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The Pros, The Cons, and The Promise of Alien the Play

Howard Sherman • Theatre Buzz • May 1, 2019
Alien the Play at North Bergen High School (photo: Howard Sherman)

Alien the Play at North Bergen High School (photo: Howard Sherman)

In space, you may have heard, no one can hear you scream. However, in North Bergen, NJ, when you scream in outer space, you can be heard around the world.

That was the case when North Bergen High School mounted Alien the Play, an adaptation of and homage to Ridley Scott’s celebrated 1979 film, which at the root of the movie’s stunning visual sci-fi design, was about a group of people trapped in a haunted house with a monster, only in this case, the house was a space ship.

Following the school’s initial two-performance run of the play in March, photos and a short video rapidly became a viral sensation on social media, garnering coverage from an array of major media outlets and praise from both Scott and the film’s star, Sigourney Weaver. The groundswell was so great that the play was brought back for a one-performance encore in April, with Weaver in attendance to both welcome the audience and receive flowers from the cast at the curtain call.
Signourney Weaver accepts flowers at Alien the Play  (photo: Howard Sherman)

For those who support high school theatre, the success of Alien the Play was practically a dream come true, with the audacity and ingenuity of the production shining a supportive spotlight on a school show mounted with a budget of $3,500 and a physical production built from largely recycled materials. But lost amidst the contagious enthusiasm was an important conversation about theatrical adaptation and rights which cannot be ignored, as others who attempt their own versions of pre-existing material might find their productions blown out of the airlock, so to speak.

The Achievement
Alien the Play was an amalgam, as it mixed staged scenes drawn from the film with intermittent video clips of the film itself, for the more elaborate outer space sequences. Contrary to some social media commentary, it was not a Rocky Horror experience, with students miming along to the film; the clips alternated with live action, for the sequences that couldn’t possibly be replicated on stage.

However, the production didn’t shy away from staging several ambitious scenes. The play was in some ways “Highlights from Alien,” as the movie’s most indelible moments were staged live, including the “facehugger” alien leaping out of an egg onto the space helmet of the unfortunate Kane, the subsequent “chestburster” scene where the evolving creature exits its human host in a most spectacular way, the full-fledged Xenomorph alien lifting Brett to his doom, and so on. When members of the Nostromo crew explored the moon LV-426, they tracked through the aisles of the North Bergen auditorium; at one point in the show, the Xenomorph wandered those same aisles, menacing the audience to their obvious delight. Subwoofers, reportedly added for the encore thanks to a monetary gift from Scott, enveloped the audience with rumbling bass at every key moment. 
The chestburster scene from Alien the Play (photo: Howard Sherman)

The technical achievement of the school’s production on a small budget, evident in photos and video, was no less so when seen live. Scavenged materials had been effectively reworked by the students, led by art teacher Steven Defendini, into evocative facsimiles of the film’s visual style, including H.R. Giger’s creature designs. Played out of shadows and pinspots of light, one wouldn’t have realized without a fully lit backstage visit that, for example, some of the detail on one spacesuit’s breathing unit was a toy jeep. 
A clever space suit helmet for Alien the Play (photo: Howard Sherman)

The play’s script itself, from adapter-director Perfecto Cuervo who teaches English at the school, was not a rigid transcription of the film’s script, although many familiar lines of dialogue rang out. The sparing video interpolations were shrewd, as the clips from the film were, at a key moment, replaced with new video incorporating one of the student actors. Led to expect the film, the audience was audibly surprised to see one of the students up where snippets of Scott’s original film had been repeatedly seen. 

The Challenge
Those familiar with the practice of licensing shows for high school, or for that matter professional, productions were moved to ask of the North Bergen Alien, “How did they manage to get the rights?” After all, film companies vigorously protect their copyrights in films, guarding their intellectual property against unauthorized duplication. Unlike theatre, where a playwright owns the copyright, for the purposes of film, the producing entity or studio is considered the author and copyright holder. Of late, most major film companies have set up theatrical divisions to exploit their back catalogues, yielding a plethora of stage adaptations. In just the past Broadway season, Pretty Woman, Network, Beetlejuice, and Tootsie have all been adapted as theatrical works, with the express participation of the rights holders. 

An e-mail to the teachers who led the production at North Bergen asked specifically whether they had secured permission from 20thCentury Fox, which produced the film, or from Disney, which completed its purchase of Fox the very week in March that Alien the Play was first mounted. It yielded a response instead from Diane F. Krausz, legal representative for the teachers, who she identified as North Bergen producers, director, and set designer: “We are not in a position to comment on the issue of underlying rights to the Play; However, upon information and belief, certain executives and other staff from Fox/Disney were aware and present at the performance on April 26th.” 

The same e-mail request also yielded the following response from George Solter, the North Bergen district’s superintendent: “At this point, I have no comment on this issue. My expectations are that I can speak to you about this at a later time.” 

While the program for the encore performance gave credit as seen in the film to its original story creators and screenwriters, albeit with the adapter’s credit superseding them, there was no credit to or acknowledgement of either Fox or Disney. A New York Times inquiry to Disney regarding the rights in March had not yielded a reply regarding rights. As of publication and posting of this story, Stage Directions cannot verify whether or not rights were secured for Alien the Play.

Whether producing material created for the stage or seeking to newly adapt existing copyrighted material, whether a film, TV show, or book, proper advance acquisition of the right to do so is essential. While the legal status of Alien the Play remains unclear, its viral success and avalanche of press coverage should not be taken by schools, writers, or theatre companies as carte blanche to adapt at will, or to produce any works without securing the proper legal approval, be it from a licensing house or copyright holder. It is worth noting that North Bergen’s previous film to stage adaptation, Night of the Living Dead, would not have required approval, because the famous George Romero film, due to a filing error, fell into the public domain years ago. While Weaver and Scott generously expressed their admiration, with Weaver doing much more than that, neither of them have say over the copyright to the film, and their support shouldn’t be confused with a grant of legal approval.

The Future
The achievement of Alien the Play, which engaged an enthusiastic cadre of students at a school without a formal drama club, is a very positive sign for those who care about creative outlets for students and the vitality of high school theatre. While the global attention was the equivalent of a lightning strike, and unlikely to be repeated at North Bergen or other schools, its vigorous embrace by so many, especially Scott and Weaver, yielded a feel-good moment for theatre and movie fans that is undeniable. Perhaps as a result, film and stage stars will be prompted to drop in in high school productions more frequently, leveraging their fame in support of this essential part of the theatrical ecosystem. As it happens, the same weekend that Weaver was in North Bergen, the original star of the musical Legally Blonde, Laura Bell Bundy, took it upon herself to visit a production of that show at South Pasadena High School in California.

A scene from Alien the Play at North Bergen High School  (photo: Howard Sherman)
The collaboration between North Bergen High School’s English and art teachers to create a theatre experience for their students is admirable, and press reports indicate that the school is now moving forward with plans for more formalized performing arts opportunities. There’s also something to be appreciated in the school system’s embrace of highly uncharacteristic high school theatre fare. The shock effects and even the blood spatter of Alien might have fazed a less supportive district, as evidenced by past scenarios where high school shows such as Rent, Spamalot, and Almost Maine have been threatened or canceled over content concerns.

But if Alien the Play, whatever the status of North Bergen High’s rights to the material, prompts a rash of scofflaw productions that believe they can freely adapt or stage works without regard to copyright, if schools engage in an escalating competition that emphasizes physical verisimilitude over the fundamentals of every aspect of the theatrical craft, on stage and off, all in search of viral success, then it could undermine the ongoing efforts of existing and future theatre programs to fully educate students about the field. Unauthorized shows also run the risk of, instead of being celebrated, being shut down.

In an unpublished letter to The New York Times, following their coverage of the initial run, Dramatists Guild President Doug Wright wrote, “It is incumbent on high schools, and all academic institutions… to obtain the rights to the material they choose to perform, not only to avoid legal liability, but to protect the livelihoods of these authors, as well as to demonstrate to their students the appropriate values and behaviors related to the use of copyrighted material.”

Alien the Play certainly demonstrated the appetite for stage versions of famous films, and perhaps it will prompt studios, typically impregnable and unresponsive to high school inquiries, to create an avenue whereby students and teachers can legally attempt their own adaptations. It will likely never be financially significant to Hollywood, yet the public relations benefit is evident.

Much like the original film, Alien the Play yielded a great deal to appreciate, enjoy, and admire. But depending upon the lessons drawn from it at schools around the country, it has the potential to yield future efforts which could be, legally, ethically, and practically, downright, well, scary.

The Xenomorph takes a curtain call (photo: Howard Sherman)

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