Winston-Salem is go for launch of new interactive theater

by Lenise Willis

When we’re children, our imagination runs wild with enthusiasm and creativity. A blanket draped over couch cushions is an impenetrable fortress. A paper-towel roll is a horn; a gift-wrap roll is a sword. And, of course, a refrigerator box has the potential to be anything, even a rocket ship aimed for the moon. Unfortunately, as we grow older, our imaginations become weaker and needs a little help lifting that spacecraft off the ground, which is why the interactive production Apollo 13: Mission Control aims to do just that.

Making its East Coast debut this weekend at Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts in Winston-Salem, the production allows audiences to relive the 1970s “successful failure” as if they were members of NASA’s Mission Control working to return the astronauts safely home.

In fact, the audience’s seats are even included as part of the set in the working replica of the control room.

“We tell the story from the point of view of Mission Control,” said cocreator Kip Chapman. “You as an audience can sit [at a working console] in Mission Control and act in the play with the actors. Everyone pretty much has the opportunity to interact as much as they want.”

The consoles at the audience members’ seats are unique, with lights and switches and either working TVs, telephones or data screens. There is also a headset at each seat. “Everyone has a task to do [at their desire and discretion],” Chapman explained.

The intricate set includes more than a thousand lights and switches, 23 telephones and 17 television screens — all of which work.

“Kids have got amazing imagination, but adults need a lot more support,” Chapman said. “So we wanted to create something so realistic that even as an adult, you don’t have to try to pretend to imagine that you’re in Mission Control. You simply are in Mission Control.”

The set actually consists of three rooms: replicas of Mission Control, the Apollo 13 spacecraft and Walter Cronkite’s news station.

Each night, one audience member is chosen to be the third astronaut and spends the entire show in the spacecraft. Chapman said there are more secret opportunities, but none that he can reveal.

Participants are able to purchase tickets according to how much they wish to interact and in which area they want to sit. Those who want to merely observe can purchase less expensive “press gallery” tickets for traditional seating and a bird’s-eye view of the action.

Those desiring to interact with the set and actors can purchase “console gallery” tickets.

When it comes to truly capturing the hope, despair, and overall adrenaline of the Apollo 13 NASA mission, one wouldn’t think it was the successful ambition of two New Zealand residents.

It was on a 2007 road trip around the states, when co-creators Kip Chapman and Brad Knewstubb got the idea for the production. After visiting an Apollo 8 Mission Control museum exhibit in Cape Canaveral, Fla. they were disappointed in the lack of involvement.

“They had all of the flashing lights and all of that, but in the exhibit you couldn’t go and touch the console,” Chapman said.

“It was extremely frustrating to be looking at something so exciting, but not being able to interact with it.”

A few minutes later, the two came up with the idea to create something that space-enthusiasts could touch. “Within 10 minutes we had come up with the idea of Apollo 13 Mission Control,” Chapman continued.

Chapman, 32, whose background is in acting, volunteered to put together a script, and Knewstubb, an industrial designer, volunteered to plan and build the complicated set. By 2008, the production was running in New Zealand and was the winner of the Chapman Tripp Theatre Award for Most Original Production.

Chapman says that they chose to reenact the Apollo 13 mission instead because “something goes wrong.”

“Every story needs obstacles to overcome to make it thrilling,” he added. “You need something to go wrong to make it an interesting story.”

Apollo 13, the third manned lunar-landing mission run by NASA, launched on April 11, 1970.

Two days after the launch, a fault in an oxygen tank caused an explosion and damaged the service module, resulting in a loss of oxygen and electrical power.

Despite great hardship caused by severe constraints on power, cabin heat and potable water, the crew successfully returned to Earth.

“Apollo 13 is one of the greatest stories out there,” Chapman said.