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LAist Interview: Nancy Keystone, Writer/Director of Apollo

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Science and art rarely mix. And yet, despite the near polar opposite natures of these two fields, there's something that makes a collaboration between science and art undeniably captivating. Perhaps it's because behind the often sterile and calculated shell of the world of science, there lies the same human stories we find in every other area of life. And while we regularly see tales of greed, corruption, triumph, racism, fame, and passion acted out in the political arena, or on the athletic field, or in the celebrity sphere, the scientific world has just as storied a past, rife with conflict, competition and courage.

In Apollo [Part 3]: Liberation, a performance piece written and directed by Nancy Keystone and produced by the Critical Mass performance group, the history of one spectacular moment in American science and innovation is explored through theatre. The Space Race marked a triumphant moment in American history and established the United States as a global leader. However, at the same time as the U.S. was being recognized as the most progressive nation in the world, the country was being torn apart by racial strife as African-Americans struggled for the equality they had been promised a hundred years earlier. Apollo [Part 3]: Liberation, the final installation of a three-part play (Parts 1 and 2 premiered at the Kirk Douglas in 2005), uncovers the surprising connection between the Civil Rights movement and the race for the moon.

The play chronicles the intersection of the Space Race and the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Where did the idea to explore the relationship between these two seemingly unconnected moments in U.S. history come from? Why did you want to explore it?

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NK: The idea came from the facts, themselves, proving yet again that truth is stranger than fiction. The U.S. Army brought a group of German (Nazi) rocket engineers to the U.S. through a secret and illegal intelligence program at the end of WWII in order to teach us how to make ballistic missiles. They were originally brought to Fort Bliss, TX, and in 1950 they were moved to Huntsville, AL where they later headed the NASA program to design the Saturn V moon rocket for the Apollo missions. They were there throughout the decades of the 50s and 60s and some of them still live there. I was utterly fascinated by the crazy collision of these former Nazis and the Civil Rights movement in the deep South. And it struck me that these two movements—the Space Race and the Civil Rights Movement-- were happening literally at the same time in the same place, but that somehow in the American psyche, they are two completely separate mythologies. So, that was the first impulse.

And then, I realized that Jules Verne had written his famous book, From the Earth to the Moon, which profoundly influenced every rocket engineer (and which prophesized the details of the rocket launch to an astonishing degree) in 1865, partly as a response to the U.S. Civil War. In his story he uses guncotton to fuel his rocket, and I got to thinking about what Huntsville was like in 1865, and the direct correlation between the expansion of the cotton industry with the expansion of slavery, and how the country was built on the backs of slaves. And I thought about all that cotton carrying this latent explosive power.

So those were the disparate seeds that grew into Part 3.

You had a science advisor, Craig Peterson from the Jet Propulsion Laboratories, work with you in developing the third part of this play. What was his job and how did having him as a resource inform the creation of Apollo [Part 3]: Liberation?

NK: It's been fantastic to work with Craig. He came on during this most recent workshop and the first thing he did was check the science in the piece to make sure it was correct. (I was relieved that he found it to be so!). He also came to a rehearsal and answered our questions about some of the science/engineering that's part of the action and he really brought that to life for us. And then the main thing I was interested in was getting specific information about what one of the characters was doing at NASA--it's a character based on a real person, and I wanted to write a scene in which he is doing his research and working out calculations, but I really didn't understand anything about his work. So Craig explained very clearly (in simple terms for my simple brain) what the research was about and what the guy was doing. And I did end up writing a scene.

This piece is truly ensemble driven- each actor plays a number of different characters or historical figures spanning from the civil war all the way through to the civil rights movement. However, even though there are a lot of characters the ensemble really seems to speak with one collective voice in relaying the message of Apollo [Part 3]: Liberation. Why did you choose to incorporate the stories of so many individuals throughout history instead of sticking with a more traditional play structure made up of only a few characters?

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NK: It's a huge story encompassing a very broad span of time and historical events. It's all fascinating, and the trick is trying to limit the number of characters and events. Plus, its just the way my mind works. I don't think I could make a more traditional play. I work more by association and am interested in how different ideas crash against each other.

Movement is almost a character in and of itself in the play. Why did you choose to use movement sequences to relay so much of Apollo's narrative?

NK: I am interested in pushing the boundaries of narrative through non-verbal story-telling, metaphor and images. I'm always after how an idea can be articulated in the most visceral way. Movement and music penetrate the audience's nerves and psyche in a way that text alone cannot. I think we are able to absorb information in many different ways, and there are some ideas that are much more effectively conveyed through the body than through speech.

Apollo is going to be produced at the Portland Center Stage in 2009. Right now the entire project is split into three parts, Lebensraum, Gravity and Liberation . How do you envision all three parts coming together to when the show goes up in Portland?

The three parts are meant to be separately delineated, AND to play off each other, resonate against each other and achieve a cumulative effect. As layers of story, ideas and images aggregate, I hope that the audience makes surprising and challenging connections and associations across the territory of the theatrical event, which might open up different understandings of our national myths, identity, ideology, and history. Images and gestures are repeated and achieve different meanings in the different parts. Parts of the story are repeated from different perspectives. Characters travel through the different parts to different effect, or pieces of their stories are illuminated from one part to the next. We are aiming to create as many points of contact and as much resonance as possible as the piece progresses from one part to another.

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In creating this play and working to bring it to realization, what has been the most challenging part of the process for you?

NK: I think the most challenging part is yet to come--when we try to put all three parts together. It has also been very challenging to synthesize the tremendous amount of research and create a relatively compact narrative (or collection of narratives).

What are you hoping your audience will take away from the play?

NK: Hopefully the story will be interesting and engaging, for starters. I think the main thing that I'd like people to take away is that our country was founded and is based on profound and radical principles of liberty and equality which we have not been willing (or ready) to live by--perhaps because they have been too ambitious for our reach, too ahead of our evolution as a people and/or species. We have achieved extraordinary power as a nation, and made every sort of progress at the expense of those principles, in every case by exploiting and oppressing a large portion of the population. At the same time, there is a relentless struggle and movement towards alignment with those founding principles even by infinitesimal degrees. It would be great if people could find a way to make the progress we wish to make and gain the power we wish to gain (if that's really what we need to do) in a more humane way. I'd like people to be inspired to keep trying-and to try harder-to do better.

Apollo [Part 3]: Liberation is being developed with a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation which is to be used to encourage leading artists and playwrights to create new works about scientists and engineers that will break down the barrier between "the two cultures."

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Apollo (Parts 1, 2 & 3) will premiere at the Portland Center Stage in January 2009. The next work in progress workshop of Apollo will take place in the Fall of 2008. For more information visit,