When I was offered the role of Jerrie Cobb in They Promised Her The Moon, my first question was “Who’s that?” I had never heard of her contributions to space exploration, and I was excited by the challenge of playing a real person. I’ve only done that with historical characters from much further back — Galileo’s daughter, for example. It’s a different kind of process playing a contemporary figure, as there’s so much more information available.
On a personal level, I was also interested in the challenge of playing an aviator. I’ve been flying since I was months old, but in my early 20s, I was hit with crippling fear, sweat, tears, nightmares: everything about flying was bad. Take-off was the worst. Sometimes I needed to hold the hand of a stranger to cope with the stress.
So the irony was clear: Jerrie’s one passion was flying, and flying was one thing I passionately loathed. I felt trapped and helpless in the air while her memoirs describe a near-religious experience of freedom and power at the helm of an airplane. Studying my script, I closed my eyes and tried to follow her there, sweeping down in my little plane to watch dolphins swim beneath the waves, circling above sheep on a green hillside. But imagination only took me so far. To find Jerrie Cobb, I realized, it might help to get behind the wheel.
I called around to flight schools, hoping it would be prohibitively expensive to take lessons. Turns out most schools offer an affordable introductory flight where you go up with an instructor and see what it feels like to fly in the front seat. I found a school that advertised a “You Fly” Intro Flight, the “You Fly” in encouraging quotation marks. I booked my lesson on a day off from rehearsal; my castmate John Leonard Thompson drove with me to Long Island for the big day.
I had about a decade on our baby-faced instructor, who talked us through the mechanics of the tiny Cessna plane and demonstrated a pre-flight check. “I was just up in this, but you wanna check every time, because what worked once might, you know, not…” he trailed off as he examined the oil for sediment. I took a deep breath.
He opened the doors and pointed me to the pilot’s seat. “You’re doing the take-off.” He said, matter-of-fact.
I winked. “Right, yeah, ‘you fly,’ I get it.”
“Yeah, you fly.”
I forced a laugh that I hoped sounded jovially skeptical, but I think it may have bordered on aggressive. John got in the back and gave me a thumbs-up. I put on my headphones and was an instant interloper to a dozen male voices calling out to each other in a language I did not speak. Alpha, bravo, foxtrot.
We pulled onto the runway. Nothing before us except a short strip of concrete and the sky. With zero fanfare, like a doctor giving a shot who knows it’s best to take a child by surprise, my instructor told me to push the throttle. “All the way, all the way.” We roared down the runway, speed gathering below us. One hand on the throttle, one hand on the wheel. I thought at any moment we would stop, or he would take the throttle, or something! “Now pull the wheel.” I heard him through the headphones. Talking to me. It was too surreal to process. The nose of the plane went up. My instructor’s hands gesticulated as he guided me. They were not on the wheel. And there was no hand holding mine. I was flying the plane. I was flying the plane!
To find Jerrie, it might help to get behind the wheel.
My instructor did the landing. As we taxied back, he pleaded with me to make my flying scenes in the play authentic. “I see so many actors, it’s like, that’s not real, that’s not really how you fly.”
“Right!” I rolled my eyes in solidarity, now a wizened veteran of the air. The next day in rehearsal, my cockpit scenes were accurate. I knew the moves and the timing. But something even more important happened. I came to a speech about the thrill of flying. And as I opened my mouth to speak, the memory of that takeoff flooded my body, and my heart jumped up and down for joy.
The space race is a corner of history that holds special interest for me, as my grandmother worked in satellite design in the ’50s and ’60s, one of the only women in her division. We’ve seen a resurgence of interest in that thread of women’s history, especially in the last year with the success of Hidden Figures. I think it’s part of the cultural unconscious at the moment, perhaps given the recent election, the question of a woman shooting for the moon, as it were, and paying a cost for paving the way. It seems like the perfect moment to tell Jerrie’s story.
They Promised Her the Moon is written by Laurel Ollstein and directed by Valentina Fratti. The show’s limited three-week engagement at Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. runs through Sat., May 27.