How Award-Winning Designers Created a Zero Gravity Set for New York’s Most High-Tech New Show | Playbill

Special Features How Award-Winning Designers Created a Zero Gravity Set for New York’s Most High-Tech New Show In the new sci-fi drama Spaceman, groundbreaking audio design and simple visual effects simulate space travel.
Erin Treadway

One of the most dazzling achievements in stagecraft will orbit back onto the New York stage later this month when Leegrid Stevens’ sci-fi solo drama Spaceman makes its Off-Broadway debut at The Wild Project for a limited three-week run beginning February 22. Click here for tickets.

Spaceman premiered in 2012 at Loading Dock Theatre—the Brooklyn-based theatre company founded by playwright-director Stevens and actor Erin Treadway, who also stars. The theatrical invention earned Stevens a New York Innovative Theatre Award for Oustanding Sound Design.

Spaceman transports audiences to deep space as they find themselves in close quarters with American astronaut Molly Jennis on her eight-month-long mission to be the first human to reach Mars. Audiences at Spaceman encounter a seemingly vast interstellar void, at the heart of which is a bright, blinking, and utterly alien nexus of cables, cords, and circuitry—a spaceship—which carries precious cargo to horizons unknown.

Erin Treadway plays the astronaut ensconced within this claustrophobic bubble of technology as she grapples with the psychological effects of self-imposed solitary confinement. Both Treadway and Stevens won Innovative Theatre Awards for their work on the production that was first staged in the Brooklyn loft that doubles as their home and performance space.

What makes Spaceman an awe-inspiring experience is that the play’s high-tech aesthetic is met with simple, hand-made solutions born out of traditional theatrical techniques and puppetry.

Below, Stevens and Treadway take us through their process in creating the physical and emotional realm of Spaceman.


THE MISSION: “The original idea was to create a ‘flying toaster.’ We wanted something that looked unstable, dangerous, jerry-rigged, providing questionable protection from the vacuum of space. Our scene designer, Carolyn Mraz, had the idea to lift the entire set three feet off the ground. She thought it would provide an added sense that the main character, Molly, was floating precariously in empty space. She was so right. That particular choice started us down the path to simulating micro-gravity.

“The biggest challenges to building the set was learning to weld and finding a place to weld. We were kicked out of our workspace a week before we opened at the Incubator Arts Project above St. Marks. Turns out, a church basement isn’t an ideal place to do either because welding smells like fire.”

Erin Treadway Clinton B Photography

THE ACTOR: “The problem with raising a set three feet off the ground to add a sense of precariousness is that it is actually precarious. The set doesn’t have walls or floors. It is just a series of welded steel pipe. Erin has to be very careful where she steps. One wrong move and she could get “groined” pretty bad. Add a space suit, big boots, big gloves, and a helmet lined with LEDs shining in her eyes and it becomes a real challenge. Moments had to be repeated over and over until she no longer had to think about her feet. Ultimately, the set had to become an extension of Erin, as it is for our astronaut, Molly.

“A lot of study went into YouTube videos of astronauts on the International Space Station. The astronauts are floating, of course, but mostly they are just never really still. We have been trying to subtly incorporate this in the movement, constant shifting and unconscious correcting of position.”


THE SPACESUIT: “The helmet ended up being one of the most exciting parts of the play. Put a strip of LED lights inside, give Molly a wireless microphone, and you’ve got instant focus. You hear her breaths, see nothing but her face floating in a black void. You feel like you’re inside that helmet with her, hoping to find solid ground.”


THE SCIENCE: “A great resource for the ins and outs of long-term space travel is the book Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. The book walks through the everyday, un-heroic details of life in space: how you go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, the smells, the noises, the food, and all the many dangers to the body—some bizarre and un-intuitive. There are many resources for learning about the challenges of space travel, but that book was particularly good at pointing out the annoyances and anything annoying is theatrical gold.

“In terms of the design, if you look at images inside the ISS, you see that nearly everything is Velcro-ed so that objects don’t float off somewhere. The set dressing makes good use of that—all the props are Velcro-ed to panels attached to the frame.”

Erin Treadway Clinton B Photography

THE ILLUSION: “We are incorporating the use of puppetry to provide the illusion of objects floating in space. Another actor, all in black, hides behind Erin and holds objects in space to give the illusion that they are ‘floating.’ For example, in one particular moment she drinks from the water pouch and falls asleep. The other actor gently pinches the pouch and slowly lifts it out of her hand. It’s a small delicate dance, the interplay between Erin and the puppeteer and it’s an invitation for the audience to suspend their disbelief.”


THE BUDGET: “Carolyn brilliantly put together a set sourced from random and inexpensive objects like monitor arms, lots of monitor arms. Simon built the LED light fixtures and the wireless controllers that control the lights inside the helmet, which might as well be alchemy as far as I’m concerned. We do use several theatrical LED lights, which were expensive. The microphones weren’t cheap. It does all cost money, but building instead of buying saves. And we’re using an incredibly powerful light board that our lighting designer happens to own so… that helps a LOT.

“The biggest resource, however, is a space where we can work on the play over a longer period of time. Designers can develop their ideas and implement new ones and there isn’t this constant rush to just get it out the door.”

Erin Treadway

THE HUMAN SCALE: “With Spaceman, we want to explore what it is to be human, what is necessary to be alive both physically and mentally. Outer space takes away many of the basic necessities of life and forces us to define and artificially replace every necessity of life in its most minimal form. It forces us to categorize, label, and replicate even simple functions like washing one’s hair. However, it is more difficult to categorize what is necessary for a person’s mental and spiritual well being. When does science and fact cease to satisfy a person? And when do belief, myth, and fantasy become necessary to continue? The play explores humanity’s relationship with brutal reality and the steps we take to survive.”

Recommended Reading:

Blocking belongs
on the stage,
not on websites.

Our website is made possible by
displaying online advertisements to our visitors.

Please consider supporting us by
whitelisting with your ad blocker.
Thank you!