Close encounters with Damien Atkins: We Are Not Alone at Theatre Network

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo by Paul Aihoshi.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“If you tell someone you are thinking of writing a play about UFO’s, usually there will be a little silence, and then a little laugh.”

We Are Not Alone

It comes with the territory. Some people have been puzzled, some bemused, says Damien Atkins, from first-hand experience. Sometimes they’re condescending, sometimes (especially if they’re men, he finds) downright derisive. All those reactions find their way into We Are Not Alone, the solo show that the award-winning actor/playwright, a bona fide Toronto theatre star, brings back to his home town, and the Theatre Network season, this week.

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So does Atkins’ own curiosity — about UFOs and extra-terrestrials, and the stories and strangely strong opinions people have about them.  Ah, and so does Atkins’ question to himself, about his own emotional investment. “Why do I care about this?”

For a long time that was a mystery, says the witty, engaging Atkins, a Grant MacEwan musical theatre grad who was only 19 when he moved to Toronto from St. Albert in 1996 to be Jack, of beanstalk fame, in the Canadian Stage production of Into The Woods.

In 2010, when We Are Not Alone began to germinate, “all I knew was that I’d had the idea for a long time of writing something about space. Something cosmic.”

The cosmos seemed to be assembling hints around him. Atkins laughs. “A stage manager once told me I should play Stephen Hawking — which would have been problematic, to say the least. And somebody gave me Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, which I read….”

“I had these two ideas: I wanted to write something about aliens, and I wanted to write something about getting older. I didn’t know how, or if, they were related,” says Atkins, who grew up doing big shows with Maralyn Ryan at the St. Albert Children’s Theatre. “My experience as a writer has been that this is an interesting and rich place to get started, two ideas and just follow the thread, go where it leads.” Connections appeared.

The play, he says, “is 99 per cent true.”  Of multiple characters he plays in We Are Not Alone, “everyone is real, except one.… I’ve embedded clues!” Atkins grins. 

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo supplied.

As the idea took hold, Atkins, an indefatigable total-immersion researcher, dove into the world of UFO sightings — 10,000 at least in the last two decades — and scientific commentary. He flew to Roswell, New Mexico. He went to an international UFO conference in Arizona. He attended “experiencer circles” in Arizona and listened to countless stories of close encounters and alien abduction. He drove to vortex central, Sedona. He met a self-identified human-alien hybrid woman, and walked with her in the desert. “She was very dear; she had a great effect on me, so caring, so warm….”

This is the Atkins way, as he explained. For Angels in America (he starred as Prior Walter at Soulpepper), he made trips to New York, and haunted every locale mentioned in that monumental diptych. And since heaven is described as “a bit like San Francisco,” he went there too. When he was writing Lucy, with its autistic title character, he went to the Geneva Centre for the Study of Autism; he hung out with kids.

In his investigations for We Are Not Alone, he was inspired — and in the case of the trip to Arizona, accompanied — by 2b Theatre’s Christian Barry, one of two top-drawer directors (along with Chris Abraham of Crow’s Theatre) of the show and a character in it. Yes, indeed, We Are Not Alone lives up to its title in purely theatrical terms. “Three directors, seven designers, three producing companies have been on the show,” says Atkins. “You can derive your own conclusions from that… I’m difficult? Incompetent?” he jokes. “I hope the show reflects the input of all those brilliant theatre minds.”

“I’ve worked everywhere,” says Atkins, whose Dora Award-studded resumé includes starring roles at Stratford, Shaw, and nearly every Toronto theatre company. “But Crow’s has been the most consistent home for me in Toronto.” Touchingly, when the company had a fund-raising seat-dedication initiative for its new venue, “I bought a seat in honour of Tim (Tim Ryan, the late great founder of MacEwan’s theatre arts program). I wanted him to have a seat, and a good one, for this show — centre right.”

The show, which premiered at Montreal’s Segal Centre in 2015, ran at Crow’s Theatre in January. A massive tilting, levitating mirror,  a keynote of Julie Fox’s design and “the most beautiful set I’d ever seen,” says Atkins, was gone. “Too big, too expensive, it needed an operator, too heavy to ship.” Re-conceiving the show without its grandly menacing design was “an opportunity to revisit it, and to discover that without it the major design feature was … me.  It became something more personal and human-scale. And, I think, there’s value to that….”

Damien Atkins, We Are Not Alone. Photo by Andree Lanthier.

“The topic,” says Atkins, “comes freighted with so much pre-conceptions, such a weight of pop culture references…. To be able to pierce the fog that surrounds it and describe a personal journey — how I felt when I was learning these things — is a very particular challenge, but a necessary theatrical one. Otherwise, it becomes a TED Talk.”

A “major turning point,” Atkins says, “was the evening we spent at an “experiencer” session. Most of the participants were women. We heard dozens of stories, and they were all the same: women telling about the things done to their bodies by extra-terrestrials.…The sheer accumulation of them weighed on me. And I had a kind of personal crisis: how many women have to tell you about something that happened to their bodies before you’ll shut up and listen?”

“I cannot be part of a culture of not listening to women. And I don’t actually care how crazy the stories sound; I felt a personal obligation to these women to be more open-minded in my speech and my thinking.”

Since 2010 the play has gone through many transformations. “The first draft, five hours long!, was set in St. Albert. And the main character was me at nine years old.” It had something to do with feeling alien, and a lot to do with “me grappling with the kind of kid I was and what kind of a adult I have become.” How would it end? Atkins didn’t know in advance. 

Atkins’ very first play, Miss Chatelaine, which premiered at the Edmonton Fringe, won a Sterling Award, and toured, went through a similar process, of discovery, he says. A play about a gay prairie kid,  woven with references to k.d. lang, turned out to be “a play about the coming out all young people, not just gay people, do: coming out as an adult…. I didn’t know how it would end.”

“Hopefully, you surprise yourself. And because of that you surprise the audience. That’s the theory!” Atkins shrugs modestly. “I respect that way of playwriting….”

Atkins, who’s currently at work on a new play for the Shaw Festival, part of their C.S. Lewis project, says that he’d originally started writing “as a way to supplement my income. Which is a laughable decision I now realize.”

Damien Atkins in We Are Not Alone. Photo by Paul Aihoshi.

You will not be hearing from Atkins a lofty writer’s divine-calling mission statement.“It gives me something to do when I’m not acting. And it’s saved my ass, emotionally speaking, a couple of times.” He still remembers the crisis of “despondency and humiliation” when he wasn’t asked back to Shaw the first time, in 1997. “So there I was back in Toronto, getting fired from Starbucks, figuring I needed to do something to not feel like a total loser.” He wrote a play, “with no destination in mind.” That play was Good Mother, and it premiered at the Stratford Festival in 2001.

Last seen onstage here in The Gay Heritage Project which came to the Citadel Club in 2016, Atkins says he’s invariably asked his opinion on UFOs. Is he a believer? A sceptic? “There aren’t just two options,” he says. “That’s part of the message of the play, to reject the question. I don’t accept the binary….”

“Do I actually have to opine on this subject, or can I just let it be what it? Usually men want to pin you down on that. And it’s women in the audience who are more able to say ‘hmm, I don’t know…’.”

“For me,” says Atkins, “this is a feminist play in that’s not only about listening to women, but it’s also about embracing a less traditional male kind of thinking, about binary choices, making decisions, having an opinion….”

“You can live in the gray area, and understand there is grace and generosity there. It doesn’t make you stupid. Or weak….”

PREVIEW

We Are Not Alone

Theatre: Crow’s Theatre, Segal Centre For Performing Arts, in partnership with 2b Theatre Company

Written and performed by: Damien Atkins

Directed by: Chris Abraham and Christian Barry

Where: Theatre Network at the Roxy

Running: Thursday through March 3

Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca

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