Susan Bernfield on Poppy Northcutt, Apollo 8, the swinging sixties, and SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

 Susan Bernfield (Photo: Jody Christopherson)

Susan Bernfield (Photo: Jody Christopherson)

On Tuesday, January 31, the 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature the first reading of Susan Bernfield ’s sparkling new play SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY, a drama about Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control. Susan’s plays and solo performance works have been presented and developed by numerous companies. She is the founder and producing artistic director of New Georges, an award-winning nonprofit theater company that has produced and developed adventurous new plays (by women) in New York City since 1992. We stole a few precious moments this week from Susan’s busy schedule to pepper her with questions about her new play. 

SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY is your new play about Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, the first woman engineer who worked in Mission Control at NASA and who played a critical role in configuring flight trajectories for Apollo 8 and other Apollo missions. What prompted you to write this play?

 Frances "Poppy" Northcutt at her terminal.

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt at her terminal.

Flipping through channels one night (so old fashioned!) I landed on an episode of the MAKERS documentary series that was about women in space.  Poppy Northcutt was in it, along with these awesome pictures of her during her time at NASA.  She helped Apollo 13 get down, but she sure wasn’t in the movie!   I’ve always been obsessed with the space program; I think most people who were little kids in the late ‘60s are.  My standing image, of course, was row after row of uniform-looking guys: the glasses, the white shirts, the pocket protectors.  Poppy – not just a woman but a young and super-fashionable woman – utterly disrupted that image for me.  Even consciously inhabiting a feminine stereotype, she still could break all the stereotypes at once.  I had this near-Robert-Wilson-style vision, a long line of identical guys with Poppy in her headset suddenly entering their line. The play has grown around that image.   

What kind of research did you do to prepare to write the play? There’s some serious math involved in calculating orbital trajectories. How deep a dive did you take into Northcutt’s work product?

 Apollo 8 Lunar Orbital Plan

Apollo 8 Lunar Orbital Plan

Thanks for liking my math! It’s probably pretty surface-y, though I did read many (simple) articles about orbital mechanics, Fortran, early computers.  I didn’t understand much but I loved using the vocabulary, I find it delicious and oddly lyrical. Mainly, I dove into the organizational systems and work culture at Mission Control, which is central to the play and, as I discovered, a secret of NASA’s success. The NASA website has an incredible trove of oral histories with engineers, supervisors, employees, and I read dozens of them. Actually, first I watched on YouTube some really stylish films made to promote the Apollo program. Their look and sound has influenced the play a lot, but more importantly there was one that described what I took to be Poppy’s division, so I looked up the division chief featured in the film and read his oral history.  When he mentioned other people – I’d go read their oral histories, too, and so on, following a trail of names through these documents, occasionally hitting on a fact or anecdote that helped me piece things together. I also watched documentaries and read many sources on Apollo 8. There was so much I didn’t know about it, certainly how fast it was planned and prepped, and it has so much poetic value – the “saving” of 1968 on the cusp of a changing world, earthrise.  And the first thing I read was an oral history Poppy did for the Houston Public Library, it’s the source of the core ideas in the piece but had limited details, sending me on the goose chase described above.

Northcutt got a lot of press attention in 1968 and thereafter as the “lithesome blonde” who sported miniskirts even while she held her own among the nerdy NASA engineers. In later years, after earning a law degree, she actively worked with the National Organization for Women to defend women’s rights. Is it your sense that she was a feminist from day one or did her consciousness evolve on women’s issues?

 Poppy Northcutt at NASA (from MAKERS: Women in Space)

Poppy Northcutt at NASA (from MAKERS: Women in Space)

She’s said that her time at NASA was her consciousness raising and the play tracks that evolution.  She didn’t want any woman to ever have to be the only woman again, so she got involved.  She was very honest about using what we’d now probably call her privilege. She figured she had a good income, she was prominent, she wasn’t going to be fired, so she could safely put herself out there for women for whom activism was risky, but who needed the progress the women’s movement promised.  I love that. 

In your script you include many specific references to artifacts of the time – chairs, computer screens, lamps – as well as to the music, especially jazz, of the time. How important are these elements to establishing the context for the world Northcutt inhabited?

 A visual excerpt from the script for SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

A visual excerpt from the script for SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY

It’s a very visual play.  As I said, it started with an image, it repeats that image and builds in more.  I see just a few iconic items on stage, and I’ve tried to activate them: the swivel chairs, for example, produce a kind of dance.  In addition to establishing the world, for me these items are a clue to the theatricality, it’s a memory play and a non-naturalistic play, and picking a few iconic items and images lets me pull ideas into focus.  At some point I started inserting pictures of objects into the text on the page:  “it looks like this.” Having them right there inspired me, once I could see the chair or the lamp I could inhabit what was happening around it.  Then I decided I wanted EVERY reader to see them. It put me right in it, wouldn’t it be the same for others?  I had such a great time writing this play, I felt freer than I ever had before, so I just figured, why not, and I loved how it made my page come alive. As for sound, well, space and the ‘60s are both so sonically cool. The sounds, specifically integrated with the text, also assist the spare and iconic theatricality I’m looking for. 

In 2016 we had a cascade of books and – one noteworthy film – about women who worked on the ground in the space program: The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (now a popular and critically acclaimed film), and Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt. What do you think accounts for this sudden interest in these women behind the space program? If you’ve read any of these books, how do the stories told in them compare with Poppy Northcutt’s? If you saw it, what did you think of the movie Hidden Figures?

 Katherine Johnson, the "computer" portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the movie Hidden Figures.

Katherine Johnson, the "computer" portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the movie Hidden Figures.

Wow, I didn’t know about those other books, both were published after I handed my play in last year!  I’m not surprised these stories are coming out, with so much interest in technology now I’m sure there’s curiosity from all possible angles.  I did see the movie, Hidden Figures, it’s so good, and I’m thrilled that it’s, what, the number one movie in America several weeks running? 

Because she invented the math, as the movie says, Katherine Johnson came up a lot in my research, it was amazing to discover her. Poppy did many remarkable things, but hundreds of men at NASA had similar functions, and the play’s about the experience of being alone in that crowd. Obviously, being African-American in Virginia adds an immeasurable layer of difficulty.  Poppy was a native Texan in Houston, she presented very assertively, and from what I could tell pretty much spoke her mind. Once she proved she could do the job there weren’t many outward obstacles; like in the movie, they needed all the smart people they could get. But she was always, in her words, a curiosity. I did all this fascinating research, but pulling a story out of it, trying to find the drama in some pretty subtle slights and pressures, was challenging, I was stumped for a while. Can she penetrate the men’s camaraderie? Seems like a small question, but in a work environment in which teamwork is the established mode of productivity, and the results are life and death, the stakes are pretty high.  Or I hope so!

 Poppy Northcutt in a 1969 ad in Time Magazine for her contractor, TRW.

Poppy Northcutt in a 1969 ad in Time Magazine for her contractor, TRW.

Northcutt played a critical role in another Apollo mission, when an explosion aboard Apollo 13 in 1970 forced the astronauts to abort the lunar landing and put their return in jeopardy. Can you explain what NASA called upon her to do?

She calculated new return-to-earth trajectories – among other things, the explosion put Apollo off course, so hundreds of thousands of new trajectories had to be run in order to get the astronauts home. 

In addition to EST/Sloan, you have developed and produced plays at New Harmony Project, People's Light & Theatre, Huntington Theatre Company, Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, The Lark, and many other venues. How does the play development process at EST/Sloan compare with or differ from these other organizations?

I’ve gotten so much out of every opportunity, but they were always for existing plays.  I usually make time for and incentivize writing myself, and it’s usually the last thing I get to with so much else going on. So this commission has meant a lot to me. A deadline! I took it very seriously, and I couldn’t believe how different that felt or how productive that made me. I worked more consistently than I ever have on a play, I planned my time out, I created task lists, I did all this research, I forced myself to keep going when it felt overwhelming or at a dead end. I sent it in at 3 pm on the deadline day we’d set and I was ridiculously pumped, so excited. It’s great to know Linsay and Graeme will read it, to have their feedback. They invited me to SPACE on Ryder Farm last summer to turn the first draft into a second one, so productive. After shepherding so many science plays, their advice is unique and specific. When I was stumped, Graeme said, your characters are working. Just let them do their work. And I did. And that’s how I figured it out.

What’s next for Susan Bernfield?

I'm finding time to hear another new play, Thicketed, in the next few weeks.  It spent some time in the drawer while I was working on this one, time to take it out!  After a break last fall, I'm collecting spring dates for my solo play My Last Car, which I've taken to performing in people's living rooms – for their friends and my friends with a party afterwards (I'll come to your house!).  And New Georges, my theater company, is keeping me busy as always, currently with a mammoth multidisciplinary project about the global water crisis that'll happen in June.

The 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 30 through March 30 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its nineteenth year.