Interview with Damien Atkins : Close Encounters of the Dramatic Kind

When performing a play about UFOs, you encounter some strong opinions.

We Are Not Alone We Are Not Alone

What do the following have in common: Android vs. iPhone, ways to address terrorism, and UFOs?

 

They’re all topics that people have strong opinions on.

 

Playwright Damien Atkins says, “Just talking about writing about the subject [of UFOs] is a fascinating exercise. I’ve gotten a wide variety of reactions from excitement to scorn, undisguised scorn. The subject is so loaded.”

Atkins started investigating UFOs five years ago and the result of his research and the many unusual paths it took is We Are Not Alone, a one-person show world-premiering at the Segal Centre. Atkins details his own evolutionary journey, from the books he read to his attendance at the International UFO congress in Phoenix in 2014 to his personal experience with the phenomenon.

 

“People come to the show and wonder how much of it actually happened,” he says. “What’s fun about it, 98% of it actually happened. Way more of it actually happened than what people think.”

Atkins doesn’t shy away from presenting skepticism, belief, and all the stages in between. In fact, he wanted to explore why the topic generates such passionate opinions. He notes that the skeptics get a lot more “air time.”

“For something people talk about as inconsequential, or as if it doesn’t matter, or as if it’s a joke, people have extreme reactions. On some level, I think I felt a whiff of some of the injustice during my initial stages of research. The language that some skeptics use is so diminishing, so patronizing. I understand the level of frustration of the believers. There’s a language that is dehumanizing. I felt like [the believers] are an endangered community that deserved to be listened to.”

Going to the International UFO Congress allowed Atkins to interact with a range of enthusiasts, from “hard-core scientists to the kooks.” “Hundreds of people go. Experts in the field. People who have had their own UFO experiences. It’s a fascinating place. There’s hardcore science, with presentations by physicists on the possibilities of wormholes and traveling faster than the speed of light. There’s also the guy speaking about the strange recurrence of giant owls and synchronous events. He posits that if ETs are visiting, they disguise themselves as four-foot owls.”

Atkins found the internal tension he experienced at the congress was fuel for good drama. “You can’t help but watch and you would laugh if everyone in this room weren’t taking it so seriously. But I don’t want to laugh either, as a fellow human being. I don’t want to be that asshole. It’s a fascinating tension and position to be in. It’s super funny and not super funny when it’s all these things at once.”

Atkins’ approach tends towards openness. “I didn’t start out a total skeptic. I think the play deals with this. Part of what the play talks about is what makes some people believe and some people not believe and what are the ground rules of the criteria. My default is belief. I believe when people say things. I didn’t have opinions on the topic one way or the other. My spirit was on some level open.”

He describes some of the different people he encountered at the conference, such as a man who wrote about the theory that there are interdimensional beings who live among us all the time but we can’t see and those interested in new age spirituality. “It would be wrong to paint them with one brush,” Atkins cautions. “There are some that aren’t [into New Age spirituality], but there’s that element to the conference too… you can get your tarot cards read.” In general, Phoenix is a hot spot for UFO enthusiasts as the site of a 1997 sighting that made front page news. “There were up to 10,000 witnesses, including the governor,” Atkins says. “It’s become part of the city identity so much that there were references to it in the half time show of the Superbowl this year. The formations of Phoenix Lights”

Atkins uses many different techniques to tell the story. “I’ve been trying to ride a fine line with this piece, because there is verbatim text, some reportage, some coopting and using some larger ideas that I read about,” he explains. “I’m not a journalist. I don’t have a journalistic responsibility to report facts. I’m a dramatist, and my job is to craft a dramatic experience. My chief responsibility is to the audience.”

Then he adds, “But, I’m interested in this as a person, as a soul.”

Mostly, though, he wants his audience to have a good time. “With a play like this, you can go a lot of different ways,” he says. “Our primary hope is that it will be a good time. It is a good time. It’s a crazy subject, a fascinating subject. I try to embody what was fun and weird about all those interactions while respecting that they’re real people at the same time. I make fun of myself and my director too. That’s part of it. That’s why someone like me got involved in the subject in the first place; it’s so weird and funny, and that hasn’t changed.”

He notes that young people are fascinated by the topic, and that he’d love for young people to come out and see the show. He also says the show will appeal to non-believers too. “It’s not addressed to any one community; it’s all-inclusive,” he says. “‘We are not alone’ is the name of the play and that’s a phrase from UFO-lore. It is also meant to be a philosophical paradox because it doesn’t make sense. If you are a ‘We,’ you are not alone. It’s a chewy paradox. It’s a good time. We pack a lot into 90 minutes. And It’s not without humour.”

 

We Are Not Alone is at the Segal Centre from February 22-March 15. $39. For tickets, click HERE.

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