E. Faye Butler in We Are Out There
E. Faye Butler in We Are Out There Credit: Courtesy Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Bow down to It Came from Outer Space, the OG mother of all alien blockbusters. Since invading movie theaters nearly 70 years ago, the film (based on an original story by Ray Bradbury) has helped cement the genre’s place in the zeitgeist. It has left its influence on everything from Alien to Star Wars to Star Trek to your Uncle Bob’s conspiracy theories about the Bermuda Triangle and Area 51.

Now, Chicago Shakespeare Theater is taking the 1953 creature-feature flick where no adaptation has gone before: into the world of musical theater.

Back in the Beforetimes, CST had the world premiere of Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair‘s musicalized take on It Came from Outer Space slotted for 2020. We all know what happened next. It Came from Outer Space will still debut at Chicago Shakes, but the dates are strictly TBD.

But in a twist that seems appropriately cinematic, writer-creators Kinosian and Blair, with editor-creator Daniel Schloss, have released a 45-minute “digital prologue” for the stage musical. We Are Out There is their virtual intro to their play, framed as a mockumentary on the inexplicable events that forever shook the tiny western U.S. town of Sand Rock.

Streaming through June 20, We Are Out There features some of Chicago’s finest—Alex Goodrich, E. Faye Butler, and (the now LA-based) Cher Álvarez among them. There is also one brand-new song written just for the movie prologue and there are puppets, the latter a lifelong source of inspiration for Kinosian.

The movie that inspired the musical that inspired the mockumentary is easy to mock. In movie director Jack Arnold‘s 1953 adaptation, the hero is a lantern-jawed hetero-he-man-savior. The women are bullet bras and shellacked hairdos, both immovable as monuments, no matter the screaming. There is more fromage than the Mars Cheese Castle.

Still, It Came from Outer Space remains as iconic today as it was groundbreaking back in the day, and not merely because it was the world’s first 3D feature film and made thousands of bespectacled viewers cower in sheer delight as UFOs came flying straight at their skulls.

ICFOS was also the first Hollywood movie with good aliens, i.e., extraterrestrials uninterested in killing earthlings or otherwise taking over the planet we have claimed. It was the first movie to invoke the spaceships-crashed-in-the-desert trope. Spielberg has said it influenced his creation of E.T.

Blair and Kinosian weren’t planning on writing a musical revival—much less a faux-documentary film prologue for it—when they went to a West Village screening of ICFOS in the early summer of 2016. They went in expecting a campy good-time romp. As Blair remembers it, they came out a little shook.

“The whole story is about these people trying to figure out ‘how do we get these creatures, these aliens out of our town?’ They’re all terrified, even though nobody even sees these aliens at first,” Blair says. “There’s just all this fear and hostility even though, as it turns out, the aliens aren’t that interested in killing anybody, they only want to get home themselves. So, summer, 2016, we’re hearing all this stuff—’Build a wall,’ ‘America First’—it made me think this movie was ahead of its time, so progressive for its era.”

“Even though it’s got this buff hero at the core of it,” he adds. “Halfway through our first draft we both realized that we were really going to have to take apart the whole white male saviorship thing.”

Blair and Kinosian were able to work with Universal in getting adaptation rights, but little could have prepared them for the straight-up decimation of their entire industry wrought by COVID-19. Still, after the lockdown they kept in touch with Chicago Shakes’s creative producer Rick Boynton. The three had struck comic gold before: Blair and Kinosian’s infectiously chucklesome Murder for Two premiered at CST a decade ago and went on to plenty of subsequent successful productions regionally.

Eventually, the idea of filming a documentary about the events of the ICFOS musical took root, and Brooklyn-based Schloss came on board to film it. All the actors had their costumes shipped to them, along with a tripod, camera, and lighting equipment, a green screen, and whatever props their scenes called for. Schloss wasn’t sure at first, but quickly became convinced it would work.

“Obviously it’s better if I have everyone together and I can shoot them myself, or with a director of photography. But we couldn’t have the actors be together, or even with the crew. The actors are going to be filming themselves,” he says. Tech crew helped with set-up virtually. The cast wore earpieces that connected them to their scene partners’ dialogue.

“Technologically, it was a very ambitious project, especially with people in different time zones. I was skeptical going in. But I was pleasantly surprised about how effective it was,” Schloss says.

In 1953, It Came from Outer Space was momentously effective, as it brought 3D to the moviegoing masses for the first time. Schloss says he kept thinking about that when working on Out There.

“Some of those effects might look so bad to us now, but they were the most futuristic things available at the time. It’s fun to think about how they were breaking ground and how we’re having to break ground,” Schloss says. “We’re using as much of the current technology that we can to make this movie. One of the pros of doing something very differently than you usually do is that it forces you to invent new methods, new ways.”

Which isn’t to say the show isn’t rooted in good, old-fashioned, old-school star power.

“There’s a scene where E. Faye is operating three puppets and singing an alien song,” says Blair. “Honestly, I just hope people laugh and have a good time.”  v