One of the biggest challenges in preparing for Spaceman, a play about an astronaut named Molly Jennis who is on a one-way solo trip to Mars, was creating the illusion of the conditions of space travel.
I am an actor who is afraid of heights and who has poor balance and zero training in acrobatics or anything remotely resembling gymnastics. How was I going to "float" around the set and give the illusion of microgravity?
My first stop: lots and lots of videos of astronauts in the International Space Station. You can see how they pull themselves from place to place, pushing off with legs, thrusting their bodies in the direction they want to move, using their arms to pull themselves through the space station. It resembled moving underwater — slow, deliberate, almost graceful moves.
I started working with these movements — finding a sense of space within my body and then using my arms to reach and pull myself through the set. Then came the legs. In those videos, I noticed the astronauts are never really still. Even when they are on one spot, speaking to the camera, there are small, floating movements. I could use my legs to replicate some of that. Whenever possible, I tried to stand on one foot with the other leg floating, knees always slightly bent, then allowing my whole body to slightly sway and rock, as if underwater. I studied ballet growing up, which has similarly long graceful motions that use tremendous muscularity in order to seem like you are weightless. I instinctually reconnected with those movements to inform my body choreography here.
The other tricky element to all of this is that the set is elevated three feet off the ground. The design is pretty stunning — like a cage floating in outer space. It feels precarious for our astronaut. The "floor" is not a floor — there is no flat surface protecting me from falling. There are just these thin bars on which I am meant to balance and "stand." Add a space suit, big boots, a helmet lined with lights shining in my eyes (that prevent me from seeing out), and big gloves, and it becomes more challenging. The strategy, then, was practice and repetition so I know exactly how big of a step I need to take, where my hand is meant to grab, etc.
We also incorporated some puppetry to provide the illusion of objects floating in space. There's another actor, all in black, hiding behind me, who holds objects in space to give the illusion that they are "floating." For example, in one moment I pull a clipboard off the handrail (all the props are Velcro-ed to the set, as they are in the ISS — so they don’t "float away") as the actor behind me, wearing black gloves, simultaneously grabs the clipboard. Thus, when I let go, the clipboard floats next to me, hovering as it would on the ISS or a module traveling to Mars. These illusions require me and the other actor to be completely in sync so we don't destroy the illusion.
Spaceman is essentially a one-person, 90-minute show. The role itself — regardless of microgravity — is daunting and requires everything you've got as an actor. Ultimately, the goal was to get comfortable in this new physical vocabulary so that I didn’t have to be focused on the specific footing, reaching, and handling that simulates microgravity and could instead focus on what the character would be focused on: Is there an oxygen leak? Is the computer malfunctioning? How can I get rid of this loneliness? That’s the fun stuff! Initially, I was resistant to incorporating more microgravity elements into the role, as I didn’t know if I would have the capacity to think about that along with the character’s needs and desires.
Ultimately, however, it is paying off. We are creating theater with an illusion that engages the audience’s imagination in a way it wouldn't with a documentary or in a film. We offer hints of microgravity, moments that allow the audience to see a world with which they are not familiar. Hopefully, this extra layer of theatricality will allow the audience to engage their imaginations and travel with Molly Jennis to a planet no human has yet to set foot.