When most of us think of science fiction we think comic books, films, television and novels. I mean, that is how we’ve always ingested our sci-fi. Asimov’s Foundation series, Dune, Neuronmancer, Aliens, Bladerunner, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, etc etc. How often do we see sci-fi transcend these mediums and get performed live? Not often. Not often at all.
My wonderful city, Austin, Tx, happens to host two live action sci-fi plays. One you may have heard of… The radio play turned comic book turned stage production called The Intergalactic Nemesis. I’ll be dedicating a different article to these guys very soon. The other you probably haven’t heard of and it’s going to be making a very brief run this weekend and next weekend at The Offcenter in East Austin. If you are a Nemesis fan, a sci-fi fan, or just in general would like to do something different with your evening, you should seriously look into Spacestation 1985.
The year, obviously, is 1985. Haley’s Comet is about to enter the inner solar system. Two rather unlikely astronauts, Dr Richard Gergen (Jason Newman) and Lt. Norman James Kilroy (Brad Carlin), have been contracted by a mysterious private company to mine the comet. It’ll take them the better part of a year to get there and they take their shifts in thirty day increments. That is, thirty days with no sleep, while the other is snoozing away in their cryo-chamber. The play is about what happens to them on their journey. Alone in space, with nothing but the computer and a plant to keep them company. What could possibly go wrong?
In addition to it’s excellent premise, there are quite a few well known names behind this production that are worth mentioning:
Sound Design by Buzz Moran (A Scanner Darkly, The Intergalactic Nemesis)
Music by Graham Reynolds (A Scanner Darkly, The Intergalactic Nemesis, Golden Arm Trio)
Shadow Puppets by Katie Rose Pipkin (Austin Puppet Incident)
Set design by Ia Enstera (Austin Critic’s Table Award winner 2011-2012)
Lighting design by Natalie George (Austin Critic’s Table Award winner 2011-2012)
I had a chat with Spacestation’s director and co-writer, Jeff Mills, about how and why all of this came to be and why science fiction was the best genre within which to tell his story.
NERDLOCKER (NL): How would you describe Spacestation 1985 to someone who had no idea what it was?
JEFF MILLS (JM): Firstly, it’s a dark comedy. It’s also one of the few live action sci-fi shows that I know of. I know they happen but they don’t happen nearly as frequently as other genres. I’ve always been interested in stories that look at human perception creating reality, because I feel like so much of our truth, that you have or anybody has, comes from our experiences and shapes what we think is real. Spacestation 1985 is meant to investigate that.
NL: How did you end up choosing the setting of 1985 and Haley’s Comet?
JM: Well, I’m not a huge sci-fi guy per se, but I liked the situation. I was looking for a setting to investigate humans and I think sci-fi is great for that because there are so many constraints placed on the characters. First they are isolated. I mean, there is someone else there but they are literally isolated one at a time. They can’t get out or leave or move to Mexico to escape their problems. Their environment is completely controlled. They’re trapped in a room and stuck with their minds.
Awhile back we did a show about Charles Manson that was pretty far out there, but when I started looking at Manson as a character I got really interested in how he had all these followers that all believed in what he was saying. And he believed that what he did was right! He felt like he had the truth. And I started thinking about how our idea of what is right and what is truth is subjective. Obviously I don’t agree with what he did, but people ACT on what they think is the truth. And that’s how this play came about. I wanted two people who had completely different personalities to be in the same experiment and see how their past experience shaped their reality. What happened when they were in need of something, or when they were at their wits end. How did that need manifest in these two different people? Then all of the sudden they have these truths and I wanted to put them in a room together and see what happened. So that was the original idea and it just seemed like sci-fi was the best container for it.
And, you know, it’s fun. I’ve always been a fan of Stanley Kubrick and he had a huge stylistic and visual influence on me. Not just 2001, though I did love that.
NL: Yeah, I felt like there is definitely a bit of HAL in the voice on the on-board computer. Or maybe a little Gurdy, from Moon?
JM: Yeah, for sure. Though you know, HAL is kind of intelligent. That whole thing is about computers becoming MORE intelligent. So in our case, since it takes place in 1985, we wanted to restrict ourselves to the greatest technology available in 1985. So all of the sudden you have a Commodore computer running things, which at the time was a sweet sweet Commodore. It can do so much but they’re still using “command prompt” and all that old programming language, and they’re limited by that. We’re embracing the limitations of the technology instead of it being its own entity. It’s the perception of the human that is turning it into a person. So it’s all about humans. Nothing that happens in this play is about anything BUT humans. There are no aliens or technological malfunctions. It’s all people’s brains. The reason they are there in the first place is because of humans wanting something and thinking about truth. That’s what’s important.
NL: You wrote this with one of the lead actors, Jason Newman. When did you start working on it?
JM: We actually wrote it with another actor, Brent Werzner, who was the original Lt. Kilroy, up in New York about three years ago. Brent and I had been living in New York for a few years but we were just working, like, sixty hour weeks. We originally went up there to make art and to see what was available to us, not get day jobs and grind it out all day. I mean, we happened to get jobs that we liked. I worked for The Muppets and it was good as far as day jobs went, but we had no time for other stuff and we hadn’t done anything in a few years. So eventually we just got really stubborn and decided we were going to do something and we started writing this play over email with Jason, who was still in Austin. Then Natalie George caught wind of it and was interested in producing. She has been tremendous throughout this entire process. She is a machine.
So we wrote for three years. We rehearsed in my basement. Jason and I had been writing partners for years. We had a sketch comedy group, Think Tank, here in Austin for four or five years. And I had written a lot with Brent as well. I would say the play is still about 75% of the original draft. We’ve added a few things, rounded it out a bit.
NL: So is this the first time it’s going to be performed for the public?
JM: No, we performed it in New York. We actually did two nights at The Tank, which is just this tiny space in Manhattan. We had to load in the set every day and load out every night, storing it in a U-Haul in Manhattan. We had very limited lights at the time. It was pretty intense but we did it. And we were still working our day jobs.
We had puppets back then too. It seemed like a natural fit because I was working at The Muppets and it seemed like it would have been a wasted opportunity if I hadn’t taken advantage of that fact. I had originally wanted to do some stuff with video but Natalie convinced us to see a lot of our limitations as opportunities for puppetry, and I think it worked out well.
NL: Who designed and built the puppets you are using in the show?
JM: James Godwin built our old man puppet. He’s the guy that built Dr. Teeth and puppets for Chappelle’s Show. He did puppeteering for Chappelle’s show as well. He does a lot of macabre work and he’s amazing.
They tiny spaceman puppets were build by Nate Wilson who made countless Muppets. He made Statler and Waldorf, Gonzo, the Newsman. He’s one of the best. I would put him in the top percentile in the world as far as what he does. And these are the original spaceman puppets we used in New York.
The shadow puppetry was built here in Austin by Katie Rose Pipkin. She has a puppet company here in Austin. And Noel Gaulin has been our puppet consultant through the whole thing. He built the space-scapes that are just amazing. They look like video. That’s a perfect example of how I wanted video and Natalie had the idea of using that limitation as an opportunity. Most people aren’t going to realize that it’s chocolate syrup and soap on an overhead projector and not video.
We’ve tried to add some elements of puppetry into the set, like architectural puppetry. We have these tetris type pieces that are going to slide back and forth during the time shifts to give the feel of time passing. We’ve got a lot of really crude doors that slide and close but when you add a Buzz Moran sound effect to it looks fancier than it is. We’ve always kind of showed our ass on most things we’ve done. We just acknowledge that there are things we would like to do but can’t and embrace that instead. Kind of like Old Murder House. They do similar stuff. They’ll take something that is supposed to be ridiculously huge, like a dinosaur, and make it really small. They acknowledge how they can’t do some things and then embrace the absurdity of the attempt.
In fact I think this is a pretty absurd play in general. It’s definitely a dark comedy. Most of our stuff tends to be kind of dark. I feel like comedy is really great because you can give people a little sugar with their medicine. If you can make people laugh they’ll sit there listening and then you can start investigating themes that I’m more interested in… about humanity and people and such, instead of making it all heavy and about truth and perception.
NL: I know you had a Kickstarter campaign going for this, did you reach your goal?
JM: Yes we did. Over $5000 as of a few days ago. This was part of something that happened that I didn’t really know was going to happen. A community kind of sprouted up around what we’re doing. I mean, part of the reason I came back to Austin was to do this show. I was like YES! I need to not have a full time job, at least for a year, be dirt poor and write and have time to be at the theater all day and NOT miss this stuff. There’s been such support within the creative community, which has been amazing. I mean, we’re not producing this show anymore. It’s got over a hundred producers now. And that had a real affect on me. Like I don’t feel ownership of this anymore, but in a good way. And it’s also a lot of responsibility. Every $25 that went in there I was like, well, okay, we better make this good. Because that’s hard earned money. It wasn’t money from rich people. It was our friends and community. They need that money but they chose to spend it in support of us and I’m not taking that for granted. I mean, when you’re budgeting you’re like “yeah, we’ll try and get $5000 from Kickstarter” but when it starts actually happening it’s an amazing organic experience and I feel really lucky.
NL: Have you directed before, or is this your first time?
JM: Well, I kind of ended up being the director of Think Tank just by default. And I directed some shows with our theater company, St Idiot Collective, back in the day, that had all these great people like Jenny Larson, Lee Eddy, and a bunch of others who are out doing amazing amazing creative things all over the country now. I directed Rainbow Family of the Serendipitous Now, which was the Charles Manson piece. Weird weird play. And another one called Spurt, which was a coming of age Valentine’s show about the year 1991 when we were all thirteen years old. So I’m still cutting my teeth. But I’d rather be an actor any day of the week. There’s just so much talent and so many ideas so sometimes you just have to be the producer or director just to get the work out there and give other people opportunities. Hopefully it comes back around at some point but I don’t want to NOT tell these stories just because we can’t find a producer or director.
NL: How did you hook up with Buzz and Graham?
JM: They actually did the sound design and music for us while we were in New York, without even seeing the play. And they did it for very cheap just because they were interested in the work. So it’s really great to be able to come back and work with them more closely and be able to compensate them slightly better. Buzz was just telling me the other day that he was telling folks to come see this show because it was basically the sound design he was born to do. I feel like we lobbed it up for him and he just spiked it. And Graham too. Moody haunting sci-fi music just comes out of him.
NL: Alright, last question. When does the show open and how can people get to see it?
JM: We open Thursday Sept. 13th and we run through September 25th. You can get tickets through our website, http://www.spacestation1985.com/ We also have late shows on Saturday nights, which is fun. It’s something we used to do back in the day. It had a slightly different feel to it. People would usually have a couple of beer in ‘em and they’d get a couple of beers at the show. They might be stoned out of their mind. It was a little more raucous and I loved that feeling. Instead of just coming at eight o’clock and watching your bit of theater. I love the late show as a performer and just the feeling in the room, it’s like you’re performing for pirates or something. A rowdy crowd is fun. So I’m really encouraging people to come out to those late night shows and have some beers. Hopefully it’ll be like putting a movie on late at night with some friends.
Tickets are $12 and $19.85. We are trying to keep it accessible because sometimes I don’t go see things because I don’t have the money and I would hate for that to happen with our show. It’s always a balancing act between trying to make your money back and making the show accessible to people. I want anybody to be able to see it, or maybe see it twice. You’r not gonna see a play twice if it’s $25! But if it’s $10 and you liked it so much you came back and brought some friends! I feel like we need to stoke live theater instead of pretending it exists as something everyone is dying to get in to see, that’s just not the case. There’s really good work but we have to stoke the audience. I mean there are so many other options. You could just sit at home watching HULU and drinking box wine on the couch. But hopefully we’re giving you something you can’t get anywhere else. Something more.
So, once again… go to http://www.spacestation1985.com/ for info and tickets. The show is at Austin’s The Offcenter, between E. 6th and 7th St. Tickets are $12 or $19.85. You’ve only got two weekends to go see it. Here are the showtimes:
Thursday, September 13th @ 8 PM
Friday, September 14th @ 8 PM
Saturday, September 15th @ 8 PM
Saturday, September 15th @ 10:30 PM
Sunday, September 16th @ 2 PM
Thursday, September 20th @ 8 PM
Friday, September 21st @ 8 PM
Saturday, September 22nd @ 8 PM
Saturday, September 22nd @ 10:30 PM
See all you Austin sci-fi lovers there!