The setting is the quiet back patio of a coffee shop, somewhere in rural Vermont. Three young men, KJ, Jasper and Evan, sit among the folding chairs and picnic tables, talking and smoking while the early July nights blend into one another and their lives unfold before the audience. This is “The Aliens,” written by Annie Baker and recently directed by Louis Blachman ’23.
“I’ve been directing in my head forever—I used to put on plays with my friends on play-dates—but I’ve never had the resources or actors to until now,” Blachman wrote in an emailed statement. This past summer, he directed two virtual plays and fell in love with the process. Now, Blachman has taken on perhaps the most challenging project in his budding career: directing a pandemic production.
When asked why he chose this show for his in-person directorial debut, Blachman shared, “I felt shattered after reading it for the first time. It feels like such a miniature epic—so little happens and yet everything happens.” This saturation of action and emotion, coupled with the show’s small cast, offered the perfect opportunity for Blachman to create an intimate setting despite restrictive COVID-19 precautions.
In a note about the show included in the playbill, dramaturge Amanda Greisman ’24 also mentioned that Blachman chose this particular play for its emphasis on human connection. The plot develops around the intertwining lives of KJ (Ethan Clark ’23), Jasper (Ronan Sidoti ’23) and Evan (Bryan Smith ’21) as they try to find their place in the world amidst lost opportunities, substance abuse and the occasional strumming of an old guitar. According to Griesman, their relationships are raw and real: “They’re so familiar, it’s easy to forget that they’re characters in a play set in a fictional town not so far removed from our own little bubble.” The cast conveys this collective familiarity alongside individual character quirks—sometimes painful, sometimes personable—that together evoke powerful empathy from their audience. If Blachman’s vision was human connection, Clark, Sidoti and Smith brought it into razor-sharp focus.
“The Aliens” is a play unlike any previous productions put together by Vassar theater-makers. As intended by the playwright herself, “At least a third—if not half—of this play is silence.” Usually, any extended period of silence on a stage is a red flag—maybe a flubbed line or a missed cue. Yet Baker’s work, artfully captured by the cast and crew, is purposeful, dynamic and emotionally charged. In her note about the show, Griesman described the silence as “bursting with all the words we cannot say.” When sitting in the audience, the frequent moments of quiet are reflective and often deeply moving.
The COVID-19 precautions only strengthen the production’s uniqueness. Under normal circumstances, performances are a space for the actors and production team to work closely together, bonding as an ensemble to create art. With restrictions like masks and social distancing, this intimate setting is no longer possible, at least physically. The play itself was performed outside at the bottom of Commencement Hill on Oct. 25 and 28, with socially-distanced folding chairs set up like an outdoor amphitheater 12 feet from the “stage.” According to stage manager Tamar Wolfson ’23, setting up sound in their performance space was an unusual complication: “I think that we found a good balance so that the actors could be heard, but sound travels in a tricky way outside, especially when competing with the occasional gaggle of geese flying overhead.”
Wolfson also mentioned that the venue posed its own set of challenges. As night descended on the outdoor stage, the late October air made the outdoor theater damp and chilly, and the team had to turn on artificial lights for the second act. The stage manager noted that they had to reschedule three of the five shows due to inclement weather last week. To their credit, though, the actors brought the story to life so vividly that it was easy to forget the cold and get lost in their world.
The team also faced novel challenges on the administrative side of production. First came the approval process. “Because much of student theater is on hiatus this semester, I knew I would have to take it on myself to make the project happen, even if that meant many emails to President Bradley,” Blachman explained in his email. After much rejection and nearly scrapping the project altogether, the Raymond House Team pulled through to secure approval, thanks to two cast members living in Raymond. The entire “Aliens” team is incredibly grateful for the organization’s support throughout the process.
Wolfston also noted the importance of communication with administration as production logistics developed: “We had to be flexible and adapt our plan a lot as we learned more about the resources and spaces available to us, as well as the restriction[s] that we needed to follow.” To respect these guidelines, chairs were set up six feet apart and the audience was limited to 17, with a waitlist. Actors stayed in masks whenever moving around the stage and could only unmask when more than six feet apart. Conveniently, actors Sidoti and Clark were already registered as a pod, so they were the only exceptions to the distancing rule. Additionally, props and set surfaces were sanitized before each performance and during intermission to minimize any communal contact. These precautions were also managed by Erin Mee ’24 (props & set/sound), Sophia Dulco ’23 (production consultant) and Mila Fox ’23 (safety & logistics/lighting).
And yet, despite all these hurdles, “The Aliens” is remarkably compelling. The acting is stirring and the outdoor ambience at dusk is delightfully surreal. In addition to the touching relationships created during the two 50-minute acts, the entire team strove to make the audience feel included throughout the experience. Piping hot tea and hand warmers were passed out during intermission, during which crew and audience members alike mingled at safe distances. Blachman shared, “The sheer commitment of the actors and creative team has been beyond inspiring.” Sitting in the audience with a steaming mug, surrounded by those with such a commitment to the arts, this inspiration and love for theater was palpable.
In the director’s note, Blachman wrote, “The goal behind this project is to bring together a group of strangers for two hours to experience the communal telling of a story … For the next few hours, I ask that we just breathe together. Let’s just breathe.” Even behind a mask, “The Aliens” is a breath of fresh air, and a reminder that although we may struggle, we are not alone.
The final three productions of “The Aliens” will take place Nov. 5 at 4 p.m., Nov. 6 at 5:30 p.m., and Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. Anyone who wishes to register and be put on the waitlist can access it here.