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From disaster to dreams: The Helfaer finds hope in Challenger tragedy

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"Defying Gravity" finds inspiration in tragedy. Photo by Danny Alfonzo/

In 1986, over fifteen years before the Columbia explosion caused America to look up at the sky in fear instead of awe, there was the Challenger.

Seventy-three seconds into its launch into space, the space shuttle exploded into a terrifying fireball, killing all seven members of the crew, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. The nation, as well as classrooms, watched as a heroic moment turned suddenly into horror.

Using art to cope with a tragedy is nothing new in American culture, whether it be through literature or film, such as the 9/11-based “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”

The stage is not exempt from this trend, as can be seen in Marquette University’s upcoming production of Jane Anderson’s “Defying Gravity,” which opens this weekend at the Helfaer Theatre.

According to the show’s director Phylis Ravel, however, “Defying Gravity” is about more than just reawakening an infamous tragedy.

“It is about the Challenger, but yet it’s also a fantasy,” Ravel said. “We want to think about how we experience the universe and what our imagination is.”

The play, written by Emmy Award-winning writer and playwright Jane Anderson, comes in three parts. The first part follows the tragic events of the Challenger. The other two segments of the production follow the responses of those affected by the explosion, including McAuliffe’s daughter, an elderly couple who witnessed the incident firsthand and a NASA crewman. In the play’s original New York production, Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman portrayed the guilt-ridden ground-crew member.

As the story goes along, the audience sees the various characters react and attempt to move on and continue to their lives.

“We’re angry, we’re enraged, but then we must go beyond that,” Ravel said.

Though the story is based on a real tragedy, there are elements of “Defying Gravity” that are not based on fact. Ravel on several occasions classified the play, especially the third part, as a “fantasy.” One of the most glaring deviations from reality is the inclusion of famous impressionist painter Claude Monet as a key character.

According to Mohammad ElBsat, a graduate student in the College of Engineering who plays the famed artist, Monet helps to weave all of the characters and stories together.

“He starts off the play with a monologue, telling a story about a woman who was looking at his Rouen Cathedral Series but not seeing or recognizing the cathedral itself,” ElBsat said. “It kind of sets off the tone, and how people perceive things differently under different circumstances. In his case, it was light.”

Even though Monet died several decades before a human being would travel into space, Ravel noted that he was always fascinated by what lied above the clouds.

“He always wanted to paint the Earth from the point of view of God,” Ravel said.

Since the play creates the McAuliffe character as an artist, as well as a teacher, the two have a unique spiritual bond. Their bond passes onto the teacher’s daughter, who is often joined and comforted by Monet on stage.

While the presence of Monet in a modern scenario and the unique structure may surprise some viewers, for Ravel, it was one of the play’s main draws.

“I didn’t find it problematic because I’ve always been a fan of fantasy literature,” Ravel said.

Due to the story’s jumps in time and into space, the production uses minimal staging, adopting simple platforms to serve as multiple acting environments. While it features relatively simple sets, however, the play relies on other technical elements, such as sound, lighting and video, to create the atmosphere, or lack thereof, for the show.

In addition to the student production members, Ravel also brought in a guest artist, Ken Martin, to help design the lighting schemes for the play. The addition of Martin, who works in regional theaters across the country, brought more than just lighting concepts to the show.

“He comes in as a guest lighting designer, but then he also holds classes,” Ravel said. “So it’s quite a good experience for our students.”

One of the production’s greater challenges came from the fact that the Challenger explosion happened in 1986, years before many of the cast and crew were even born. ElBsat was only three years old when the tragedy happened, and even Ravel noted that since it happened so long ago, “it becomes history.”

As a result, Ravel led the cast and crew in several pre-show discussions to talk about the event and its significance.

“We showed them a lot of documentaries on the Challenger explosion and a biography on Christa McAuliffe to create an empathetic connection,” Ravel said.

Ravel, who was alive when the Challenger explosion happened, recalled the seeming lack of communication in NASA’s pre-planning of the Challenger launch. At the time, many people blamed the shuttle’s mechanical failure on the rushed launch, which took place on an uncharacteristically — and possibly dangerously — cold day.

These communication troubles noted in the Challenger explosion are also reflected in “Defying Gravity.”

“We study communication and talk about being clear,” Ravel said. “But in the end, we have to really think about whether we are as clear as we can be so that when we look back on something we have done, we can say we did everything we could.”

ElBsat, who was introduced to the Challenger tragedy thanks to the play, was struck by the presence of an everyday person like McAuliffe being given the chance to go into space. Despite the heartbreaking results, ElBsat finds a great amount of inspiration in McAuliffe’s story.

“Even though tragic things happen, she got to go on that journey,” ElBsat said. “Life is too short so you should go for whatever you feel like doing and work for it.”

Like ElBsat, “Defying Gravity” hopes to portray that even in the most tragic times, hope takes off.

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