Apollo 13: Mission Control

Lower NZI, Level 1, Aotea Centre, Auckland

31/07/2009 - 15/08/2009

Meteor Theatre, 1 Victoria Street, Hamilton

20/07/2009 - 26/07/2009

Production Details


Imagine what it might be like to be 200,000 miles away from Earth, trapped in the vast emptiness of space in a capsule no larger than a Morris Minor. Then imagine it’s up to you to bring it home.

That’s the premise of the innovative theatre production APOLLO 13: Mission Control that wowed the critics and sold out its entire debut Wellington season in 2008. APOLLO 13: Mission Control launches in Hamilton July 20 to July 26 and then rockets to Auckland July 31 to August 15. The Hamilton season coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing made by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin.

APOLLO 13: Mission Control is a live interactive film on stage, placing the audience into the heart of the action as members of the Mission Control team, participating in the action and making crucial decisions to ensure the astronauts make it home safely.

Flight director Gene Kranz, played by award-winning actor Jason Whyte, heads the Mission Control team along with actor Ashley Hawkes (and, of course, the audience), while astronauts Jim Lovell (played by Ryan O’Kane) and Fred Haise (Lee Smith-Gibbons) will be joined by an audience member in the space module for each ‘mission’.

The theatre is transformed into an authentic replica Mission Control, complete with retro computers, giant video screens and the tiny tin spaceship where three astronauts are fighting for their lives. Significant improvements have been made from the Wellington season, providing increased interaction and more advanced consoles.

Old-school phones will allow the audience to chat with each other to solve problems, a lunar-lander has been constructed to accompany the replica command module, audience ‘Mission Control’ actions will impact the enhanced graphic display, and there is a greater emphasis on audience-interactive problem solving.

There will be a new ‘press gallery’ seating arrangement for those who think the task of bringing the hapless astronauts home safely might be too much for them to handle.

In a coup for the production, New Zealand’s internationally-recognised Rocket Lab has agreed to supply a replica of their kiwi-designed six-metre tall Atea-01 commercial space rocket which will feature prominently on display at the venues, adding a significant dimension to the educational component of APOLLO 13: Mission Control.

Many Wellington schools sent students to the 2008 APOLLO 13 season to learn about the Space Program, and this year sees a more developed educational aspect with information-packs now developed. There will also be information displays located in the foyers of the theatres.

Fraser Engineering, who have produced about 50 per cent of the heavy urban fire fighting units in New Zealand and Australia, is constructing the consoles, and iconic Kiwi clothing designers Huffer has stitched up a deal with APOLLO 13 to supply the merchandise.

Not only did APOLLO 13: Mission Control sell out every performance over a two-week season, it garnered two awards at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards for Most Original Production of the Year and Sound Designer of the Year (Gareth Ruck) from four nominations.

"I have never seen anything quite like Apollo 13: Mission Control. It is a truly amazing production" – Laurie Atkinson, The Dominion Post

"Apollo 13 is astonishing. The technology is astounding, just the consoles are mini-masterpieces." – Lynn Freeman, Capital Times

APOLLO 13: Mission Control

July 20 – 26, 8pm
The Meteor, Hamilton
Bookings TicketDirect: 0800 4TICKET or www.ticketdirect.co.nz

July 31 – August 15 (no shows Sunday and Monday)
Lower NZI Theatre, Aotea Centre, THE EDGE, Auckland
Bookings through THE EDGE: 0800 BUY TICKETS or www.buytickets.co.nz 

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Corporate/School Bookings Contact:
Mark Westerby, Producer
Ph 021 0270 1741; mark@markwesterby.net

Gene Kranz:  Jason Whyte
Michael Whallen:  Ashley Hawkes
Jim Lovell:  Ryan O'Kane
Fred Haise:  Lee Smith-Gibbons
+ an audience member in the space module for each 'mission'. 

A fun experience with real dramatic tension

Review by Nik Smythe 02nd Aug 2009

Did you ever have that classic nightmare, where you have a really really important job which everyone is relying on you to perform capably under extreme pressure, but you don’t have the faintest idea what it is you’re actually meant to do?  Being in a console seat for this wholly impressive reconstruction of the moon-bound Apollo 13 mission in April of 1970 is exactly like that.

How it works you buy a ticket, either to man a console position inside the White Team ground control station at Houston or, if preserving the lives of NASA’s finest feels like too much responsibility, to sit and observe passively from the ‘Press Gallery’.  One lucky punter will also be selected to be the ‘guest astronaut’ and be taken up as one of the spacecraft’s three crew members.

My own position is manning the no. 2 engine booster, which I know from primary school to be the rocket that pushes the vessel through the stratosphere (from whence the 3rd rocket propels it into space).  It turns out, as I struggle to comprehend the various algebraic manuals and reports relevant to my critical role, that’s about all I know on the whole subject.  Luckily, in the curious way the nightmare often goes, things somehow manage to happen around me anyway and no-one appears to notice my unqualified incompetence.

Ingenious devices both technological and theatrical are employed throughout to both replicate the tension of a genuine crisis whilst ultimately leading to a satisfying solution.  Receiving arbitrary instructions through their job manuals, or else by telephone or memo, various audience members at different times leap to action accordingly, often in character – not unlike participants in a hypnotist’s show.

From the rows of authentic 70’s steel computer consoles, complete with working phones, visual monitors and hundreds of switches (don’t forget down means off in America!), to the projected video displays of the launch, the crew inside the ship and the newsroom of Mr. Walter Cronkite himself, we are as there and then as we could want to be.

Conceived during a trip to the Kennedy Space Centre in late 2007, the remarkable vision of the co-creators (director Kip Chapman and designer Brad Knewstubb) is brought to technological fruition on a massive scale by the first class efforts of technical designer Robert Larsen.  The only things that stretch suspension of disbelief to potential breaking point are the inevitable time jumps required to condense a seven day mission into an hour and a half, and the fact that no-one is smoking. 

Knewstubb and Larsen have vital roles as crew members, while much of the humour, not to mention drama, is driven by Jason Whyte, gruff and long-suffering as real-life White Team flight director Gene Krantz, and Ashley Hawkes as fictional sensitive rookie maverick Ashley Hawkins, a last minute ring-in for the appointed flight director’s assistant down with measles. 

Whyte accompanies a few other real-life character portrayals which assist in holding the whole illusion together: Ryan O’Kane as the consummate understated American alpha male, flight commander James Lovell; Lee Smith-Gibbons as gung-ho lunar module pilot Fred Haise, and of course the world’s most famous newsroom anchorman Walter Cronkite, impressively played by Gareth Williams who doesn’t particularly look the part but has the voice characterisation nicely down pat: a fitting tribute to a recently passed icon.

The entire replication is designed to be a fun experience, and the actors are suitably comedic within their authentic roles, at times bordering on the absurd.  Nevertheless there are occasions of real dramatic tension relating to the crisis at hand, plus it’s genuinely moving when Krantz laments the plight of the astronauts’ wives back home.

Apollo 13:Mission Control is the large-scale interactive re-creation of a story we all know, or can easily access – the Wikipedia information about the famously ill-fated mission is compelling reading in itself, all the more so for having participated in this outstanding pseudo-simulation.  Nevertheless, knowing what happened doesn’t seem to affect the entire room being caught right up in the trials and triumphs of the globally historic event to any noticeable degree.

It seems inevitable this show will continue to travel, hopefully all the way to America.  I’m compelled to conclude with a minor spoiler, so if you dislike them read no further: the guest astronaut gets to say. "Houston, we have a problem."  If you’ve always wanted to say that then all you have to do is turn up on the night and prove you have the right stuff.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.   [For reviews of – and comments on – the premier Stab/Bats, season click here.] 


nik smythe August 3rd, 2009

I have been thoroughly remiss not mentioning sound designer Gareth Ruck and especially composer James Milne a.k.a. Lawrence Arabia.  Their contributions to the production take the whole adventure to another level, one where Hollywood-style soundtracks accompany the unfolding events to increase our emotional connection to an already extraordinary piece of work.

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An interactive treat: ‘Failure is not an option’

Review by Vanessa Byrnes 21st Jul 2009

This play is a wee treat. The main attraction is a great design; both expansive in its scope, and well detailed in function and aesthetic. It’s not often you get to sit at the consoles of Houston Mission Control and play with working equipment while being disruptive, interactive, and involved in how the drama unfolds.

I take my hat off to the cast and crew for mounting such a design-savvy and technically risky production. More than 64 working consoles provided a boy’s own adventure, while real-time screens give us intimate access to the astronauts.

The premise of the show is a familiar touchstone of Twentieth Century American/ popular culture; an explosion has ripped through the spacecraft and the lives of three astronauts (one chosen from the audience) hangs in the balance. The world and media wait as we, at Mission Control, have to find a solution to the problem of gas build-up and bring the crippled space ship home.

It’s a plot that is potentially lacking in drama (since we know the outcome), but this company manages to up the ante and keep the central conflict well in our sights.

Jason Whyte lends his determined self to a frenetic Gene Kranz, the leader of us at Mission Control. It’s a vocal challenge for him at times in this big space (should he have a mic?), but Whyte deals well with the considerable technical jargon and emotional stakes that the play demands. He improvises with flair and drives the show along, always mindful of involving particular audience members in the drama.

I won’t give too much away here; suffice to say it’s great to see what audience members will do when given the chance and thrown into it feet first. It’ll be fun to see what develops over this season.

Gareth Williams’ Walter Cronkite deserves mention too; his stiff-necked, drama-hungry TV journo is a lovely counterpoint to the almost-unflappable astronauts in the lunar vessel. Williams also plays a host of other characters if you dare to ring from your working, dial, console phone. A clever touch, and testimony to Williams’ talent.

Ryan O’Kane’s Jim Lovell is a well-studied portrait of an emotionally restrained lead astronaut; weightless in his body and convictions, almost a kind of modern day superhero as he stoically, logically, and very seldom emotionally, negotiates life and death. Re-establishing contact with Apollo 13 is a lovely dramatic crux to get to; however I expected we might get there a bit faster.

Light comedy is peppered throughout the show and there is a cast of actors who allow this to happen with ease. Fred Haise (Lee Smith-Gibbons) is second in command on board and, wonderfully, has gas issues of his own to worry about.  Ashley the sidekick is the perfect foil to our determined Mr. Kranz and Ashley Hawkes allows this character to fumble through the drama and connect with the audience.

Apollo 13 is billed as "a fully immersive, interactive experience in which you will have to work together and follow your leader, who lives by the simple belief that ‘Failure is not an option’." It’s certainly a rare thing to have such an impact on how a drama takes place, and I suspect that this is where the show will really hit its full stride.

When the audience totally participates in the fear and angst quotient of the situation, and there is more invitation to experiment with that happens, this will be a rocking good show.

Some technical issues on opening night held the flow back but I would recommend this show to all ages – especially children over 8-9 years of age and anyone who remembers the real drama 40 years ago. Go along ready to be part of the drama and you’ll have a good time.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  [For reviews of – and comments on – the premier Stab/Bats, season click here.]



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