On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins remained aboard the command module while fellow crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface. News coverage at the time referred to Collins as the loneliest human in history.
“I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side,” Collins said at the time.
The story of the play “Spaceman“ by Leegrid Stevens opening Feb. 10 at Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage brings that to mind. The play, directed by Jay Duffer, runs through March 5.
“Spaceman“ is a surround-sound expedition into outer space. It follows Molly Jennis’s solo mission to Mars after her husband’s failed, tragic attempt at the same journey.
If you go
What: Performances of “Spaceman” by Leegrid Stevens
Times: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Dates: February 10- March 5
Location: Amphibian Stage
120 S Main Street
Fort Worth, TX 76104
Tickets: Amphibian Stage has a new tiered ticket pricing model in an effort to make theater more accessible. You select what you pay for the show. Prices range from $15-60.On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins remained aboard the command module while fellow crew members Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface.
News coverage at the time referred to Collins as the loneliest human in history.
Stevens is the pen name of Steven Gridley, married to Fort Worth native Erin Treadway, who performed the role of Molly Jennis at the play’s premier in New York.
In Amphibian’s production, Sarah Rutan plays Molly with Meagan Harris as understudy for the hour and a half production. Jeff Ararat plays Harry Jennis, Molly’s husband.
“For me, ‘Spaceman’ is about so many things and I see and feel different things every time I visit Molly’s world. Right now, it’s primarily about love, escape and the power of hope,” Rutan said.
“This play is a beast. In the best ways possible. Creating the Aeneas Module is an incredible feat of creativity and our incomparable director, Jay Duffer, has really out done himself.”
“I am terrified and yet ready (fingers crossed) for our ride. Amphibian is making ‘another great leap’ with this production. I am super lucky to be along for the ride,” she said.
Aaron Grunfeld, reviewing the New York presentation of “Spaceman“ in The New York Review of Science Fiction, said the play “is a masterpiece of science fiction.”
“It avoids the frippery of space adventure while conveying the heroism of space travel. … [I]t imparts that classic sense of wonder, marveling at humanity’s potential and the courage that drives our endeavors. This is a work of compassion, humor and keen insight.”
The play has made an impact on the Fort Worth actors.
“’Spaceman’ to me is very much like the lockdown of 2020 – left in a confined space – no pun intended – just waiting and waiting,” Ararat said. “Sure we can distract ourselves with devices, movies, games , and makeshift routines, but how for much longer? At some point, we have to deal with ourselves. Which can be very scary.”
Molly’s story is intriguing and unveils her inner battles, Harris said.
“Molly is such a strong, impressive, driven character who we also discover is incredibly scared, traumatized and broken and there’s something so very human about her determination to never give up hope even in the darkest hours of her life,” Harris said.
Gridley and Treadway met at Southern Methodist University and moved to New York the day after graduation. They started a company called Loading Dock Theatre.
“Being a part of this production has been a dream come true. Getting to reunite with fellow SMU alum Sarah Rutan and work at Amphibian Stage with their phenomenal crew has been nothing short of wonderful,” she said.
Treadway grew up in Fort Worth and is excited about the play being staged in her hometown.
“I think it’s awesome. I’m really excited about it. We’re going to try to come see it. We’re hot and heavy in the midst of our next production,” she said. “There’s one 36-hour period where we can come in and see it.”
The debut of “Spaceman“ in New York at the Wild Project, an 89-nine-seat theater in the East Village, was cut short when Treadway tripped over a speaker for her curtain call and broke both elbows and her left wrist. The play reopened again a year later.
There were enormous technical issues with the stage set to simulate the weightlessness of space flight, which made Treadway’s opening night accident ironic.
“It was opening night. She’s been floating on a precarious set the entire show. She’s finally on the ground, on the stage, and trips on a speaker,” Gridley said.
“During the curtain call,” Treadway said.
But it turned out to be beneficial in a way when the play opened a second time a year later.
“There was an interesting little parallel there because when I couldn’t use both arms, you had to stay calm and let things take as long as they take. It would take me an hour to get ready, and that’s not even getting pretty, you know what I mean? That’s just getting the basics done,” Treadway said.
“You can’t rush. You can’t fight against things,” Treadway said “You have to just do it moment to moment, work the thing. And I feel like that’s, in some sense, how Molly was out there in the middle of outer space by herself.”
Molly’s efforts to manage her loneliness inside the space shuttle is a lesson in self-control.
“She could lose her temper and rail against the sides of the space shuttle, all these things, and it’s not going to make anything better. There’s no one there to listen to her. There’s no one there to help her,” Treadway said.
“She had to stay calm. She had to work on it moment to moment and just take care of the problem as it was, and don’t exacerbate it with emotions. I mean, it’s a play, so obviously it goes very far emotionally. But in terms of what her day-to-day would be like, she had to contain her emotions and contain herself psychologically in order to be able to sustain it,” she said.
The actual performance was exhausting.
“It was challenging. We did six shows a week and two shows on Saturday, and I remember by Sunday, I was really tired,” Treadway said.
“But it’s the kind of work that I want to do. You want to feel like that you’ve given everything you could possibly give. And then you go home, and you rest, and then you go back again, and you give everything you can possibly give,” she said.
“And it really helps to focus and simplify your life a little bit, because there’s nothing else going on, really. I would work my day job a little bit, but not that much. And then on show days, I wouldn’t. It was very spiritual in a way,” she said.
“It was a very demanding technical performance as well as emotional for Erin,” Gridley said. “She was standing on pipes. There was no floor on that set. She’s balancing on pipes, pretending to be floating, and then also having to portray a character that is under extreme psychological stress.”
The idea of the play was the confluence of several things.
“I was listening to some experimental music, and it got me really interested and excited in the idea of doing something out there on stage using sound design to put the audience in a world that you normally do not see in theater, and it got me excited about the possibility of it feeling real,” Gridley said.
The second influence was an essay posted by former NASA engineer James McClain III who proposed that the only way we’re going to get to Mars in our lifetime is by sending a one-person or two-person module on a one-way voyage, he said.
“Not necessarily one way to go die, but without an absolute guarantee of return. And his argument was that NASA had lost some of its adventurous spirit, that there’s always risk involved in this kind of endeavor, that the European explorers, when they sailed across the ocean, they had no real guarantees.”
The third influence was a 1961 play by Samuel Beckett called Happy Days, where a single woman on stage is buried up to her waist, trying to pass the time and trying to be happy. The British newspaper The Independent lists it as one of the 40 best plays of all time.
“She’s constantly finding these activities that she can do that will pass the time and trying to be positive, he said.
“It got me thinking a little bit about the idea of being on a seven- or eight-month journey to Mars where you are in a very minimalist and as small as possible while still being a livable capsule in order to get to Mars.”
At the time Gridley was writing, NASA was facing budget constraints and cutting back on exploration plans.
In 2011, an organization named Mars One was founded to promote travel to Mars, proposing in part that the effort could be funded, according to its website, by monetizing the media value of the adventure of humans going to Mars.
“The Olympic Games are worth more than $4 billion dollars in broadcasting rights and sponsorships. The 1969 Moon landing is still the TV program with the highest viewership density ever,” the organization said. “Imagine the value of a mission to Mars in the current media era. Mars One raised funds by having investors invest in a Mars One media company that held the rights to the mission.”
When Mars One called for volunteers to be a settler on Mars, more than 200,000 people registered their interest on the Mars One website and more than 10,000 finished the job application process, the organization said.
Mars One ran out of money in 2016 and is no longer active, but its concept is picked up in “Spaceman“ by NASCAR-like sponsorship patches on the astronaut’s spacesuit.
“But mostly thematically, I was interested in the idea of a person being isolated and left alone, and the further earth gets away, the longer the delay is for communication,” Gridley said.
“She sends out a message and then gets a reply 40 minutes later. That aspect of it started to really interest me in terms of what ends up becoming important in a person’s life when everything else is 40 minutes away.”
Essentially the story he’s trying to tell is the battle between logic, reality and belief, Gridley said.
“When reality becomes unbearable, belief starts to fill in the gaps. And is it better to suffer an unbearable reality or to believe something that might not be true?” Gridley said.
He’s been visiting that theme for several years related to his background and his own questions about belief and his religious background and where he is now.
Intended or not, that’s what the play ended up becoming.
“As the stakes get heightened and you add more problems for Molly, it becomes an exercise in what to do about suffering and how to cope, or how to deal or how to live,” he said.
Interviewer Adam Rothenberg, creator and host of the entertainment website Call Me Adam, noted Molly’s problem with the psychological effects of spending so much time alone and asked Gridley when he was the loneliest.
“I grew up Mormon and I served a mission in Portugal. In one area where I served we had no actual members of the church. So, it was just me and my companion in a city, knocking on doors, trying to talk to people on the street about God and Joseph Smith. Pretty much everybody hated us. On Sunday we would go to church, which consisted of me standing up and giving a sermon to my companion and then him standing up and giving a sermon to me. Then we would go to our apartment and eat lunch (dry bologna sandwiches). It was so absurd and bizarre and lonely,” Gridley said.
Editor’s note: This post was updated at 11:23 a.m. on Feb. 7.
Paul K. Harral is a veteran Fort Worth journalist with experience in radio, television, wire services, magazines and newspapers. He is a former editorial page editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine and associate editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He also was a Space Writer for United Press International, covering the U.S. space program during Apollos 7 through 17. And … Erin Treadway spent many hours in his house playing Dungeons and Dragons with Harral’s son and other church and school friends growing up.