Summer is a time for barbecues, outdoor activities, and friends. And that combination motivated ReACT Theatre’s artistic director David Hsieh to select Annie Baker’s 2010 play, The Aliens, which is set in July, for production in ReACT’s summer slot. “Doing indoor theatre is hard during the summer, but it seemed like the perfect time,” Hsieh said.
In The Aliens, two angry young men meet a high-schooler, and decide to share with him everything they know. And that ends up being quite a lot.
Hsieh believes the play will, like summer’s heat, envelope those who see it. “I love this play the more and more I experience it,” he said. “Its themes of friendship, loss, fitting in, the simple joys of life and the genius that can be found within all of us resonate deeper the more I think about it.”
First, Hsieh began to explore taking the script from the page to the stage. “Annie Baker has a great ear for dialogue and the way people really speak, and her meticulous stage directions, particularly about the silent times on stage are genius,” Hsieh said. “The Aliens performs so much richer than it reads on paper because so much happens between the characters when they’re not speaking yet still have to communicate to the others and the audience.”
As the director of production, Hsieh has enjoyed the rehearsal process. “It is always such a joy when you get to work with actors who are willing to explore and take direction, and trust that you as a director are guiding them in the way that best suits the production,” he said.
The actors agree that the artistic team is cohesive. “What initially interested me in participating in this production was the fact that when I mentioned it to people—that ReAct was putting on an Annie Baker show and that I was thinking about auditioning—so many people around me were instantly excited for me,” said actor Alan Garcia, who plays the character of Evan, the 17-year-old barista. “Everyone had something wonderful to say about David’s attention to detail and his directorial vision, so the opportunity to work on an Annie Baker piece alongside David and his company was a very exciting prospect.”
Fellow actor Curtis Gehlhausen shared this excitement. “A good friend of mine from WWU directed a production of The Aliens about a year ago and I instantly fell in love with the story,” said Gehlhausen, who plays Jasper, a brooding novelist experiencing a tough break-up. “It was humorous and depressing, and kind of a call to action for me. So when I found out that ReACT was holding auditions for it, I jumped on it right away. I saw characters that I could relate to and play honestly. I felt like I could breathe life into them, and hopefully impact someone in the same way that The Aliens did for me.”
Likewise, actor Cooper Harris-Turner, who is making his ReACT debut playing KJ, a 30-year-old college dropout and recovering alcoholic, has found personal connections to the play. “I have a couple of friends who I believe are pretty genius people each in their own very different ways, yet very similar to KJ,” Harris-Turner said. “I spent a lot of time picking their brains while also running lines and just talking about the show in general. I think KJ is a combination of me and those two friends.”
Despite the strong artistic foundations of this project, one of the biggest challenges in mounting this production, or any ReACT Theatre production, has been financial. “Theatre rentals are expensive and we’ve struggled in recent years to continue paying our artists more equitable rates than other companies at our level,” Hsieh said.
A significant portion of ReACT’s expenses are covered by ticket sales, but other funding is still required. “We also get invaluable support from the city and county,” Hsieh said.
Even with some government support, ReACT must still close the funding gap. “This past year we also participated in Give BIG instead of struggling to do our own annual capital campaign, and that really helped us,” Hsieh said.
And plain old volunteer labor keeps the shows running, as well. “I might have to wear multiple hats in order to save money or use the limited resources we have in other areas where try are needed more,” Hsieh said. “In a perfect world we would have hired others to take on each of these positions, but our budget was tight, and I’m free.”
Also freely available has been much of what these artists have discovered during the rehearsal process. “As a result of this production, I’ve learned that we, at our core, are all aliens in some shape or form,” said actor Alan Garcia. “The feeling of not belonging, of not fitting in quite right, is nearly universal, and oftentimes, it takes us venturing outside of our comfort zones, out of our familiarity, to find where and how we ‘fit.”
There have been artistic lessons, as well. “I’ve also learned that, as a performer, silence sometimes has more weight than anything you could ever say or sing,” Garcia said. “We live in a world where we have to constantly fill the void with sound and noise and commotion, but it’s in the space between that I’ve found an emotional depth I didn’t know existed before, and that’s something I hope to take with me from this point on.”
‘The Aliens’ runs from July 1 to 24, at West of Lenin, 203 North 36th Street, Seattle. For more information, visit www.reacttheatre.org.