Actors always face the challenge of turning attention from the outside world to the drama on the stage, but Tuesday morning the creators of a new play at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa realized that they had a special problem.
Midway through "Driving Around the House,"--a series of vignettes capturing the '60s childhood of playwright Patrick Smith--a character worries that a space capsule might explode. In the scene, a family is watching a 1963 Mercury liftoff on television. "Do you think it's going to blow up?" the father character asks his 5-year-old son. "You should say a prayer for the astronauts."
The rocket the play refers to does not explode. But Tuesday, the space shuttle Challenger blew apart, killing all aboard. Smith, 27, as well as the those connected with the production of "Driving Around the House," decided they would have to modify the play.
Smith had structured a good part of the scene around the 1963 liftoff. Throughout the play, the father--and the television set--introduce news of the wide world into the consciousness of the 5-year-old character, including the assassination of President Kennedy.
Watching television Tuesday morning at his home in Minneapolis, Smith realized something had to change for that night's performance, which came five days into a four-week run.
"The play was the first thing I thought about," Smith said. "I have a treatment of a space shot, and I wasn't sure if it would pull the audience right out of the play and right into the disaster."
Besides worrying that the clash of reality and theater would cost him his audience, he also did not want to seem to be exploiting the disaster, he said. Meanwhile, in Costa Mesa, director Martin Benson was having the same thoughts. He called Smith to discuss the scene, which comes halfway through the play's mosaic of 39 vignettes.
In the space-shot scene, the father draws the boy's attention to the TV screen, and says: "5,4,3,2,1. Ignition. Lift-off! Yeah! Look at it go! That's an Atlas Booster. The astronaut is in the capsule at the top. He eats his food from tubes like toothpaste. Do you think it's going to blow up? You should say a prayer for the astronauts."
Benson and Smith decided that only the two lines about the explosion should be cut. The possibility of deleting all mention of the rocket was raised, but discarded, according to SCR's Literary Manager, John Glore.
"People come to the theater to escape," Smith said. "But I thought that we'd be fine" with just the two lines out. How did the audience react?
After Tuesday's show, Benson and Glore appeared on stage with the actors to conduct the kind of post-performance discussion that SCR often has. However, Benson and Glore had noticed that Tuesday night's audience was less responsive than others. Benson came right out and asked the 30 to 40 people who stayed for the talk whether the shuttle disaster had affected their reaction.
Many said it had. "I couldn't stand it," said one woman "I had this feeling there might be a reference to the rocket blowing up. I didn't want to hear it."
Said another man: "All I could think of was why, why couldn't this play be over?"
It was obvious after the discussion that removing just the one explosion reference had not lessened the impact of the space scene.
Said Glore: "Clearly, last night, just the mention of a rocket was enough to make people think about what had happened." But, he added, the scene will stay as it is, minus the one reference.
"We can't forget that the purpose of theater is to focus communal experience," Glore said. "And in a way that's what happened on Tuesday night."