5 Questions: Andrew & Lana Joy Wahlquist

"5 Questions" is an occasional feature in which we ask five questions of Downey business and community leaders. This week's participants are Andrew Wahlquist and his wife, Lana Joy, founders of the Downey Arts Coalition. They are currently directing "Defying Gravity," a play to be performed at the Columbia Memorial Space Center Sept. 20-22. 1.) What was the inspiration behind presenting "Defying Gravity" and can you tell us a little about the play?

Downey's aerospace history is a source of pride for our community. We have a wonderful space museum here and they have a big project in trying to obtain permanent housing for The Inspiration. We wanted to contribute in our own way to the cause of at least building more awareness of the CMSC and its projects.

Defying Gravity is a part-fact, part-fantasy look at the 1986 Challenger disaster. It places the first planned teacher-in-space at the center of an exploration of our need to reach beyond ourselves and dare the universe. It explores the emotional aspects of the mission, such as the perspective of the teacher's 5-year-old daughter, the survivor's guilt felt by a member of the NASA ground crew, and the play wonders what would have happened if the mission had succeeded.

The CMSC is named after the other shuttle tragedy. This play honors the first one. By doing so, we think it honors all Americans who have given their lives in death, from Apollo I, to Challenger, to Columbia, and those who have dedicated their lives to the beautiful pursuit of pioneering the great beyond. In addition, the CMSC has built inside a "Challenger Learning Center," an exciting interactive learning module sponsored by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a foundation that was started by the loved ones of the seven astronauts aboard flight 51-L.

2.) This production is unique in that the City of Downey is a co-sponsor. How did that partnership come about?

We always wanted this to be a partnership with the City of Downey. The CMSC is a city-owned and city-run museum and we really wanted the play to be there, on the very site where the Challenger was built. We have a city council that is welcoming and eager to promote the arts, and we had early support for the idea from Councilman Brossmer.

With the historical and educational aspects, and inspiring storyline, we knew it would be a natural fit for the space center to help promote it. We needed their help since DAC is a grassroots, all-volunteer organization, so we don't have the up-front money to rent out the building. We negotiated a deal where the CMSC's costs were taken out of the ticket revenue, so that no taxpayer dollars are being spent on the production. DAC has been raising funds from the community to help offset our costs, and have already garnered support from Financial Partners Credit Union and the Peterson Foundation. Getting through the red tape was tricky sometimes, but we are forging new ground here being that this is the first time anything like this has been done. It's been worth it.

3.) Does "Defying Gravity" have a targeted demographic, or can all ages enjoy it?

It's best for adults and probably teenagers at the youngest. It has some mild adult themes, and the subject matter is weighty. Anyone who has worked in the aerospace industry will find it particularly meaningful. You do not have to know anything about the Challenger to "get it." With help from the Aerospace Legacy Foundation and CMSC volunteers, we are planning a pre-show educational exhibit that will give the audience all the information it needs to make the show a meaningful experience for all. Space themed art will also be on display. The center will open one hour before the show, with refreshments on hand.

4.) Do you envision more productions at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, or was this only for "Defying Gravity"?

There are a lot of plays about space out there. We could do more, if this is a success and all parties want to try it again. We think it is important to have a local theatre company in Downey, and DAC is committed to that goal.

5.) You both -- Andrew and Lana -- share directing credits on "Defying Gravity." What is it like working together as a husband and wife team?

What better creative partner could there be than your partner in life? It's nice to share the responsibility of the creative choices, and we can each exercise our strengths. As a director Andrew has a background in film, so he's not as tied down to theatre conventions as I am. I'm more organizational with a background in acting, so I handled the scheduling and the casting. Andrew has incredible technical skills, so he worked on the producing and technical aspects. Neither of us minds if we change each other's creative choices at a rehearsal. We know we have a common goal. On a practical level, we have small children, so we trade off going to rehearsals so that our kids are always with one of us. We try hard not to put too much of a burden on the kids while we're working.

Tickets to "Defying Gravity" are $20 ($15 for students) and can be purchased at the Downey Theatre box office, online at downeytheatre.com or by calling (562) 861-8211.

********** Published: Aug. 29, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 20