Mars Never Seemed So Close, or So Far Away

After an abortive launch, Erin Treadway finally blasts off in the new play "Spaceman."

Erin Treadway in "Spaceman." Photo: Russ Rowland.

The last thing I remember was a piece of wood, just a few inches high, nailed to the floor as part of a set piece. I was about 10, making my entrance in The Sneezing Prince, an original musical at my elementary school. I played the Grand Vizir and I was quite grand, indeed, but also quite stunned as I tripped on that piece of wood and fell, flat on my face, before 200 of my peers. I remember the howling, rippling, ecstatic laughter — the kind you get from a well-done pratfall. Everything hurt for an eternal split-second. The next thing I remember was picking myself up, delivering my line and continuing on. My body and ego were bruised, but luckily my Grand Vizir was still grandly Vizir-y.

Would that Erin Treadway had been so fortunate. A year ago, following the curtain call of the first performance of Leegrid Stevens’ play Spaceman — about a woman attempting to become the first human to land on Mars — Treadway tripped on a speaker and fell to the floor, fracturing her arms and one of her wrists. The rest of the run was cancelled, and, like Mars, Spaceman seemed distant. Perhaps unforgiving. Perhaps even out of reach.

But heal Treadway did, and now Spaceman is back, running Feb. 14 to March 9 at The Wild Project (195 E. 3rd St.), directed by Jacob Titus. Then as now, Spaceman is produced by Loading Dock Theatre, the Brooklyn-based company formed by Treadway and Stevens to develop “original plays that explore the extremes in human behavior.” Ah, the irony.

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The concept behind the staging of Spaceman intrigued me last year when the original run was announced. The design of the set, for example, is intended to feel claustrophobic for the audience; the production utilizes “low light” to simulate what the eight-month journey to the red planet might seem like — amid such other challenges as radiation exposure and long-term weightlessness. Most fascinating is how the production represents micro-gravity on the stage — requiring Treadway to perform a near-ballet of deliberate footsteps.

For tickets to Spaceman, click here.

And now, 5 questions that Erin Treadway has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

You actually allude to it in a similar way in one of your questions below. Last year, I broke both arms and my wrist during the curtain call of Spaceman opening night. Aside from the heartbreak of closing the show, without the use of my arms I was completely dependent on other people for everything (I mean everything). And the speed of everyday life slowed way down. Everything took tremendous time and focus — no more nonchalantly brushing my teeth or getting dressed in a rush to get somewhere; no more quick showers; no more grabbing a coat and throwing it on while talking about something else; no more sleeping in any position but on my back with arms propped up on pillows; no more quick trips to the bathroom. Everything took a ton of time and required enormous concentration. It was learning to live in a new body. And it was something I could not escape from or take time off from. I was stuck in it 24 hours a day.

A few weeks ago, as we were gearing up for Spaceman to (re-!) launch, someone asked me if there was any connection between the experience of my injury and what the character in the play goes through. A light bulb went off. There were some incredibly useful parallels: 100% focus on even the most mundane, everyday activities; learning to move in a new body at a new speed; being stuck in this new physical world — no escape or respite; feeling completely alone in a weird way and very vulnerable. In working on the play again, I know I am consciously and unconsciously bringing all of this in at new level.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

A publication learned that I was simulating micro-gravity in this production of Spaceman. They actually asked if they could come play around in the “anti-gravity” machine we use in the set. We do not have an anti-gravity machine. But we did learn that for $5,400 plus 5% tax you can actually experience zero gravity here. But not in an Off-Broadway theater.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

One time I played a mentally disabled young woman in a family drama set on a farm in 1950s Idaho.  A fellow cast member said that a friend saw the show and asked if I was actually mentally disabled! (I am not.) A year or so later I met this gentleman, and he kept commenting on how articulate I was. Apparently, he still harbored suspicions that I had been really, truly dealing with these disabilities in real life.

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Your character is attempting to become the first human to travel to Mars, with all the physical and emotional pains and stresses that would affect such a person. You, though, took that terrible fall that left you with those fractures. How healthy is your sense of irony?

Haha! Oh, man. It’s really interesting, actually. Researching how astronauts exist in a day-to-day way in space, and what it takes to send a person into space, you learn that every single thing is a choice; nothing is casual or arbitrary. It costs something like $10,000 for every pound you send to space — there is nothing “extra” you can pack aboard the ship. Pooping is done through a vacuum, which takes some training and requires your full focus; there are sounds and noise constantly and many astronauts talk about bright lights in their eyes during sleep, so even sleeping is different. So many things that we don’t remember learning to do the first time have to be consciously re-learned. It’s an exercise in patience, determination and humor. As I mentioned up above, the experience of dealing with my injuries will directly relate to my performance this around. The moment-to-moment focus on every single activity. And, in a more “spiritual” sense, you just never know if this moment, this performance, this step, will be your last. So take in each moment — and take nothing for granted. This concept has taken a deep hold of me in the last year.

What’s even more ironic: for nearly the entire play I’m moving all around in this spaceship set that’s suspended three feet above the ground and has no flooring, so I’m balancing on narrow steel bars and carefully stepping in just the right spot, grabbing onto the right overhead bars to “pull” myself through “micro-gravity” in this very choreographed way. It was only when I was standing safely on solid ground during the curtain call did I actually trip, fall down and break bones!

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Of all the experiences that your character, Molly, goes through, which would you most and least like to happen to you in reality. Why?

The most exciting thing would be to actually see Mars. To have taken this incredible risk, something that only a handful of people in world would even be qualified to attempt, and then to achieve it? To reach Mars, to be the very first person to do it: that would be pretty amazing.

What I would not want to experience is pretty much everything you go through to get there. The constant nausea, the deteriorating eyesight, the fake food. But the worst is probably the isolation. Your engagement with humankind as you know it is gone, probably forever. There is some “communication” but it takes about eight months to get to Mars. So the further away you get from Earth, the longer the communication delays. There are no “conversations.” You send a message, it takes 10 minutes to reach Earth and then another 10 minutes for the response to travel back to you. You are completely, totally isolated. And no one — no one — really knows what you are going through.

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Bonus question:

Based on whatever expertise you’ve acquired about humans and space travel, which questions should the public ask or be more educated about?

In researching the proposals for sending humans to Mars and for ultimately colonizing Mars, it made me really sad. We are so far from realizing this — from actually being able to do the things you see in movies.

Space does everything it can to kill you. We are not adapted to survive in space. It’s a huge feat of engineering and science just to get someone into space. And the same for Mars — it’s incredibly hostile. It makes you realize that we might have a false sense of our ability to explore and establish colonies easily — it’s not like the movies. There are so many things we don’t have a solution for: cosmic radiation, why astronauts go blind, the weight problem (how to lift enough fuel off of Earth to get to Mars and get back). And these are just a few of the problems that we know exist. There’s a shit-ton of problems we haven’t even thought of. Exploration of Mars is vital and important and we must keep persevering, but it’s not a near-term solution for escaping or dealing with the problems here on Earth and starting over.

The questions the public should ask are those around our expectations of what is possible over the next 10 years — versus the next 500 years. Our imaginations pave the way for seemingly impossible things to become reality. This imagining of what could be is vital to human progress. But when it comes to Mars, we need to understand that we have a very, very long way to go.