In Defying Gravity, playwright Jane Anderson creates a powerful, impressionistic tale of exploration and discovery based on the story of Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire school teacher who rode the doomed space shuttle Challenger. Directed by David Zoffoli, Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents the New England premiere of Defying Gravity through June 11. Presented in Lowell, Massachusetts, a short drive from McAuliffe’s hometown, audience members include the people who knew her–her friends, neighbors, and even family members. Yet, we were all touched by her spirit of discovery; so, Defying Gravity becomes our story, an American story of dreams, mystery, and tragedy. Director David Zoffoli discusses the show.
TheaterMania: How have audiences reacted to Defying Gravity?
David Zoffoli: The audiences have been stunned–appropriately stunned by it. The first half of the piece is leading up to the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, and the second act is how the characters–and particularly the character of the daughter, Elizabeth–respond to the tragedy. And we see how that tragedy somehow created the opportunity for growth, and that’s what people are experiencing in the audience: that indeed it was tragic, that we felt grief at the time. In the play, we are reminded of that grief, but then we move beyond grief to understand how this tragic event was indeed an extraordinary source of inspiration.
TM: I remember watching the Challenger on TV.
Zoffoli: We were all glued to our TV sets and we remember. We remember this kind of tragedy because of the media’s ability to bring it to us in our living room, not unlike the JFK assassination. We were all glued to our TV set because the Reagan administration said this was the best thing, the most patriotic thing that would be in our lifetime–the teacher in space, the dreams of discovery. So, because we were glued, it became that much more devastating. Because our hopes were so great. We were watching and our hopes were dashed–all in less than a minute and half.
TM: Christa McAuliffe taught in Concord, New Hampshire.
Zoffoli: We thought this play was appropriate for our audiences for that reason as well. We’re doing the New England premiere of this play about a woman who is from the area. She lived in Concord, NH. She went to school at Framingham State. She grew up in Framingham, which is just about 20 minutes from here.
TM: Will there be people in the audience who knew her?
Zoffoli: Certainly. In fact, her mother is coming to this production. Many people here knew her; many people went to school with her. A lot of people felt uniquely tied to the teachers in space program and Christa McAuliffe. And everyone felt uniquely tied, I suppose, to Christa McAuliffe during that massive Reagan p.r. venue.
TM: We felt connected through television, and this play has a strong cinematic feel. In fact, I can see several TV monitors on stage.
Zoffoli: This is a multimedia production. We have video, we have significant soundscape, and we have a variety of front projections as suggested in the script. Although Jane [Anderson] doesn’t suggest the use of video, I decided to use the actual footage of the launch and subsequent explosion, which was 73 seconds long.
Zoffoli: Because of the impact. Because it’s at the heart of our memory. And, this is a memory play, not unlike The Glass Menagerie is a memory play. Defying Gravity takes place in the year 2006, and most of it is memory told from Elizabeth’s point of view while she is in the here and now–and that’s why it’s a good play.
TM: It’s a journey of discovery and surprise as well. For example, when you think of the space shuttle Challenger, you don’t think of Monet.
Zoffoli: You don’t think of Monet necessarily. And you don’t think of a circus, which is in the second act. I think that Jane Anderson includes the character of Monet in this piece because the scenes are indeed impressionistic. Their cumulative effect is quite stronger than any particular part, not unlike an Impressionist painting. Stylistically, it’s a particularly cinematic or episodic piece, I suppose some would say not unlike Brecht.
TM: Is it difficult to do a cinematic play?
Zoffoli: Difficult is a large, all-inclusive word. [Laughter] I suppose you could say that it’s difficult to do Hamlet as well, which is cinematic in nature in that respect. We have many new plays that are cinematic in nature.
TM: Why is that?
Zoffoli: It’s in part a response to the economy, and it’s a state of the art of the industry. Perhaps playwrights are saying we can expand our horizons, we don’t need to stay stuck in the kitchen like we did in the ’50s. Then, somewhere in the ’60s the happenings began and–with Hair and all that–we began to break out of what was the naturalism of the ’20s and ’30s. I think the more locations we go to in live theater, the greater challenge and interest.
TM: It’s too bad that we’re both too young to remember the ’60s.
Zoffoli: It is, isn’t it? [Laughter] I mean, I studied it–my teachers told me about it. They were hippies. [Laughter]
TM: What first attracted you to this play?
Zoffoli: Merrimack Repertory Theater is in the middle of a two-year program called the New Century Series, which we developed about a year and a half ago to address the turn of the century. We decided to link two seasons together and produce 14 plays, each of which has a particular resonance for one of the ten decades of the 1900s. All of the plays of the New Century Series somehow celebrate the human spirit, and this particular play is about exploring, about teaching, about pioneering, which has quite a bit of resonance for our audience. Because people from the Merrimack Valley are natural pioneers.
Zoffoli: Because the Merrimack Valley has always been a very strong seat for immigration for hundreds of years. As you know, it is the seat of the Industrial Revolution. Take a walk down Merrimack Street and you see mill buildings where cloth was made, where boots were made. So, people, who continue to settle here generation after generation, have a real sense of what it takes to explore unknown territory and discover new things. There’s a lot of pride in Merrimack Valley as a result. Along with our mission, this kind of play fits perfectly.
TM: In addition to its regional impact, Defying Gravity explores the difference between national or collective grief and individual grief. Each character has distinct perceptions of the tragedy, just as we all can remember “where we were when and how we felt then.” Do you and the actors have the feeling of grief being transformed in the play?
Zoffoli: I think that it is possible within live theater. It’s what we go to live theater for; we go to live theater for a tingling reminder that we’re alive and kicking. And, if the actor and the cast do a good job, then they will feel something, they will feel a resonance from the audience, and we in the audience will feel a similar kind of resonance. It certainly is a give and take unlike anything else.