”
Says Hall, “there’s a reason people keep doing this play about three white men, in a world’s that’s trying to move away and diversify from that. There’s something universally engaging.”
Cook grew up in Camrose, a town roughly the size of Baker’s fictional Vermont town of Shirley (for which she’s created a startlingly detailed history elsewhere). And he had an instant glimmer of recognition. “So many things in common,” Cook says. “I know so many people who are just like this…. I could go back to town and it’d be ‘hey, man!’: the same people would still be hanging out in the same spot….”
Evan, the awkward coffee shop employee who stumbles on the KJ/Jasper scene as he takes the recycle out back, is “in a constant state of humiliation,” as the play memorably describes him. “There are aspects of him I can find within myself,” grins Vetsch, a 2014 MacEwan grad who caught Chadwick’s eye in Nextfest productions. I remember times when I was lonely, or I didn’t quite fit in. These guys are a new experience for him. It shifts everything….”
“My breakthrough day with Jasper,” says Hall, “was the day I realized how desperately he needs other people. These are three people who aren’t just (casual) friends or guys who hang out. They need each other; they don’t have someone else….”
Cook echoes the thought. In a play laced with original songs — KJ and Jasper have been in a band — and a chunk of Jasper’s Bukowski-esque novel, “it’s about people wanting to be heard,” he thinks. “From the outside, their lives seem to be going nowhere. But both of them are creating things they need to put out there,” even if the audience is only each other.
Hall, who made his directing debut this past Fringe with A Quiet Place (and appeared in Gruesome Playground Injuries), had to learn the guitar, pretty much from scratch, for The Aliens. “I wouldn’t say I play the guitar,” he demurs modestly. “I play a particular song.”
The Frogmen is a strange rhyme-laden offering. “It’s catchy; the other ones aren’t and I sing them a cappella. They’re so interesting, so lyrically rich. They don’t make sense all the time but you can make sense of them. One is math equations….”
Learning fragmentary lines interlaced with lengthy silences hasn’t been as arduous as you might predict. The four agree on that, though they add that being together makes things a lot easier than solitary practice at home. “A lot of the learning has come from doing scenes over and over, just listening to each other. And it’s come really naturally,” says Chadwick.
“All the silences are so charged with the thoughts of the characters that trying to run lines without fully feeling through the moments is hard,” says Vetch. After a certain interval, at least at first, the actorly instinct is that someone’s forgotten a line. “And it’s no no no,” laughs Vetsch. “I’m supposed to wait this long!”
“The thoughts feel full,” says Hall. “It has a natural flow,” says Cook. “It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever got to work on. And it’s so simple. It’s her writing that turns it into something more.”
Chadwick smiles. “Let’s just let it breathe and come naturally.”
Theatre: What It Is Productions
Written by: Annie Baker
Directed by: Taylor Chadwick
Starring: Chris W. Cook, Evan Hall, Michael Vetch
Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: through Oct. 22
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatre network.ca