From Spaceballs to Expedition 6

Bill Pullman's new docudrama mixes astronauts' psychological profiles with trapeze artistry

Today, Mel Brooks probably wouldn't recognize the young actor he cast as the rugged hero Lone Starr in his 1987 Star Wars spoof Spaceballs. With the exception of Independence Day, Bill Pullman's career since has been remarkably earthbound, with roles in movies like Lost Highway and on Broadway in Edward Albee's The Goat. Yet the actor hasn't abandoned the final frontier: As the creator-director of a new docudrama receiving its world premiere this month at the Magic Theatre, Pullman combines found texts, low-flying trapezes, and live music to tell the story of the three astronauts stranded on the International Space Station for six months following the Columbia shuttle disaster of February 2003. SF Weekly caught up with Pullman during rehearsals.

What Inspired Expedition 6?

The idea was born out of an inability to express myself after the shuttle blew up. I was particularly struck by the Middle East's reaction to the disaster. Thousands of people were celebrating the event as a sign from God as the U.S. was poised to invade Iraq. I thought about the Expedition 6 astronauts trapped on the International Space Station during the aftermath. If I had trouble understanding what was going on from my perspective on Earth, how must it have felt from their perspective? I soon became interested in the contrast between what was happening in space and issues on the ground — specifically, how "freedom from gravity" can cause decay in both human and political systems.

What makes Expedition 6 a theater project?

I toyed with the idea of making a movie out of the material, but I soon realized I wanted to explore the subject onstage. Theater is a more poetic and philosophical medium than film. When Wim Wenders first heard me talking about the show, he was convinced that it would make a better movie. However, once we discussed the politics and philosophy featured in the piece, and the poetic nature of the excerpts, he agreed that it would work best onstage.

How did you research the production?

I relied heavily on the Internet. The production was informed by stuff I found online, such as psychological screenings of astronauts from NASA's Web site and Heritage Foundation projections about how much damage would be done if we invaded Iraq.

How did the production develop from there?

In 2002, while I was doing The Goat on Broadway, I was invited to work with the students at the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver. One of the teachers there, Robert Davidson, was training the students in low-flying trapeze. Over eight days, we began to fuse his work together with the research I had done on the shuttle disaster. We subsequently did further workshops in New York, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. In 2006, I felt like the text was in a good place, so I started looking for a venue to stage a full-length production. I originally considered Washington, Houston, and Seattle because of those cities' investment in aerospace. But then I started making great contacts in the Bay Area, like the Chabot Space & Science Center, which is how the production eventually found its way to the Magic.

How is working at the Magic different from previous incarnations of the piece?

Half of the cast is new. Plus, the Magic is a small space with an environmental feeling. I'm looking forward to watching the performers fly on trapezes right over theatergoers' heads.

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