Don’t bother asking Damien Atkins whether or not he believes in UFOs. He won’t tell you.
What the Toronto-based playwright and actor will do instead is talk about his one-person play, We Are Not Alone, which he’s bringing to Whitehorse next month as part of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival.
“When I do interviews about this play, it must be infuriating. I say, ‘I don’t know’ a lot. Which doesn’t make for good journalism. But part of the point of the play is that we don’t respect that answer,” he says.
“We are so focused on certainty, and a certain kind of male thinking: certainty and opinions and rigidity. For me, that has given rise to a lot of problems. We don’t have any respect for living in the question anymore.”
A key reason Atkins decided to explore the topic of UFOs in dramatic form was observing how people risk being stigmatized if they speak about experiences that defy rational explanation.
“The major driver of the play was trying to understand what makes another person – and I’ll also localize that at myself – say such scornful, derisive things about somebody who’s just expressing an experience they had, or an opinion they had,” he says.
“I would interact with believers and sceptics, and the acidic disregard that sceptics poured onto these opinions was so oversized and so unjust, I thought, ‘I want to look at that and what that’s about.'”
While he may not flat-out confirm being either a UFO denier or a believer, Atkins has clearly developed a respect for the position of “experiencers” he interviewed during his research.
“If you’ve had that experience, of course it’s real, right? It’s frustrating if someone describes it as fantasy.”
His “pop-psychology analysis” led Atkins to conclude that something about the ego won’t accept that there may be forces that are infinitely more powerful than we are.
“And so, anybody who suggests that, you have to kind of deride them, because you can’t live in a universe where that’s true.”
Most of the experiencers Atkins spoke with were women, many of whom described reproductive experiments they had been subjected to during a UFO encounter.
“At a certain moment, I felt deeply uncomfortable, even in my own head, with any kind of alternative explanation for what had happened to them. That was a huge turning point for me.”
He draws a parallel with the disbelief that rape victims often face.
“We are living in a society where it takes multiple victims of the same person to come forward with their stories before somebody will believe their testimony over the rapist’s testimony,” he says.
“We don’t believe women when they talk about what has happened to their bodies, and I’m uncomfortable with that. So the voice of the sceptic started to take on a really misogynistic edge to me, and I didn’t want to be part of that.”
Despite the widespread scepticism surrounding UFOs, Atkins believes something in human nature makes us unconsciously seek out experiences that go beyond the reach of explanation.
“I’m sure every one of us has had experiences that were extraordinary, which we cannot prove. In a lot of these cases, absence of proof is integral to the experience. It’s actually part of the point, that you can’t prove it.”
Atkins admits his own position on UFOs fluctuated during the process of writing and rehearsing We Are Not Alone.
“The play really details the evolution of my investigation into this phenomenon. There were many twists and turns, and I went through periods of really believing and really not believing, and even challenging the idea that it’s something to believe or not believe.”
Atkins says the play’s structure allows him to re-engage authentically with those fluctuations. As a solo show that consistently breaks the imaginary fourth wall between audience and actor, it also allows him to engage the audience directly.
“We want to make that particular audience absolutely seen and absolutely spoken to. We’re not pretending anything. We’re not pretending this isn’t a play, that I didn’t write it, and that you’re not here. Everything is actual.”
But does it deal with the famous 1947 incident near Roswell, New Mexico, that spawned so many UFO conspiracy theories?
“I’m not a ufologist, and I’m not a journalist. I’m a dramatist, so my only obligation is to the drama. It would be useless for me to describe my take on Roswell outside of the dramatic context,” Atkins replies.
So… “I don’t know.”
The 105-minute play is a 2b theatre company (Halifax) production, created by Crow’s Theatre (Toronto) and the Segal Centre for Performing Arts (Montréal).
We Are Not Alone will be on the Yukon Arts Centre stage on Friday, June 10 at 9:00 p.m., Saturday at 4:00 and 9:00 p.m., and Sunday, June 12 at 2:00 p.m. More information is available at www.magneticnorthfestival.ca.