Rocket Fall to Earth
Charismatic alcoholic Al Hibbs was of that crew who created the U.S. space program: he did the fundamental math for the first American satellites and was the voice of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Hibbs' professional life arced from the very beginnings of JPL (it was he who made the argument for interplanetary exploration) through the Apollo missions unto the 1980s where, for example, he was having a debate with a Cambridge astronomer about the mass of the planet Mercury. Leonard Nimoy (yes, that Leonard Nimoy), while sharing the stage with Hibbs on an episode of the "Joey Bishop" show (a "Tonight" show-competitor of the 1960s), told him that the "Star Trek" cast and crew loved his work (Hibbs hosted an Emmy-nominated/Peabody-award-winning children's science program on NBC for many years, "Exploring") --- and so gave him a plastic model of the original Starship Enterprise to give to his children.
Hibbs' story contains the rise and fall of an American era when Southern California and Cal Tech and JPL could do no wrong, created wonders, and changed the character of Los Angeles and the U.S.
It is also the story of the private flawed life of a remarkable public figure; the experiences of the overshadowed children of such a figure; the complexities of a blended family; a sad and angry suicidal first wife gladly forgotten; and a marriage to a piquant Molly Ivins of a second wife. There's also the failing giant/adult-kid eldercare part of the narrative.
Hibbs is one of the few major U.S. space pioneers whose life has had no full-length treatment."Rocket Fall to Earth" would bring to life his story and that of the three important women who surrounded him: I am familiar with it all, as his daughter is someone I have known since nursery school.
Hibbs was the first of those mathematically-minded fellows able to beat the odds at Las Vegas: in his case, in the late 1940s, he and Cal Tech roommate Roy Walford figured out that roulette wheels weren't entirely level and were able to take advantage of that fact. Their gambling escapades made them the subject of an article in "Life" magazine and their earnings bought them a sailboat to cruise for months around the Caribbean.
As Hibbs later wrote "I wanted to conquer space and my roommate, Roy Walford, decided he would conquer death. Together we would then conquer time."
Because I have mostly been a writer in print, the original form factor envisioned for "Rocket" was as a book-length dramatic monologue from the point-of-view of Hibbs' daughter. After seeing the wonderful National Theater staging of the novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime", it came to me that "Rocket" might work better as something staged, giving the project and its characters room to breathe.
Staging would bring polyvalent "Rocket" to life: one strong male character, three strong female characters, tons of media materials available from the 1940s onward (Hibbs' papers and filmography are archived at the Huntington Library). The settings are also suggestive: an Arts and Crafts mansion; a mid-century modern split-level; a dank Upper West Side apartment --- and of course, mission control. The ancillary characters in "Rocket", such as Nobelist Richard Feynman, Hibb's PhD advisor, co-author, and longtime best-friend, could be brought in.
What I would want from Berkeley Rep would be the help of a dramaturg, someone to help make "Rocket" concrete, visual, and live. I am so someone who figures things out in the doing that expanding the stories of the four main characters (with the interesting auxilliaries thrown in) out from the 3,000-word foundational text is where the skills of a dramaturg would come in.
At a time when we as a society can't seem to do anything right (new Bay Bridge construction. nuff said...), U.S. domestic and foreign politics are a logjammed mess, and the language of the marketplace has penetrated all aspects of human doing and yearning, it would be good to reconstruct a time when there was a will and a way to do things differently.
The cultural memory of the early space program is receding and it would be valuable to capture it while there are still people alive who remember it as it was.
"Rocket" serves as a contemporary corrective: former astronaut Buzz Aldrin said in a recent article in MIT Review "You promised us colonies on Mars. Instead we got Facebook". With contemporary discourse saturated with the language of "innovation", "creativity", "the importance of science and technology", it would be good to evoke an era when words like those had actual referents in the real world.
Another reason for "Rocket" right now is that while there are many lives-of-scientists plays and movies there are so few about their wives and their families. It turns out that there were many suicidal wives of great 20th-century scientists; from the vantage point of what we know now about feminism, neurochemistry, and family dynamics perhaps there could be useful things to be said and shown.
Finally, there is a revival of interest in space: Elon Musk, Richard Branson, the Indian government, the Chinese government --- they, too, want to be there. Only it's a there first delimited by the Jet Propulsion Lab and Al Hibbs.
I like it that "Groundfloor" is flexible and is designed to accomodate projects in all different stages of gestation; am hoping that this flexibility would extend to someone far more familiar with creating for print than for performance.
I've always loved Berkeley Rep since I used to usher at the old College Avenue storefront: something in its institutional culture...
And, I attended the "Theater of American Football: Head Injury and a Changing Game" panel discussion in August 2013, a propos "My Life as a Ghost", my art project about certain aspects of traumatic brain injury. The Rep's own Kyle Sircus also moonlighted for me by helping to create social media for the Indiegogo campaign associated with "My Life as a Ghost".