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After having to abort the mission last year, a sci-fi show counts down to opening
Making theatre is never easy, but the process has been especially arduous for the creators of Spaceman, a psychological thriller finally landing Off-Off Broadway after a yearlong delay. Set inside a life-size space module, Loading Dock Theatre's one-woman show chronicles the journey of an astronaut on the first solo mission to Mars. With reams of complicated text, multisensory effects and a simulation of weightlessness cleverly conjured via lights and puppetry, the production is technically challenging. But it was a freak post-performance accident that brought its initial engagement to an agonizing halt. After taking her bows at the very first preview, star Erin Treadway was exiting the stage in her cumbersome spacesuit when she tripped over a loudspeaker. High on adrenaline, she sprang to her feet and exclaimed, "I'm fine!" to a relieved audience.
But she wasn't.
A few hours later at a CityMD, Treadway and her husband, Spaceman playwright Leegrid Stevens, received the devastating news that she had fractured her left wrist and both of her elbows. She would need time to heal, so the run had to be called off. "There were a lot of tears at first," Treadway recalls. "It felt like something had died. You work so hard and suddenly, it's gone."
Over the next few months, Treadway's injury forced her to approach daily tasks in an entirely new way. "It's actually a lot like what astronauts have to do in long-term space travel," Stevens says. "They have to relearn how to do basic things, like how to eat food from a tube and bathe with disinfecting wipes." In the play, the more time the astronaut spends in space, the more her body becomes a liability. "It's extremely isolating," Treadway says. "Things that used to be unconscious or easy suddenly make you feel like a child. You have to force yourself to take everything slow."
Yet even in that dejected state, Treadway, Stevens and their director, Jacob Titus, knew that the show must go on. While she convalesced, the team began prepping for Spaceman 2.0, even booking a theatre for February 2019. "We had to start strategizing so we could have something to look forward to," Stevens says. "It's too depressing to cancel a show and not have plans for the future."
That future has arrived, with Spaceman kicking off its three-and-a-half-week run at The Wild Project on Valentine's Day. While Stevens and Treadway stop short of saying they're happy about last year's setback, they admit the experience enhanced their understanding of what astronauts go through mentally when they're trapped out in the void. "Dealing with this taught us how, when you're stuck, it helps to give yourself small tasks," Treadway explains. "For weeks I couldn't do anything alone. I needed help getting into the shower, brushing my teeth. Climbing into our loft bed each night was a battle. But these things made us look more closely at moments in the play when the character is freaking out. If she doesn't calm down, she'll die. She has to deploy all kinds of strategies just to keep from spiraling into panic. I really get that now."
The incident even inspired them to change the play's ending. Originally, there was a sense of closure for the character, but now "we're trying to capture a Sisyphus-type situation," Stevens says. He recalls how the spark to write Spaceman was ignited while he watched Fiona Shaw perform Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, which depicts a woman trapped in a mound of sand. "She is searching for happiness in a hopeless situation," he says. "It's very moving. Similarly, our new ending is about how the astronaut is continually hoping for good things to come in spite of impossible odds. To me, that's what it means to be human."
To read about a student's experience at Spaceman, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Erin Treadway in Spaceman. Photos by Russ Rowland.