Marc Acito on Wernher von Braun, Alabama in the sixties, the ethics and dreams of America’s Apollo program, and MAN IN THE MOON

Marc Acito

Marc Acito

On Monday, February 5, as part of this year’s First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will host the first public reading of MAN IN THE MOON: An American Dream by Marc Acito.  The play opens in 1967 when 55-year-old German émigré rocket scientist Wernher von Braun is on the verge of realizing his lifelong dream of putting a man on the moon. For the past seventeen years he has been leading the development of American rocket technology in Huntsville, Alabama, first with the Army, then, in 1960, as NASA’s first director of the new Marshall Space Flight Center there . . . but let’s have our playwright take the story from here. (Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write MAN IN THE MOON?

In order to “win” the arms race, the U.S. military recruited Nazi war criminals and enabled them to escape justice. Our rockets to the moon were fueled with the blood of thousands. Those victims deserve justice. And the corruption of American exceptionalism demands examination.

Why this play? Why now?

Wernher von Braun with President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, 1963. NASA's deputy administrator, Robert Seamans is behind von Braun.

Wernher von Braun with President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, 1963. NASA's deputy administrator, Robert Seamans is behind von Braun.

With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019, I expect to see a lot of misinformation from parties with competing agendas. Polls show that 7% of Americans don’t believe we landed on the moon, along with 40% of Russians and 52% of Britons. The future of democracy depends on bringing the truth to light, particularly when the veracity of verifiable information suffers daily assaults.

Many historians claim that America could never have put a man on the moon without the vision, knowledge, and inventiveness of Wernher von Braun. Yet many also question how truthful he was in describing his involvement with the Nazi war effort during World War II, especially the use of prisoner slave labor to build the German rockets. How do you want the audience to feel about him?

Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun (back row, second from right) and members of his Peenemunde rocket team are congratulated by Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (left), head of the German Army Information Service during WWII, for a successful V-2 rocket test in October 1942.

Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun (back row, second from right) and members of his Peenemunde rocket team are congratulated by Gen. Erich Fellgiebel (left), head of the German Army Information Service during WWII, for a successful V-2 rocket test in October 1942.

Von Braun’s complicity with evil led to one of humankind’s most sublime achievements. I want the audience to discuss and decide among itself: What should the U.S. government have done? Are some minds too essential to execute? What happens when the advancement of knowledge collides with human ethics? These questions don’t yield easy answers, but hopefully they’ll inspire some enlightening post-show discussions.

The play shows sides of Wernher von Braun that audiences may be unfamiliar with: that besides being the world’s foremost rocket scientist, that he was quite the ladies’ man, a skilled musician and music lover, and that late in his life he had a religious conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Did anything you discovered as part of your research about him surprise you?

Actually, von Braun was only 35 when he converted, a fact crucial to understanding his actions in America. He also married then. While he was sexually charismatic, I believe the moon was his only mistress.

What surprised me most was the dramatic unity and irony of von Braun’s experiences; I don’t want to give away any plot twists, but suffice it to say if I wrote them as fiction, you’d say they were implausible. Von Braun’s life suits dramatization because there’s just enough historical record to see the man’s dimensions but not too much to impede speculation. His story has the scope of a Greek tragedy, operatic and Shakespearean in its proportions.

Scene from a film depicting prison laborers working on the V2 rockets at Mittelwerk

Scene from a film depicting prison laborers working on the V2 rockets at Mittelwerk

One of the more chilling characters in MAN IN THE MOON is Dolf Baumgarten, a survivor of the Mittelwerk prison camp where the German V-2 rockets were built. Is he based on a historic person?

Dolf is a fictional composite based on the accounts of survivors. The harrowing events he relates are all true.

You wrote the book for the acclaimed 2015 musical Allegiance, which was based on George Takei’s experiences in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. How did your work on that play inform your writing about Mittelwerk, the German camp where prisoners built the V-2 rockets?

Prior to Allegiance, I had only written comedy. Being asked to join that team took me into the realm of tragedy, which was uncharted territory for me. I wouldn’t have had the courage to explore the horrors of Mittelwerk otherwise.

Creating Asian characters with Asian collaborators also emboldened me to write other characters of color, so long as that perspective is represented on the creative team. So I’m grateful to have Timothy Douglas, winner of the 2017 Lloyd Richards Award, direct this reading. He brings a first-hand understanding of black culture I don’t possess along with a shared metaphysical perspective on the human experience that unites us.

Alabama Governor George Wallace with von Braun and NASA Administrator James Webb (right) at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, 1965

Alabama Governor George Wallace with von Braun and NASA Administrator James Webb (right) at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, 1965

The action of the play takes place in Huntsville, Alabama in 1967-1968 when Von Braun was director of the Marshall Space Center there. Have you spent any time in Alabama as part of your research? Did any of your experiences there contribute to MAN IN THE MOON?

The fact that von Braun ended up in the crucible of George Wallace’s Alabama staggers the imagination. As we witnessed with the recent Senate election, Alabama’s history casts long shadows. So far, the only time I’ve spent there is between the pages of memoirs and biographies, but my first-hand experiences in Tennessee and Georgia gave me a reference.

MAN IN THE MOON interweaves the story of Wernher von Braun with the lives of Glory and Fix Watson. Fix is a black engineer native to Huntsville; Glory, his journalist wife, is a native of Chicago.  Were these characters based on anyone who actually worked with Von Braun? If you invented them, why?

Morgan Watson, NASA’s first African American engineer (left), speaking at a panel at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in 2010 with (from left) Julius Montgomery, the first African American hired as a professional at Cape Canaveral, and astronauts Leland Melvin and Mae Jemison. Photo by Eric Long.

Morgan Watson, NASA’s first African American engineer (left), speaking at a panel at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in 2010 with (from left) Julius Montgomery, the first African American hired as a professional at Cape Canaveral, and astronauts Leland Melvin and Mae Jemison. Photo by Eric Long.

Like Dolf, Fix is a fictional composite of the black pioneers at NASA, including Morgan Watson, who graciously allowed me to interview him. Given von Braun’s documented support of integration, I felt comfortable inventing his relationship with Fix in the absence of any account. Glory is completely fictional, though her offstage activities are with real people—the activists Dr. John Cashin and Clyde Foster.

You incorporate some serious science into the play with discussion of the “pogo oscillation” of the rockets and the “Giant Impact Hypothesis” about the moon’s creation. How did you decide how much science to include in the play?

What excites me most about a narrative that requires science are the metaphors. Science allows us to understand the physical world, but its institutional language puts up a barrier best breached by poetry. In our Disinformation Age, dramatists have a moral obligation to provide and facilitate an accessible forum for ideas. Luckily, theatergoers seem to welcome an intellectual meal if it’s well-prepared.

Von Braun with his wife Maria at a picnic in Huntsville celebrating the successful flight of Apollo 11 in 1969. 

Von Braun with his wife Maria at a picnic in Huntsville celebrating the successful flight of Apollo 11 in 1969. 

People may be most familiar with your name through the many musicals you’ve worked on:  Allegiance, Chasing Rainbows, A Room with a View, and, most recently, Bastard Jones. MAN IN THE MOON has a good deal of incidental music. Were you ever tempted to make this a musical?

I considered it, then jettisoned the idea because of the time constraints of mounting a musical. Plays take less time to develop, so in order to participate in the cultural conversation in 2019, I needed to create a piece with a shorter developmental process.

But I don’t really make a distinction between plays and musicals because mine all plumb the subconscious. I reject naturalism because it fails to capture the ongoing parade of thoughts and images that dominate our psyches and define our perception of ourselves and the world. All of my work is musical theater if you use the word “musical” as an adjective rather than a noun.

How great is it that there is a German song about Alabama? At what point in the writing of MAN IN THE MOON did you realize how you were going to use the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill song “Moon over Alabama” (aka “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)”)?  

The idea came very late in the process, which I find astonishing considering I did my college thesis on Weill. I wrote the play while listening to Wagner, occasionally switching to Haydn’s Creation. When I got the idea to begin the play with “Fly Me to the Moon” in Russian, I instantly thought of using “Moon Over Alabama” and “Stars Fell on Alabama.”

You’ve developed plays and musicals with many different theatrical organizations. How is the EST/Sloan Project play development process different?

As someone who coaches writers, I’m shocked at how rude and insensitive some theater professionals can be when giving notes. Linsay Firman and Graeme Gillis do it right. They organize their thoughts into a digestible size; they ask legitimate questions rather than question-shaped opinions; they focus on what resonates for them as much as what eludes; and they truly seem to hold writers in high esteem.

You’ve been an actor, an opera singer, a novelist (author of two acclaimed novels), a writer of comedic plays, monologues, and the book and lyrics to several musicals. Last year you directed the musical Bastard Jones, which you also wrote. Now you’ve written this very moving play, MAN IN THE MOON, infused with themes of historical accountability, civil rights, and some serious science. Do you see these different achievements as you evolving or has each been part of the polymorphous person who is Marc Acito and you can tap into any one of them as needed?

I’m an “and” person more than an “or.” So while I see this play as an evolution toward deeper, more serious storytelling, I see the connection to my lighter comic work, which I also create for social change. I’m inspired by the example of multi-hyphenate polymath Michael Frayn; it’s hard to believe that Noises Off and Copenhagen sprang from the same brain. That’s a high bar to clear, but I’m also inspired by the 400,000 people who got us to the moon in just eight years using computers less sophisticated than our smart phones.

Have you written other plays that deal with science? How is writing a play about science different?

secrets of the universe poster.jpg

THE MAN IN THE MOON is part of a troika of plays I’m writing about science and ethics. The first, The Secrets of the Universe (and Other Songs), examines the real-life relationship of Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson. It premieres this July at the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia.

The difference between writing about science and other subjects is that it deepens my understanding about the world’s operating system. I find power and solace in that knowledge.

What’s next for Marc Acito?

I’m in the planning stages to direct Bastard Jones as a micro-budget independent film.

The 2018 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from February 5 through April 6 and features readings and workshop productions of eight new plays. The festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year.

Sloan_Logo_Primary_Web.jpg
EST-Sloan.jpg