Aliens With Extraordinary Skills is a sweet story of hope, dreams, and trying to make good on the promise of a better life. It’s also about a young woman’s love affair with New York, with America, an initial infatuation that develops into something more profound.
And it’s also a story about clowns.
On a first read of Aliens, a first pass of design thoughts, there might be a temptation to go overboard with the circus imagery, to really pump up the clowning on all fronts. But we on the creative team thought in that approach lay a danger: we might obscure the simple story and hide the very real people of the play under the trappings of a circus tent. There’s already a fair amount of clowning within the piece itself, not to mention the reality bending element of the INS agents, without the actors having to contend with red and white stripes.
So we decided to go in a somewhat different direction.
The first time I read the script, with its multiple locations and the relentless specters of both INS agents and the requisite paperwork, an image popped into my head that was counter to the circus route: what if the characters were literally surrounded by the paperwork that plaugues them?
And so we came up with this set, made from various immigration forms. The most prominent is the I-129, the 35 page application for a work visa (this is the one that includes an O-classification for “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities”).
But there’s also the familiar I-9 and the not so familiar G-325 and G-1041.
Building a set out of paper provided some unique staging opportunities which we try to exploit within the context of the show. It also presented some challenges. Standard copy paper is, after all, not particularly structural.
So within the set we have some structural pieces, standard theatrical “soft flats” (muslin stretched over a wood frame) that were then covered with the paper as a treatment.
Coming into the project, I wasn’t entirely sure how we were going to manage it, getting all of this paper on the walls. I speculated that we’d use some sort of weak glue solution and post the pages like a Shepherd Fairey mural.
But then one night I was perusing my Twitter feed and came across a posting from another theatre that was doing a similar treatment (their set had pages from the Bible plastered across a back wall) and their secret weapon was Super 77 spray adhesive. And, bingo, we had our technique (thanks @lekogirl!).
Now that we knew how we would attach the paper, another consideration was, of course, how to make sure our paper as a scenic treatment was safe. We knew that the all of the forms would need to be treated with a fire retardant product, and we knew that such treatment would probably alter the original appearance of the paper. So with that in mind, we papered the walls not with strict rows, but in such a way as to suggest a haphazard stack of papers, a stack that had been rifled through, bent, dogeared, and at times a little crumpled. Then after we soaked the paper in Rosco Flamex, the paper dried and wrinkled in a way that supported the design intention.
As we applied the paper in an assembly line, me on a ladder, the fearless Eric Vosmeier applying spray adhesive, and Doug Borntrager doing, well, any of the many things that Doug does to keep the tides running and the laws of causality functioning, I’d occasionally read out some of the more ridiculous requirements of the forms. Particularly amusing were any sections that cited the “Paperwork Reduction Act.”
Once the walls were complete, we had basically created a white box for the action of the play that could act as a neutral space and take on the qualities needed for each particular scene. It also allowed the actors to float in space in a way that is very theatrical.
As the walls of the set move in and out, the physical relationship of the forms to Nadia and Borat changes in an almost taunting way: these pages and pages of documentation could result in deportation or a path to a new and better future.