Apollo 13: Mission Control

BATS Theatre, Wellington

18/10/2008 - 01/11/2008


Production Details

Apollo 13 boldly goes where no theatre has gone before  

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.

New horizons of the celestial kind will be set with the launch of the innovative theatre production APOLLO 13: Mission Control  at Wellington’s BATS Theatre October 18 to November 1 as part of STAB 2008, commissioned by BATS Theatre with funding from Creative New Zealand STAB Theatre season.

APOLLO 13: Mission Control is a live film on stage, placing the audience into the heart of the action as HASA’s Mission Control team.

BATS will become a replica Mission Control, complete with retro computers, giant video screens and the tiny tin spaceship where three astronauts are fighting for their lives. Each audience member, seated behind their own console, will be part of the action as they help make the crucial calls to bring the helpless astronauts home.

Flight director Gene Kranz, played by award-winning actor Jason Whyte, heads up the cast joined by astronauts Ryan O’Kane and Rachel Forman – and, of course, the audience.

Co-creator Brad Knewstubb said that the story of space exploration captured the essence of humanity.

“Only 26 people have ever seen earth for what it truly is: a tiny blue sphere floating in the vacuum of space,” he said, “and they did it aboard a machine so complex it took more than 400,000 people to build and launch it.

“I believe Apollo 13 is one of the great stories, with survival, technology and teamwork, and I am excited to be bringing it to New Zealand.”

There are plans to tour the production to other New Zealand centres following the conclusion of the 2008 STAB season at BATS Theatre.

APOLLO 13: Mission Control
October 18 – November 1 2008
BATS Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington
Bookings phone 04 802 4175 or email book@bats.co.nz

October 18th – November 1st
Tuesday – Saturday 8pm
Ticket Prices: $20/$13
Group bookings (10+) $15

04 802 4175

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

Generously supported by the Murray Hutchinson Creative Trust  

Part of STAB 2008: commissioned by BATS Theatre with funding from Creative New Zealand. 

The Creative Team:

Brad Knewstubb: Co-Creator/Mission Control Designer
Kip Chapman: Co-Creator/Writer/Director
Mark Westerby: Producer

Jason Whyte: Gene Kranz
Michael Whalley: Michael Whallen
Ryan O'Kane: Jim Lovell
Rachel Forman: Fred Haise/Marilyn Lovell

Robert Larsen: Technical Systems Designer/Stage Manager
Gareth Ruck: Audio Designer
James Milne (Lawrence Arabia): Composer
Charlie Bleakley: Filmographer
Phil Reed: Publicity
Andrew Kennedy: Official HASA Photographer
Janet Dunn and Fiona Brown: Astronaut Costume Design & Construction
Brita McVeigh: Dramaturg
Peter Elliott: Walter Cronkite
Gary: Command Module Engineer

What a marvel

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 29th Oct 2008

In a lifetime of theatergoing in this city I have never seen anything quite like Apollo 13: Mission Control. It is a truly amazing production.

Bats has been turned into NASA’s command headquarters in  Houston, Texas where we watch on large TV screens the launch of Apollo 13 for its journey to the moon taking place far away in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center.

We sit at consoles and each person has a specific task. If you are not up to speed with some of the terminology the usual theatre programme has been turned into a booklet entitled White Team Manual. As this is interactive theatre you may be called on to assist in some small way or you might even receive a congratulatory phone call from the President of the United States.

After the successful launch all hell breaks loose, lights flash on the consoles, details of the astronauts’ physical condition are shown on the screens as are the details of the lack of oxygen, fuel, and power. Will the astronauts reach the moon or return to earth or perish? We watch the three astronauts coping with their frightful predicament in their capsule.

A rescue plan is put into operation which includes the audience having to solve some (simple) equations – the first I might add that I have done since school. Some personal drama amongst the ground crew has been injected into the script along with some humour and some brief historical background to remind us this is 1970.

It is all held together and driven fiercely forward by the conviction and dynamism of Jason Whyte as the bossy Flight Director and by Michael Whalley, his underling who is trying to make his own mark on the proceedings.

All praise to Kip Chapman who was assisted with the script by Jason Whyte, Michael Whalley, Ryan O’Kane and Rachel Forman, and to [Brad Knewstubb who designed the realistic-looking Mission Control], Robert Larsen who was responsible for the technical systems design as well as the stage management, and to Gareth Ruck for the audio design.

However, I came away from Bats not only marveling how this team put it all together so brilliantly and entertainingly but also realizing yet again what a stupendous feat of human endeavour space travel is. And that is, I expect, what Kip Chapman wanted to express.
For more production details, click on the title at the top of this review. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


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Thrilling ride

Review by Lynn Freeman 22nd Oct 2008

APOLLO 13 is astonishing.

You enter Mission Control in time for the launch of Apollo 13 moon landing, so many hopes pinned on the mission.  You take your place at the consoles.

You have responsibilities, under the intense gaze of Flight Director Gene Kranz (Jason Whyte revelling in the role). The stakes are high and the senior team (led by the bright and ambitious Michael Whallen (played by the bright and convincing Michael Whalley) disagree on the best course of action when, as we know from history, a malfunction puts the astronauts’ lives in peril.

We in Mission Control have tasks, are asked for ideas, and get involved in the drama around us and involving us.  Our astronauts (Ryan O’Kane, Rachel Forman) are live on screen from their capsule so we are very aware of their plight as oxygen and fuel supplies dwindle.

Writer Kip Chapman has based this on thorough research, and constructed it with a clear understanding of how exciting theatre can be.  The technology is astounding, just the consoles are mini-masterpieces, but the human drama is a big part of the show’s success too – it doesn’t fall into the trap of SFX laden Hollywood epics.

You hear from the wife of one of the astronauts and how she copes with the loneliness and fear, and from Gene how hard it is to be the one to tell a family of fatal space mishaps.

If you like your theatre with a proscenium arch and to be a safe distance from the cast, it’s not for you.  This is the ultimate in audience interaction – you collectively hold the fate of the three astronauts in your hands. 

To get the most from this experience, be prepared to go with it. The rewards are rich.


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Immersive, authentic and could go further

Review by Thomas LaHood 19th Oct 2008

What a remarkable project this production is, and what a truly fascinating extension of the theatre experience beyond our traditional notions.  As a STAB commission, Apollo 13 is a very successful example of technically innovative and boundary-crossing theatre, and without doubt it’s a fun ride. 

However, despite the scale and scope of what has been achieved it’s hard not to see the equally huge vista of dramatic and creative potential that is not taken up.

It has to said, the physical, aesthetic experience of walking into a totally transformed BATS and sitting down at a personalised control desk complete with switches, buttons, headsets and monitors truly puts one in a state of excitement.  Rarely if ever have I seen an audience so actively engaged – throughout the play one can look around to see people fiddling with their consoles and jotting down notes in their Team Manuals, or leaning behind to share information with their colleagues.  It really is a ‘play’ in the old primary school sense of taking on roles and just imagining.

The set dressing, costumes, lighting and performances are precision-pitched to give a seamless tone, to create a truly virtual, 1970s Mission Control playground in which to immerse the audience.  Sometimes, however, it feels so tightly screwed down that the very playfulness that it seems to encourage doesn’t really have room to take off.  Several people I spoke to afterwards said they felt they were ‘itching for something to do’, and despite there being several direct commands and instructions from Flight Director Gene Kranz (a spiffily waistcoated Jason Whyte), there is room for much, much more interactivity within the structure of the play.

The drama itself is like a dry, bland biscuit – true to the facts, skeletally scripted, and tightly kept in 1970s period.  It’s not a big problem, as the story itself isn’t really the point – it’s more just the point of departure, a place from which to spring into the ‘play’ that will emerge afresh every night.

True to the title of the play, the focus is on Mission Control rather than the astronauts, most of whose dialogue is comic relief.  One lucky punter gets to accompany cast members Ryan O’Kane and impressively moustachioed Rachel Forman into the capsule, and this provides some good laughs.  The main characters, though, are Whyte’s Kranz and the equally reliable Michael Whalley as Michael Whallen.  The rivalry between Kranz’s procedural caution and Whalley’s instinctive decisiveness is the relatively meagre dramatic meat on the play’s structural bones.

However, the audience still has to sit passively through some rather lifeless tracts of dialogue and visuals (Peter Elliott’s Walter Cronkite, for example), whereas if we were issued ongoing tasks to continue with throughout the show we could occupy ourselves very happily with them during the less convincing sequences.

Ultimately, it takes only a short time to figure out that one’s buttons and switches don’t, in fact, do anything; that one’s telephone cannot be used to speak to an audience member on the far side of the room.  Thus, apart from a few lucky punters singled out to search for folders under their desks there is actually little scope for role-play.  While some shy folks might find this a relief, I believe most audience members would respond well to extra stimulus and provocation.

Similarly, from a technical perspective, for the time and effort that has clearly been invested in the production, there is a disappointing lack of ‘wow!’ moments – of theatre magic.  It’s nice to see Technical Systems Designer/Stage Manager/Operator Rob Larsen participating in some dialogue (American accent and all!), but for all the bells and whistles and flashing lights, there’s little in the way of truly special effects.  The astronauts evocation of G-forces and thrust is funny the first time, but gradually pales when we realise that’s all there is to the evocation of space flight.

Still, the production runs very smoothly for something so AV-heavy, and there’s an impressive sense of depth to the lighting/sound-scape.  It’s hard to notice cues or changes because the whole experience is so immersive and authentic.  I found James Milne (Lawrence Arabia)’s compositions slightly out of place, not in a musical sense but a theatrical one.  They seemed to suddenly appear unbidden, as if a soundtrack sprang up while you played make-believe with your playmates in the back yard.

Nonetheless, this is truly an achievement, and clearly a labour of love.  One only has to set foot in the space to feel that, and that single ‘wow!’ is quite enough reason to go along.  While it’s easy to see where the show could – and quite possibly will ,as the season continues – go further in terms of audience participation, there is still a lot of fun to be had with the knobs and dials provided, if you use your imagination.  And if the show can encourage its audiences to do that… then it is a success indeed. 


HACKMAN October 24th, 2008

After reading several reviews I find it necessary to acknowledge the work of Hackman founder and Co-creator of Apollo 13 - Brad Knewstubb. As well as co-creating the original concept for the show he also designed and constructed the world of Mission Control, the Saturn V and the computer consoles.

Yours forever

Gene Hackman
(New Zealand's second most popular poet, writer, boxer.... publisher.)

Thomas LaHood October 19th, 2008

Agreed: the cast are impressive in maintaining a sense of character and drama while simultaneously 'managing' the audience.  There's a certain amount of tour-guiding required.  And some audience members are clearly likely to make more appropriate 'offers' than others!

It is fun, and I really hope that I don't give any other impression.

Michael Wray October 19th, 2008

A brilliant fun production that takes habitual theatre goers, such as myself, a little out of what we would consider our comfort zones in the audience. True, some console positions will have a lot more to do than others. I didn't have so much to do, but hey - I can always go again and grab a more active seat if I want. Actually, I might just do that. Some of the people to my left seemed to be very busy working on something for Michael. However, my daughter took a phone call from President Nixon! And if I had been really itching for more, I could have volunteered for the practical exercise that was required.

One of the  impressive aspects that could be overlooked is that Jason Whyte and Michael Whalley must keep a few improv-like skills in play. The response of the audience is going to differ every night. One section of the audience endured an in-character "shut up" from Jason due to the noise they were making. This is a show that will require the cast to think on their feet.

Tremendous fun!

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