NASA

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

Susan Bernfield

Susan Bernfield

This weekend, on Friday March 1 and Saturday March 2, the 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature two workshop performances 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. SIZZLE SIZZLE FLY had its first public reading in January 2017 as part of that year’s First Light Festival. A child of the sixties herself, Susan has lots to say about Poppy.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

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?

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. 

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

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

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?

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt at her terminal.

Frances "Poppy" Northcutt at her terminal.

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. 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.  

Sound and music, especially jazz, play a significant role in the play. Will the workshop be doing anything special with sound?

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. It was amazing, and frankly just the right move, for the EST folks to invite me to include sound design in this workshop.  Sound designer Kate Marvin and I got together in September to play around with some of the bigger sound moments in the play (well, more than we expected to, once we got going we just wanted to have at more of ‘em!). We had such a great time. There’s a big dream of sound in this text, I just heard soundscape throughout when I was writing it, sometimes it’s something literal and existing, and sometimes in stage directions I tried to articulate the FEELING or the acceleration or emotional underpinning the sound should convey. What Kate came up with, the sounds we explored together and then she constructed into sequences, concurred with and often improved on what I’d been dreaming. There’s one spot where I’d tried to describe the feeling of a piece of music in words, and she showed up with the exact piece I’d been thinking about! Plus mainly we giggled. Including when we came in to play Linsay and Graeme what we’d been up to. And now, being in this workshop week with Kate’s work to play with and for the actors to respond to… it really is an essential element, it’s illuminating and is punctuating the play just as intended, and it’s just really exciting. 

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

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

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 (in 2017 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?

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 have become popular, 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 became, 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 is 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 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 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 in the summer of 2016 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.

Portions of this interview appeared previously on this blog as part of the 2017 First Light Festival.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 2 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year.  

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Marc Acito on Wernher von Braun, Alabama in the sixties, Wagner, surrealism, the ethics and dreams of America’s Apollo program, and THE SPACE RACE

Marc Acito

Marc Acito

On Thursday, January 31, as part of this year’s First Light Festival, the EST/Sloan Project will host a public reading of THE SPACE RACE: An American Dream by Marc Acito.  THE SPACE RACE had its first reading during last year’s First Light Festival when it had the title MAN IN THE MOON. 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 this makes it sound like a straightforward story and THE SPACE RACE is anything but that. So let’s hear the playwright’s take.

(Interview by Rich Kelley)

What inspired you to write THE SPACE RACE?

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?

Space Race logo.jpeg

With the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing this year, 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.

THE SPACE RACE had its first public reading last February as part of the 2018 First Light Festival when its title was Man in the Moon. Why the title change? What’s changed in the play? What were you aiming to do in the new version?

I chose the title Man in the Moon as a reference to Wernher von Braun, with the idea that the play was about this man who got us to the moon. But when I heard the play for the first time last year, I realized it was about much more than Von Braun. The title change reflects the widening lens.

The other big takeaway from last year’s reading was how the surreal aspects didn’t have the impact of the real. Getting those elements to register has been the bulk of my work.

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?

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

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 in America he had a religious conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Did anything you discovered as part of your research about him surprise you?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Morgan Watson

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.

We have so many new characters in THE SPACE RACE compared with MAN IN THE MOON: Glory now has two friends, Joan and Myrna; Maria, von Braun’s wife, is now a character; an engineering whistleblower, Thomas Baron, only briefly mentioned before, now takes the stage; and two characters, the mysterious Professor Mannfeldt and Friede, seem to have stepped out of the screen of the 1923 Fritz Lang film Woman in the Moon. And we finally have a true Wagnerian character in Erda, goddess of the Earth. What prompted you to add so many characters? Can you still work with just five actors?

We’re up to six actors now. The addition of all those roles reflects my effort to root the surreal aspects in the psychological reality of the characters. I credit Tony Kushner, who read my rewrite and encouraged me to locate the surreal landscape in the dream world of the characters.

For me this version tackles the same sobering issues as the last: von Braun’s complicity in using slave labor to build the first V-2 rockets under the Nazis; his charming, complex character; the dilemma of the black couple in considering exposing him; but the treatment, the presentation here struck me as more boldly theatrical with more music, more characters, more effects, more flights of fancy, and could there even be more Wagnerian elements in it? Was this as much fun to rework as it reads?

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

Welcome to my world. I reject naturalism as an artist because it doesn’t fully express my experience of life. Countless images and sounds course through our consciousness in every moment, so to see a play that only portrays people from the outside feels incomplete to me. So, yes, it is more Wagnerian—not only in its use of his operatic material, but in its conception as a gesantkuntswerk.

You incorporate some serious science into the play with discussion of the “sympathetic vibration” of the rocket and fuel tube and von Braun’s description of the “genesis of the moon.” 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.

Secrets of the Universe.jpg

A lot has been going in with you in the past year. Your play The Secrets of the Universe (and Other Songs) about the relationship between Albert Einstein and Marian Anderson had a full production at the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia last July. Did that live up to your expectations? Did anything about that production inform your revisions to THE SPACE RACE?

That production emboldened me as a surrealist. What was so enlightening was how audiences embraced the weird and esoteric from the very moment the play hopped out of naturalism and into the psyches of the characters. The first tier critics didn’t understand it, so they were hostile, which made me realize I need to do a better job communicating my mission as an artist. What was most gratifying was the response of black audiences. As a gay, white man I’m highly sensitive to the perils of writing about the intersectionality of oppressed minorities. So I was thrilled when, during a talkback, a black man in the audience said he was surprised to discover I was white.

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.

What’s next for Marc Acito?

A complete departure. I’m back to comedy roots directing a staged concert at the York Theater of the little-known Lerner and Loewe musical The Day Before Spring, which I adapted. It’s like a Doris Day/Rock Hudson romcom—February 9 through 17—the perfect date night for Valentine’s Day.

The 2019 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 28 through March 1 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The climax of every EST/Sloan season is the annual Mainstage Production, which this year was the world premiere of BEHIND THE SHEET by Charly Evon Simpson. Directed by Colette Robert, BEHIND THE SHEET confronts the history of a great medical breakthrough by telling the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. Previews began January 9 and the show runs through March 10. Tickets can be purchased here. The First Light Festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its twentieth year. 

Portions of this interview appeared on this blog previously when MAN IN THE MOON had a reading during the 2018 First Light Festival.

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

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.