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Heroes & History: 'Defying Gravity'
'Defying Gravity,' a play about the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy, opens Sept. 20 in Downey.
WRITTEN BY :   Marisa Urrutia Gedney, Contributor

DOWNEY – What was it like to almost touch the future? Claude Monet, Christa McAuliffe and her daughter, a member of the NASA ground crew, and a tourist couple explore the anticipation, wonder, and grief of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in the play, “Defying Gravity.”

In partnership with the City of Downey and the Aerospace Legacy Foundation, the Downey Arts Coalition (DAC) is producing a unique weekend of live theater under the stars this September (20th-22nd) at the outdoor amphitheater of the Columbia Memorial Space Center. For three nights, DAC will run a fully staged production of “Defying Gravity” by Jane Anderson, a compelling play that explores the emotional core of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, artfully weaving together the lives of participants and bystanders. Sunday evening will feature a Q&A with shuttle engineers, the cast, and the playwright.

The Columbia Memorial Space Center (CMSC) was built by the City of Downey as a monument to the efforts of ordinary men and women who played a major role in the success of the U.S. space program through their work at North American Aviation (and later Rockwell) in the 1960’s and 70’s. CMSC holds the only Challenger Learning Center in Los Angeles which places emphasis on honoring the Challenger mission, among others. This play welcomes a multi-generational audience to experience and contemplate a pivotal chapter in aerospace history in the city where the spacecraft was created. Due to mature emotional content, children under the age of thirteen are not recommended to attend. The outdoor performances underscore the themes of the play along with the human drive to question and explore. There is no greater venue for this play.

“Defying Gravity” was originally produced off-Broadway by Daryl Roth, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. The Downey production stands out for its local connection to the history portrayed on stage.
Gerald Blackburn, Aerospace Legacy Foundation’s president, reflects on the play’s significance to Downey’s history, “We designed and built the Challenger from here in Downey. Those of us who worked here and were part of that creation and story shared in the trauma of the loss of the crew and the spacecraft. Anyone who attends this play will understand the complex emotional feelings we all have and still struggle with when we watched with the world, seven brave and courageous people make the ultimate sacrifice for a dream.”

The play will automatically connect to aerospace professionals and those who remember seeing the explosion broadcast on TV only 73 seconds after liftoff.

“As an industry witness to these events I find it remarkable that the author and this cast are able to represent these complex emotions in such an accurate way,” Blackburn said.

And what about those who don’t have it listed in their memory or aren’t space enthusiasts? Lana Joy, producer and co-director with husband Andrew Wahlquist, describes the play and its message.

“This play is definitely for more than just space-lovers. It is for us all,” she says. “Defying Gravity explores our human impulse to explore things out of our reach– both physical and spiritual and the potential for achievement, for discovery, for triumph, and also for mistakes and regret. The seven brave astronauts who gave their lives that day are remembered as heroes– as they should because they are.

“But Defying Gravity goes a step beyond that and looks at the aftermath. The Teacher and her daughter are both characters in this play, and the daughter recalls the memories she has of her mother as she works through her grief. There is a NASA ground crew member in the play, to whom many Downey-area engineers may relate, as he goes through the “was it my fault?” question and deals with his own survivor’s guilt. There is a simple tourist couple who perhaps represent all of us with their hopes and dreams for the future that were dashed on that cold morning.”

Many elements, including Joy and Wahlquist’s direction, the very nature of the script, along with the strong acting, will leave the audience with more than just the reality of the devastation. “Even though it is about a tragedy, you definitely walk out of the theatre feeling good about the universe and our place in it, and very proud of Downey’s specific place in history,” Joy explains.

A drama and a comedy all at once, “playwright Jane Anderson brilliantly paces the sadness in the play with humor, lightness, and hope.” remarks Joy. The impressionist painter, Monet, is an unexpected central character who gently guides magic and fantasy into the play. “Monet is our spiritual guide through the events leading up to the day of the tragedy and after. He puts the disaster into a spiritual and emotional framework, connecting its significance to the greater story of humanity. And his presence is a reminder that this story is about so much more than just the facts of the Challenger accident,” describes Joy.

If you think Monet has nothing to do with space, Anderson explains how he came to be the narrator of the play, “one day I was looking at these photographs of earth that were taken from space shuttles — there’s no horizon in these photographs, just stunning fields of color made up of ocean and land and clouds. I was struck by how much they looked like Monet’s water lily paintings, which were huge canvasses which he did at the end of his life. The similarities are stunning. Monet was seeing the world, in essence, from space. So I made him my narrator. It just seemed right.”

It is clear that the main character of the play is Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher who was selected out of 11,000 applicants in the NASA Teacher in Space Project to be the first civilian to fly in space. She planned on conducting experiments and teaching two lessons from space, as it was NASA’s hope to gain more public interest by sending a teacher in a mission.

“It worked. We all were watching when the Challenger took off,” says Anderson. “And yes, it worked for the status of teachers in this country, which definitely needed a boost. It was terrific that Christa became this beloved figure and that people were saying, ‘Teachers are fantastic!’ The disaster turned McAuliffe into a saint. Are teachers more valued because she died? I’d like to believe that wouldn’t be the case. I’d like to believe that we would have cherished Christa just as much if she had returned safely back to earth and resumed her regular life as a high school teacher.”

McAuliffe is listed as “Teacher” in the script. She is the only character with a generic name, Anderson explains. “It didn’t seem right to use her name. Out of respect for the McAuliffe family I didn’t want to make the presumption that I knew what was going on in Christa’s head and heart. And I love the word “Teacher.” It triggers so many responses in us, doesn’t it? As little kids we idolize our favorite teachers, we put them up on pedestals. We think that they’re impervious to harm. But they aren’t. Teachers are human. They can be inspiring and magical but they can also get frustrated and overwhelmed and scared. I wanted to be able to explore all those various aspects of this character and simply calling her Teacher gave me the freedom to do that.”

Stan Barauskas, a 50-year veteran of the U.S. space program serving as technical advisor to the production, was part of the year-long review of the shuttle system after the Challenger disaster. Every single component went under thorough inspection to be qualified and certified, “and yet, with all these precautions another major disaster occurred with the STS-107 re-entry catastrophe making it very clear that space flight continues to be extremely dangerous and warrants the utmost scrutiny. I hope the Columbia failure is the last the space program we will have to endure — but, we said that after the Challenger disaster,” says Barauskas.

With such monumental space history surrounding the stage, the audience will be reminded that this play isn’t just about one incident, but the pains and risks humans take to make advancements both in the unimaginable world of space and within our own daily lives.

Through this partnership, DAC hopes to inspire greater awareness and support for the Columbia Memorial Space Center, and its goal of building a permanent home for the full-size shuttle mock-up Inspiration as an educational exhibit for both students and adults.

“This is a big project for Downey Arts Coalition and we knew we would need a lot of local support. Our city council is very arts-friendly, and Councilman Brossmer was an early supporter of this project. And since we have a local foundation dedicated to preserving that history, the Aerospace Legacy Foundation was a natural fit. They were very excited about it. Others in the community have also come alongside us, such as Financial Partners Credit Union and the Peterson Foundation. The model for local arts includes a lot of community support and we have seen the community come together many times since Downey Arts Coalition began,” Wahlquist explains.

Lana Joy and Andrew Wahlquist are co-directing and producing the show, as a project of the Downey Arts Coalition, an arts group they organized out of a love for their hometown and a desire to see the community come together with a renewed passion for the arts. Joy says, “We have an interest in bringing theatre to Downey that is local in more than just one sense. With this play, we bring a new dimension to the idea of local theatre. This play is more specifically about us and for us. We would like to see more theatre in Downey that represents who we are specifically– theatre that expresses our history and heritage, our values, our dreams. This is just one tiny piece of that mosaic and we think there is a hunger for much, much more.”

Performances are Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20-21 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. Each night doors open one hour early for a space-themed art show and educational exhibit.

Tickets are available through the Downey Civic Theatre Box office. For tickets or for more information call the box office at (562) 861-8211 or visit online at Box office hours are Tuesday – Friday from 11am – 6pm. Ticket office is located at 8435 Firestone Blvd.

Tickets are $20 ($15 students with student ID).

Published: Sept. 12, 2013 – Volume 12 – Issue 22

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