Live Theater Under the Stars at Downey Space Center

*This article is written by Carol Kearns and first published on Medium (April 30, 2017) Photographs brought to you by Downey Arts Coalition

Defying Gravity, a live drama about space exploration, opened Friday at the outdoor amphitheater of the Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey. Presented as part of the Space Center’s City of STEM Science Festival, the magic of live theater under the stars will take place for two more weekends.

The imaginative and compelling script by Emmy-winner Jane Anderson was inspired by the tragic outcome of the Challenger space shuttle mission in 1986. Challenger’s crew included the first civilian astronaut — teacher and mother Christa McAuliffe. The shuttle’s explosion, only a minute after launch, was a pivotal moment in the U.S. space program.

The Downey venue has special relevance for this California production. The Space Center occupies land that was once the site of the former North American/Rockwell plant which played a major role in the development of both the Apollo space program and the space shuttle.

The play opens with artist Claude Monet musing about man’s desire to see the Earth from on high, from “God’s” view. The audience is encouraged to reflect on the human urge to explore and accept risk. Jumping through time and space, Monet interacts with a cross-section of people connected with the Challenger mission.

Other characters include the Teacher and her young daughter Elizabeth, C.B., a NASA ground crew mechanic, his friend Donna, a bartender at a local watering hole, and Ed and Betty, a retired couple traveling in their Winnebago to Florida to see the launch.

While the subject of the play is loss, Anderson’s message is an affirmation of human courage and the quest for knowledge. Her themes of exploration, sacrifice, and risk remain relevant as modern society contemplates commercial space travel and sending people to Mars.

Director Lana Wahlquist, who teaches theater at Cerritos College, recalls being captivated by the Space Center as a possible theater venue when she first visited.

“I knew I wanted to do a play there as soon as I saw the area out back,” she explains. She felt the play by Anderson was a perfect fit.

Opening night also included a special panel discussion, after the play, of former personnel who worked on the space shuttle program.

“I was not really looking forward to coming tonight,” admitted Frances Ferris, Design Engineer and Manager of Space Shuttle Environmental Control Systems. “It’s still such a raw experience. I couldn’t watch some parts.”

Ed Zadorozny, shuttle engineer, concurred. “I actually had some trepidations about coming. I hadn’t seen the production before.” His comments brought to mind the anxiety voiced by the character C.B.

“You start to second-guess everything you’ve done, just like the mechanic in the play,” he explained.

Gerald Blackburn, retired Rockwell engineer and former president of the Aerospace Legacy Foundation, recalls learning about the disaster on his way to a meeting in Downey.

“I stopped by a TV monitor showing the countdown and watched with several other engineers. We knew immediately that the failure was catastrophic and we had lost the crew. I continued to the meeting and spent the next two years making sure it didn’t happen again.”

“Defying Gravity” is a powerful play because of its subject matter, but producer Andrew Wahlquist hopes that people who attend the show will also take away “a feeling of spending an evening in a circle of friends.”

The theater group is committed to keeping tickets affordable says Wahlquist — $20 general seating, and $15 for students and members of the Space Center.

Playwright Anderson will be attending the May 5 performance, and another panel discussion is planned for the closing on May 14.

Performances: May 5, 6, 12, 13, 14. Friday/Saturday 8:00 p.m. Sunday 7:00 p.m. Doors to the Space Center open one hour earlier.

To purchase tickets, go to www.ColumbiaSpaceScience.org or call (562) 231–1200. The Columbia Memorial Space Center is at 12400 Columbia Way, Downey, CA 90241. For more questions, go to www.DowneyArts.org.