Telling the Heart and Soul of a True Story
An Interview with Earthrise Playwright Lauren Gunderson
In the 2017–18 theater season, Lauren Gunderson was the most produced playwright in America (that doesn’t include Shakespeare, but she’d be fine getting bumped by the Bard since she’s a huge fan). Gunderson wrote her first play at 14, and has been refining her playwright’s voice and technique ever since, creating stories with strong female characters and often weaving in her love of science.
Earthrise is her second commission from the Kennedy Center after The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog in 2011, for which she wrote the book and lyrics. Earthrise is also an exciting milestone for her family—it’s the first time Lauren’s two young sons will see a show she’s written.
KC: How did you come up with the idea for Earthrise?
LG: Writing something about the moon landing aligned with my longtime fascination with the photo of the Earthrise in the 1960s from an earlier space mission. The astronauts weren’t planning on taking pictures of Earth, but when they saw how gorgeous it was, this burst of color against a totally black and white space-scape, they had to capture that. And that view and photo instantly shifted our perspective. The Earthrise concept serves as a really good blend of what being an earthling is about, what the moon landing is about, and what the time period is about. It’s also a metaphor for childhood and adolescence of the main characters in our story. They are middle school age and that’s about when your perspective starts to shift from being a child to being an adult and you start to realize other people’s experiences and feelings are as valid as your own.
KC: How did you move from that image and metaphor to the story of the show?
LG: The Apollo 11 mission is so iconic, and Neil Armstrong is such a national treasure and national hero that we really couldn’t not write about him, about Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, and about the incredible journey and adventure and feat they accomplished. What also interested me was the experience of being a 12-year-old when the moon landing was happening. So that helped me start to build this cohort of children/characters whose parents work on the space program: Sophia, an artist with an engineer dad; aspiring astronaut Andrea with a mathematician mother—a character inspired by real-life African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson—and Rick, who is loosely based on Neil Armstrong’s real-life son.
It’s a story about an iconic moment in history where we stepped on another object in the universe. But it’s told through the eyes of the kids and all that they’re dealing with at that age and all that America is dealing with including racism and sexism. Plus there’s a father and his son trying to communicate and trying to understand each other. So there’s a lot going on for a short play! I think it’ll be something that a lot of people can connect with, whether they’re just there for the thrill of going to the moon, or reliving the history, or for great emotional human drama, or for the amazing pop musical songs that we’re getting from Kait and Brian’s incredible lyrics and music.
KC: What do you hope the audience takes away from the experience?
LG: I hope we get to re-experience the thrill, joy, and awe of 1969 and the mission to the moon. I think there is something very critical that is lost when it comes to space and NASA, which is that overwhelming appreciation, the gripping thrill of the achievements that were happening back then, and are going on now. The play is in many ways a love letter to NASA and to the kinds of things that American science, technology, and engineering have done for the world in the past, and I hope will do in the future. And the people who are going to do it may even be in the audience for the show. I’m hoping to also inspire some future scientists and some future artists who love and appreciate science.
We also wanted to further encourage people to think of science and art as being a part of one human conversation. The reason why we wanted one of our characters to be an artist is to emphasize that artists can have an engineering mind and engineers can have an artistic mind. Astronauts can be brave, but they can also be creative and appreciators of beauty. I hope this play helps bring science and art together to the same dance.
I also hope the play will spark an intergenerational conversation, where grandparents tell their grandkids what they remember about watching the moon landing. I think it will be incredible for a younger generation to experience the moon landing the way our play will let them experience it, but also explore how parents and grandparents experienced it at the actual time. Any play that can start a conversation, especially intergenerationally, is a big win for me.
KC: What was it like telling a historic story that many people already know well?
LG: The problem is we all know how the moon landing ended. But what we don’t know is the really intimate moments and that’s what theater is really good at—giving us the heart and soul of a true story. It gives you a chance to really feel like you’re there. For the moon mission, there were so many moments of potential disaster where the mission could have failed or gone awry. We’re also trying to relive that incredible tension instead of just thinking “yeah, we went to the moon, we came back, and it’s no big deal.” No, it was a really big deal!
I also want to give a lot of credit to our incredible director Dawn Monique Williams, who I’m working with for the first time. I wanted an immersive experience that could take kids to the moon, and she’s become an amazing driving force for figuring how we achieve that.
KC: Tell us a little about your research process and what surprised you.
LG: I was really grateful to talk with the Neil Armstrong biographer who wrote the book for The First Man, which was turned into a movie. That was an incredible conversation that really helped me understand what we know about the Armstrong family. I got a sense of Rick’s character and Neil Armstrong’s journey. Neil Armstrong was a very private man, he wasn’t a hugger, and he wasn’t very talkative or showy; and for an astronaut, that seems like a good thing, but for a dad, that’s a little hard.
In Earthrise, there’s a beautiful lyric in the song “The Longest Distance” that is Rick’s big solo moment. We think the longest distance is from here to the moon but for Rick, the longest distance is between him and his dad. And I think we all have people in our lives that we really love and respect but feel distant from. So exploring that relationship was part of my research. And then one of the biggest bombshells for me was discovering a beautiful true story that illuminates what an amazing father Neil Armstrong was, and the story just gave me chills. I knew right then it would be the end of the play.
And the other cool part of the research was mining the actual communications transcripts between Houston, the Apollo spacecraft, and all the different NASA facilities for excerpts to use in the play. We’re going to hear everything from the iconic “one small step for man” line to lots of measurement and statistics and “Roger this,” “copy that”—all making you feel like you’re in mission control for real.
KC: You’ve done a handful of shows for younger audiences—why is that important to you?
LG: I’m writing for my boys and that means I’m writing for all kids, of course. The critical point is getting kids started in theater young to give them a life in the arts. Kids should know as early as possible that theater is a welcoming, inspiring place that you can always visit to find your soul and learn about other people in other places. So it’s really important for me to continue writing for young people, and offer theater that is empathetic, entertaining, engaging, educational—all the things that are also important to me as a mom. Children’s theater sometimes gets a bad rap for being silly and dumbed down, but it’s not.
KC: In articles you’ve written about theater for young audiences, you have talked about how theater helps in developing empathy and community. Can you speak to that here?
LG: Empathy is in many ways the reason we have theater at all, from the very first storytelling around the fire several centuries ago to now. We have theater because we need to know humans; we need to know each other. And theaters gather people and ask them to pay attention to something other than themselves, to pay attention to another person’s story. And in that amazing time, we learn other people’s points of view, what their experiences are like, how we are similar to them, as well as how we are different. We test ourselves, asking “What would I do in that scenario? How does this relate to me? How can I apply this in my life?” All that is critical for human survival. It sounds grand to say, but that’s why we invented live storytelling. It’s one of our greatest inventions.
I often talk about theater as “contagious portable wisdom,” a way we can retain wisdom and tell other people about it so it can go on and on. So the idea of doing that, especially for young people, is even more powerful because they are young and absorbent, and still aspiring to be full humans. It really is a part of sustaining an empathetic, kind-hearted civilization, which is a pretty darn important thing.
KC: Any suggestions to help parents foster young children’s interests in creating their own stories and plays?
LG: First, know that you can turn literally anything into a puppet! It’s not just socks—paper clips, shoes, anything. It fascinated me when I realized how instantly my kids would pay attention to something if I held it up and made it talk and gave it my attention. One day, I was looking at a cup and made it talk, “Hey, I’m a cup,” and their eyes went right to the cup. Then the cup said, “Go to bed” and the kids said, “Okay,” and I’m thinking, wow, this is magic! [laughing] So, one thing is to show children what creating something is and then have them do it back to you. Everybody gets a cup and makes the cup talk and there’s a lot you can learn from that kind of thing about how to give someone your attention and focus. It’s not just enough to say what you are, you also have to explore who you are and what you want. What does the cup want? What does the cup want to tell you? What is the cup’s secret? That helps get them into a creative spirit.
In addition, it’s helpful to talk about what you’ve seen after you’ve seen it. Ask what happened, who did you connect to, who was the main character, what was everyone trying to do and did they accomplish it, did characters get sad or frustrated at any point, and what made them happy? All those things can be applied to seeing Earthrise as well as TV shows, movies, books, and other theater. I think that helps get kids in that critical mindset of unpacking a story and not just accepting it.
KC: Congratulations on being the number one most produced playwright in 2017-18! How do you feel about achieving that distinction?
LG: Thank you! It’s a combination of a lot of things in my career, but one is really the love of regional theater. The reason I’m on that list is because lots of small theaters or big regional theaters have engaged with me, advocated for me, sustained me—and they’ve asked me to come back, like the Kennedy Center, where this is our second outing. One of the reasons this is so meaningful to me is because it’s really about relationships and community. I’m deeply honored and kind of amazed, but also it feels right in some way because I’m in constant conversation with lots of theaters representing lots of communities. With a movie or novel, you don’t know who’s watching or reading or what they’re thinking. With theater, I feel more in conversation with people that are watching the plays and producing them, and that is a true joy of the art form.
Learn more about Lauren Gunderson and her work at laurengunderson.com.
Making Memorable Music (with Math!)
An Interview with Earthrise Composer Brian Lowdermilk
Brian Lowdermilk first fell in love with musical theater as a child attending a Broadway production of Cats when a giant “cat” sat in his lap. After that, continually finding fascination and joy in theater experiences led him to realize that instead of pursuing a mathematics degree at Harvard, he wanted to write for theater—stories, lyrics, and music—all of it. He combined forces with his theatrically like-minded pal Kait Kerrigan about 15 years ago and the duo often create musical theater together as Kerrigan-Lowdermilk.
Brian first worked with playwright Lauren Gunderson in 2011 on the musical The Amazing Adventures of Dr. Wonderful and Her Dog. We caught up with him as he was working on Earthrise while traveling the world with his wife.
KC: How are the Earthrise compositions coming together?
BL: As we’re on this call, I’m getting text messages from Kait about one of the songs we’re working on. This is our second (and my third) collaboration with Lauren [Gunderson], and all have been remote collaborations. One person writes, then sends it to another, then someone responds. It’s a lovely way to work. And it helps that we think similarly and want the same things for the show—to stay warm and positive, show science, and show certain kinds of relationships.
KC: How do you start writing the music?
BL: Lauren goes first, noting moments where songs might be in the script. Kait and I then look at the rough draft of the script for places to pillage Lauren’s story for other songs. We find a title for each potential song, which makes it easier to talk about them with the playwright and director. Next we discuss more details about the song, such as tone, whether it will be in first person or second person, whether there should be scenes within the song or just one scene, and who sings in it. Then I get down to writing tonally appropriate music that captures the energy and emotional contours we want. And given that we are talking about rockets, I hope to get a rocket sound or some “booms” in the music. It’s a back and forth.
KC: What’s your favorite song so far?
BL: It usually tends to be the one you’re working on right now. For us, that’s “Escape Velocity.” Kait wrote some lyrics, then I formed them into an Andrews Sisters (a popular harmonizing singing group from the 1940s and 50s) style of song for Andrea, Sophia, and Andrea’s mom. Escape velocity is the energy required to break out of Earth’s gravity, and the song expresses how hard women, especially women and girls from minority backgrounds, have to work to break free from what holds them back. The funny and thrilling thing is, at first we thought we couldn’t possibly write a catchy song called “Escape Velocity”—and then we did!
KC: How does the music help tell the story of Earthrise?
BL: Musically, we’re trying to combine the musical language of the 1960s using drum, bass, and guitar songs that capture the energy and optimism of the story. The music also features some cinematic sweeps with strings—fitting when dealing with space, which, especially at that time, was a big blank canvas. Then Kait and I also are known for embracing a natural tone and contemporary melodies. All this comes together in writing and composing songs telling stories of young people coming of age, which has been fertile emotional territory for us in our careers.
KC: What attracted you to the Earthrise project?
BL: We go wherever Lauren goes these days! Her voice in American theater is so important and opportunities to artistically engage with her are so valuable to me. It was such a great experience working with her on Dr. Wonderful. And I remember watching the space shuttle Challenger and going to the space museum as a child and being fascinated. I have great nostalgia for the early days of space exploration, and this is such an interesting moment in our history to talk about that.
KC: This will be your sixth show for young audiences in addition to 10-minute musicals you and Kait have developed in your workshops with middle school students. Why is theater for young audiences important to you?
BL: Some of the people who specialize in theater for young audiences are so good at what they do and it’s gratifying that they want to provide a great experience for that audience. And kids are such a good audience! They tell you when your show is not working, and they engage with it in a very direct way. And finally, I want to create for kids the same experience I had growing up engaging with theater that I loved.
KC: What’s been the coolest, most awesome thing about composing music for musicals?
BL: The coolest part is that you can get music stuck in people’s heads. It’s all math! It’s all just patterns, taking small phrases and playing them out in ways that are repetitive and also surprising. The part of my brain that was going to do math at Harvard now happily arranges notes into patterns in ways that feel exactly the same. And musical theater is a very collaborative, creative process, with so many people contributing in so many different ways, and that’s something I find very thrilling.
KC: What do you hope theatergoers are humming after the show?
BL: It’s a great feeling when you are hanging around during intermission or afterward and you hear people humming or singing a song from the show. For this show, I’d especially hope “Escape Velocity” or “Rocket” stay with audiences—both are fast-paced, and I hope they are songs that inspire kids to go home to explore more about the space program and want to learn more math and physics.
KC: What advice would you give to young people who are interested in musical theater writing?
BL: You should study math and sciences! Those will be useful no matter what. And when it comes to creating songs—just put notes on a page, grab a singer, and start making a song. Make things for and with your friends and don’t stop yourself.
Learn more about Brian Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan at kerrigan-lowdermilk.com.
Where Songs Should Go
An Interview with Earthrise Lyricist Kait Kerrigan
Meeting teenagers who saw her musical Henry and Mudge as young kids and who still sing the songs is a pretty cool part of lyricist Kait Kerrigan’s job. So is collaborating with talented friends Brian Lowdermilk and Lauren Gunderson on Earthrise. And so is watching her three-year-old daughter walk in her footsteps by penning her own musical (yes, at age 3!).
Kait has written for and performed in theater since childhood, and now makes a successful career out of writing lyrics and music that tell engaging stories on stage.
KC: You are finishing some Earthrise songs right now. How would you describe the process?
KK: I’ve been thinking a lot about science and mathematics in relation to this show, and I remember learning about asymptotes in high school—the idea of the line and curve approaching zero on a graph but never quite getting there. So bridging that gap, striving for that perfect zero—that’s what we’re trying to do, while knowing that you always strive and never quite achieve.
KC: How did you, Brian, and Lauren work together to determine where songs could go and what they should be?
KK: As I’m looking through a script, I’m looking for moments when something has to be accomplished, such as either a strong emotional idea to resolve or the characters grappling with something that can lead them to an action. We want to create music that builds toward action and conveys what characters are doing on stage—and as the lyricist, I write the words of the songs that bridge the gap between the story and the motion of the musical.
KC: What are some examples of “musical” moments you identified in Earthrise?
KK: One big emotional idea that immediately sang to both Brian and me was Rick’s struggle with his feelings about his dad and the moon mission. As songwriters, we were really excited about the fact that Rick loves baseball because that gives you metaphoric language to use in contrast to all the scientific language everyone else is using. We also identified the moment when the kids have imagined themselves onto the moon and see Earth at a distance for the first time and realize it’s time to go home. The song itself is sort of a conjuring of Earth that helps them travel back through the atmosphere and land. Another song we’re really excited about came from some of the ways Lauren was developing the characters of this spitfire Andrea who wants to be an astronaut and the budding artist Sophia. The story is set in the 1960s, so girls having that kind of ambition was really new and not always encouraged. We wanted to write something really fun and catchy that kids can take out of the theater with them to help fuel their own ambitions.
KC: Do you have a favorite song so far?
KK: My favorite is “The Longest Distance,” the song we wrote for Rick to sing. Since Earthrise doesn’t have as many songs as a traditional musical, we knew we wanted this particular song to really get at the emotional heart of the story. It’s a classic type of musical song but not one I’ve written before. Rick’s situation fascinated me as a writer. Here’s a kid who feels emotional and confused as he struggles to connect with his dad, who is about to become the most famous person in the world. It just feels incredibly human.
As I wrote the lyrics, I wanted to set up the metaphor of the emotional distance Rick feels from his dad so when Rick’s dad later talks about the longest distance he ever traveled, we understand that Rick’s dad finally said the best thing he could possibly say to his son. Being able to set Rick’s emotional song against the backdrop of mission control was a huge theatrical bonus. His inner panic and turmoil at watching his dad blast off into outer space is heightened by the real physical stakes of sending the first man to the moon.
KC: What attracts you to creating theater for young audiences and why do you think it’s important?
KK: I have vivid memories of being a little kid sitting in a theater, and I still remember snippets of songs from shows I saw then. And in my own career, I’ve had the privilege of meeting kids who learn I wrote the show Henry and Mudge and they sing parts of it, and that is unbelievable. So you recognize that what we do can have an enormous impact. And now in my personal life, my three-year-old daughter is obsessed with musicals, storytelling, and making plays. Having the opportunity to make something that she can come see is one of the most joyous and lovely things I can experience.
On a totally selfish note, theater for young audiences shows are created on a tighter schedule than most other projects. So we write the show and then see it performed in front of an audience relatively quickly. With that fast turn around, you can learn more in these settings than you can learn anywhere else.
KC: What attracted you to Earthrise?
KK: Lauren invited Brian and me to work on this project and I will go anywhere Lauren takes me. I admire her enthusiasm for math and science and how easily she jumps between scientific ideas and the arts. And talking about the moon landing on the 50th anniversary—who doesn’t want to do that?
KC: Do you enjoy the research aspect of songwriting for shows?
KK: I was a pretty big nerd in college—I loved writing papers and spending time in the library, researching and trying to discover new angles on topics. So when I started writing plays and musicals, I felt like I got really lucky. Instead of writing papers after doing a whole lot of research, I got to make a piece of art! Most people don’t really enjoy reading academic papers but they do enjoy watching musicals and plays, so it’s fulfilling to translate ideas that fascinate me into something other people find accessible.
KC: How did you prepare for and end up in a career in musical theater?
KK: I played violin from about three and a half to 18. I also did theater growing up and I was an English major. It was strange to suddenly realize these pursuits were all good training for a musical theater writer, and that I had all the tools I needed. For example, where the human voice needs a breath is similar to where you run out of bow on the violin. So I discovered that I had a strong intuition for musical phrasing when it came to writing lyrics. And all those years of theory and ear training also paid off in ways that I could not have imagined when I was growing up.
In college, I was writing and directing theater and realized how much I enjoyed collaborating. Then Brian, who I had known since we were kids, asked if I’d want to write a musical together. And I said yes because when you’re 20 you say “yes” to everything! So we set about trying to figure out how to do it. And we’ve been writing projects together ever since.
KC: What advice would you give young kids interested in creating musical theater?
KK: I think young people today have a strong performative sense, which is definitely useful in theater, but I say that with caution. I recently read an article about the negative effects of kids watching videos of themselves performing, specifically because it changes the way they remember the experience and how they look at themselves. Rather than focusing on how something felt in the moment of the experience, they focus on how it looked after the fact. They edit. They judge. The artistic process, especially the early stages of creation, requires withholding judgement. In order to make art, you have to be able to turn off your inner editor and experiment.
You need to just make things. Don’t write one musical. Write five. Write ten. Do monthly performances in your backyard or on the playground and invite people to come see them! Trust your instinct when you meet someone you think is talented. That’s your taste developing. Learn from it. Hold onto those people. With like-minded friends to create with, you’ll start to grow around each other into beautifully, unique intertwining trees.
KC: What’s your favorite aspect of writing musicals?
KK: One of my favorite things is collaborating with people. When you’re trying to write a lyric, you’re trying to distill an idea down to the smallest, most digestible, truest way of thinking about something. I think the same thing is true for collaborating. I look at collaborating as if I’m a student of dialogue and communication, trying to be very clear and listening to others. And when I share my idea and shape it with others, that thing we create can be better than what any one of us could have done alone. There’s that lovely possibility of getting closer to that zero!
Learn more about Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk at kerrigan-lowdermilk.com.
How Projections Can Transform Our Experiences
An Interview with Earthrise Projections Designer Patrick Lord
As you’re sitting in your seat at Earthrise, why do you feel like you’re actually flying through space as stars pass by? It’s because projections designer Patrick Lord imagined, researched, and carefully created the images you see. They capture our imaginations just as much as the projection design field attracted Patrick, who veered away from studying law and pursuing set design to become a projections designer, a relatively new and very exciting field of theater work.
Patrick recently designed the stage projections for Voyagers: A Dance Among the Planets and Digging Up Dessa at the Kennedy Center, and was looking forward to the challenges presented by the moon landing story of Earthrise when we spoke with him before the show.
KC: When did projection design become more integral to theater productions?
PL: The funny answer is technically, we’ve had projections for about 100 years. They used to be things like glass slides. What really changed everything was the advent of computer software and devices for playing things back. Now of course you can create and show images on a computer, and that has led to a continually and rapidly evolving field. Twenty years ago or so we started seeing more exciting projections like in The Who’s Tommy rock musical. And more recently, Broadway shows like Dear Evan Hansen have been doing all kinds of crazy stuff with projections.
KC: What exactly are projections in a theater performance?
PL: That’s a great question because it’s something that people are still figuring out. But essentially, a projection is an image coming out of a projector, and you just need a surface to project it upon. I call it the ability to transform a surface as opposed to just putting an image out. As for what to project on, a screen or blank canvas seems the most obvious answer—but you can project on anything. I love shows where we can project onto three-dimensional or unconventional objects, like broken windows or floating abstract shapes or other parts of the set, a process commonly referred to as “mapping.”
As a grad school project, we wrote stories with children, made art work with them, and then turned their artwork and their stories into short film cartoons. Instead of projecting them on the screen, we turned the entire wall of the classroom into a surface. They could see that stories were bigger than life, that images can transform the space we’re in, and that your imagination can actually change the world. It sounds cliché, but it’s truly why I’m so enthusiastic about the art form. Projections can transform our experiences.
KC: How do projections help tell stories on stage?
PL: It’s important to think of them as a design element to enhance performance instead of something supporting other design aspects like lighting or scenery. Projections add another entire visual language for telling the story. I like to describe projection design as visually scoring a show, similar to a music score. They can enhance location or even be characters in and of themselves, with people interacting with them. Or their movement can give a sense of visual musicality.
KC: You are just getting started on designing Earthrise. Can you tell us a little about the creative process so far?
PL: The first step is to learn about the show and the creative team’s vision. It was so valuable to talk with the team and see them explore the script, which tells the story of the moon landing from the perspective of children and people working on that mission. The projection design will feature historical footage so we can see and re-live that moment. But because the story comes from the children’s perspective, projections will also help support the magic, imagination, and emotionality of that experience.
KC: What do you hope audiences take away from the projections aspect of the show?
PL: How we’re able to blend the truth and reality of the story with the [fictional] journey of these kids. As an artist, I’m excited to enhance and present a familiar history in a new, interesting, and exciting way, and engage young audience members who weren’t around when the moon landing happened. We’ve talked about how the moon landing was one of the last times Americans came together as a nation to experience something beautiful and exciting. I want to create projections that recapture that feeling of unity and excitement.
KC: You’ve designed a number of shows for young audiences—why is theater for young audiences important to you?
PL: I think kids are such a great audience, and they’re an audience that absorbs the experience of theater in ways that adults don’t. When kids see theater, they’re just there to take it in. They buy into ideas and stories with imagination and without question and have an open heart to be inspired. I just love to serve them as an artist because of what they bring into the theater relationship.
KC: Do you have a vision for where the projections design field is going in the next 10 years or so?
Patrick: I don’t and that’s what I love about it. We’re all still learning how projection design can be incorporated into major shows. I think over time we’ll see more new stories and plays written to integrate projections even more fully into the storytelling. People sometimes ask what’s my dream project or show that I’d love to do, and I always say, I don’t think it’s been written yet, but Earthrise might just change that answer!
Learn more about Patrick Lord and his projection design work at patrickwlord.com.