There is nothing like being on stage...
...That feeling of having an audience in front of you, reacting to the world you and your castmates are creating while losing yourself in a character that’s completely different from the person you are normally, is absolutely addicting. Very few creative experiences can be so simultaneously electrifying, fun, and scary as theatre, and the bonds you make with people while working on a play can last a lifetime. That’s because, in many ways, the process of mounting a show can feel like preparing to go to war. The big moment looms on the horizon for all those involved, and if everyone doesn’t work together as a unit for the greater good of the production, then opening night can easily turn into a blood bath.
In Alien on Stage (which just premiered at SXSW Film Festival), directors Lucy Harvey and Danielle Kummer craft a wonderful documentary that perfectly captures all the things that make taking part in theatre such a special (and sometimes harrowing) experience while also presenting a real-life underdog story that will leave you smiling long after it’s finished.
The film centers around an amateur theatre group in southwest England and their ambitious quest to bring Ridley Scott’s Alien to the stage. Tired of putting on boring, family-friendly plays for their annual fundraiser, the group of bus-drivers-turned-actors choose to adapt the significantly grittier sci-fi horror classic (Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, and Tombstone were also on the table). In the process, they push their boundaries like never before. Initially the show is a flop with barely anyone turning up to see it, but the crew get an exciting opportunity to perform their unique vision at London’s world-famous West End theatre. With a sold-out audience in attendance, the group has a second chance to present the show they’ve worked so hard crafting to the world.
What’s abundantly clear from the beginning of Alien on Stage is that the rag-tag collection of working stiffs who comprise this amateur theatre group definitely have no shortage of love for what they’ve set out to do. Genuine passion fuels them, and even though their production might lack the polish or acting talent that a professional company might have brought to the endeavor, it’s unbelievable what their ingenuity is able to pull off (the iconic chest-buster even makes an appearance). Obviously, the sets and costumes that they create aren’t Hollywood-quality, but the way they’re able to capture the essence of those designs with the limited materials and background experience they have access to is incredible. I was reminded of Michael Gondry’s 2008 film Be Kind Rewind and its characters’ efforts to reconstruct the outfits seen in classics like RoboCop and Ghostbusters: the end products look a little ridiculous, but damn it all if they don’t work.
Those with any sort of theatre background will undoubtedly have flashbacks and fond reminiscences of productions from their past while watching the documentary. Part of Alien on Stage’s charm comes from the candid look we get into the cast’s journey and the fly-on-a-wall perspective the viewer is privy to as they attempt to navigate the show’s various ups-and-downs. And thanks to that access we very quickly become invested in their trials: we feel the fear that hits them when the realization comes that few of them know their lines just days before opening night; we sense the jitters that sweep over their genius production designer as he wonders whether his alien creations will actually work on stage; finally, we revel in the applause that greets the cast when their unlikely hit show’s final curtain falls.
My cheeks hurt from smiling by the end of Alien on Stage, and I cannot for the life of me remember the last time a movie made me feel that way. Hilarious, touching, and deceptively profound, it’s a story of everyday people doing extraordinary things. What’s more, it’ll appeal to both lapsed theatre folks and those who have always wanted to give acting a try but have been too nervous to take that first step. It might even result in getting people from both groups up on that stage sometime in the future.
By Patrick Brennan
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