Sam Eidson was not expecting for the lights above the outdoor stage to be off. He was also not expecting it to be this cold. He was definitely not expecting a nasty storm to appear out of nowhere and threaten to derail the first rehearsal of his latest opus. Even when nature turns against him and his contacts at the elementary school have seemingly lied to him about the lights, Sam is not the kind of guy to give up, even when the wind is tearing scripts from his casts' hands and sending his director's notes spiraling into the darkness.
If you're wondering why these six gentlemen are braving this windy evening, it's because their show goes up in two weeks. The name of that show? Aliens On Ice.
Just to make sure that we're all on the same page: that's Aliens, as in James Cameron's 1986 science fiction action classic, On Ice, as in performed on ice skates in a rink for an audience.
Yes, this is real. In fact, it's a natural evolution for Old Murder House Theater, the acting troupe that has made a bit of name for itself adapting unlikely films for the stage. In the past year alone, they've performed Home Alone, Die Hard, Back to the Future and RoboCop (which you can read all about here). There are two reasons why this makes perfect sense:
1. A violent, '80s flick that is in no way designed to be performed live is right in their wheelhouse and-
2. Transforming the second chapter of Ellen Ripley's ongoing war with the Xenomorphs into an icecapade is the kind of loony idea that that can only possibly exist after someone has exploded fireworks inside a crowded bar to simulate RoboCop's iconic gas station explosion while the titular cyborg breaks into a musical interlude describing his existential crisis. Anything else would be a step back after that.
Naturally, the whole "on ice" aspect of the show began as a joke suggestion by a friend…but Sam, the group's founder and director, went out the very next day, found an Austin, TX ice skating rink that was getting ready to close its doors and talked the owners into hosting the show.
And now, here we are, with six men preparing to rehearse a 90 minute version of a 150 minute movie filled with special effects, monsters, spaceships and explosions. Each of them will perform half a dozen characters, both male and female, adult and child, human and alien (and cat). It would be exhausting and physically strenuous experience on a stage. Eventually, they'll have to do it on ice.
"I used to live in New Hampshire and Boston, so I've been ice skating a bunch of times, but I'm not good at it," Sam tells me. "Last time I went, I was miserable. Hopefully it won't be like that and I'll suck it up."
Actor and prop/costume designer extraordinaire Josh Jones pipes in: "I've played hockey. I can kinda' skate."
"I've never been on ice." Actor Nate Sakulich speaks for most of the troupe. Suddenly, that chill in the air feels appropriate. These guys have fifteen days to learn how to ice skate.
The stage lights miraculously turn on. Small favors.
The rehearsal goes late into the night. There are no props yet. No costumes. No one knows their lines and few of the actors still haven't quite nailed their impressions. I've seen enough of their shows to recognize that shape and tone they're shooting for -- a combination of hyper reverence to the source material and goofy, idiosyncratic asides.
I would be worried if the troupe was, but they're not. Not really.
"When we did Home Alone and Die Hard, we had a good two or three months to practice. It was a long time," Nathan says, having stepped off the stage for the extended climax, which only features three members of the cast. "As the shows went on, the time frames for practice have gotten smaller. It feels like the right amount of time. This and RoboCop were both done in about a month."
Later, a remarkably calm Sam references South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker as huge influences, citing how they tend to write and animate episodes in six days to keep their material fresh. He shrugs, "Once you get into it, you start getting more comfortable with crunching."
In short: Old Murder House feeds on the chaos.
I watch Sam direct the epic climax, the showdown between Ripley and the Alien Queen.
"Now you shoot the flamethrower over there! And then over here!"
I lean toward another actor, Byron and make the obvious query: "What are you guys going to use for a flamethrower?"
Byron laughs and throws his hands in the air: "I have no idea."
"I was looking up how to make a flamethrower and there's a bunch of different ways. Supersoakers filled with rubbing alcohol-"
"A real flamethrower?!" My interjection is trembling and weak -- I didn't dress appropriately to deal with the chill of the ice rink.
Josh doesn't miss a beat: "I want to do that, but I think Sam doesn't want everyone to die."
Explosives are mainstay of Old Murder House productions. When I ask Sam if the owners of the facility know what he'll be doing on their ice, he explains "I showed them all of our videos. There's fireballs everywhere. They didn't say anything."
He looks out over the rink: "We're going to be throwing fireworks on the ice. That ice is…"
He trails off. Josh steps in: "It's tough."
"It's seen better days." Sam thinks for a moment. "We're kinda' worried that if we go too far on the first night, we won't get a second night."
It's one of those dramatic, quiet moments, so I decide it's time for an appropriately dramatic question.
"How soon will you start feeling that real fear?"
"I already do."
The rest of the cast begins to arrive one by one. For about half of them, this will be their first time on ice skates. Sam's on the phone, doing what directors do, so I ask Josh about the status of the props and sets. After all, his two-dimensional, delightfully cardboard aesthetic has been a highlight of all of their shows.
"I'm about a fifth of the way done," he says, "I've got the power loader done and I've gotten started on the Queen. I still haven't quite figured out what I'm going to do with the Queen. It's going to be…interesting."
Eventually, one-by-one, each actor is equipped with a pair of skates. Sam watches his motley crew take to the ice.
"If it's too miserable we'll have to…I wonder if they have training skates."
A few of the actors take to ice naturally, if a little roughly. Others can't move five feet without collapsing. Sam knew this was going to happen and he has a clever solution: his human cast will be clumsy on the ice, while the menacing, elusive aliens will be played by skilled skaters in full costume.
Sam knows exactly what the show will look like: "Certain scenes are just going to be us just trying to hold on to each other and stay on our feet. Hopefully, it'll be funny."
He takes to the ice. For a stocky guy, he's surprisingly graceful. If there's one thing these guys can pull off, it's being funny. They've done it time and time again with their shows. I've seen it.
I watch Nathan collapse on the ice.
Whether or not they can pull off the ice skating thing. Well…fourteen days till showtime. I'll let you know.