A New Play About the Scandalous Astronaut Lisa Nowak

Lisa Nowak on top of the world
Lisa Nowak on top of the world
NASA

"I've come to believe that all theater is 'experimental theater,'" declares Los Angeles stage auteur Joseph Tepperman. "But I don't know -- there's a problem with using that word because then people expect Robert Wilson, they expect something avant-garde with a capital A, capital G."

Tepperman and his friend, collaborator and composer, David Dominique, are sitting before Son of Semele Theater's bare stage, attempting to describe the indescribable. Which is to say, they are talking about Starcrosser's Cut, their latest foray into a dramatic topology of philosophy, political history, recent news headlines and music all stamped with a sophisticated irony and surrealism that has become the pair's most recognizable signature.

"We're going to be up there," Dominique says, pointing to a low-ceilinged curtained loft above the upstage wall. "That's the plan, at least. We're going to try and set that up on, I guess, that's tomorrow. So this curtain that you see up there will be half-drawn and I'll be conducting from the closest corner there."

It frankly seems unlikely that in the next two weeks, a show of Starcrosser's Cut's intellectual scope and aesthetic ambition will somehow spring to life with rehearsed actors and musicians and a fully realized production design in time for the scheduled opening. But the pair has pulled off more spectacular challenges in the past.

Playwright-director Joseph Tepperman & composer David Dominique
Playwright-director Joseph Tepperman & composer David Dominique
Bill Raden

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Their most legendary was as part of the avant-punk, dissonant marching band Killsonic, which took over REDCAT for three evenings during 2010's NOW Festival, to perform the company-devised experimental opera Tongues, Bloody Tongues. For that production, in which Dominique served as a co-composer, Tepperman's libretto examined the Iraq war through the historical lens of Gertrude Bell (the female T.E. Lawrence), a British-colonial architect of the modern Iraq state.

Tongues, which featured a vividly surreal costume and production design by frequent Tepperman collaborator (and musician-performer) Dorian Wood, and an ululating chorus, may be most memorable for its thrilling overture march in which the 30-piece Killsonic band led the audience in a parade that began in the Disney Hall parking structure and wound through the REDCAT lobby before entering the theater itself and descending to the stage.

For Starcrosser's Cut, Tepperman and Dominique felt the subject demanded a bit more controlled intimacy and a lot less sturm und drang than that generated by the combination of opera and Killsonic. That's because rather than war and Western imperialism, Starcrosser's Cut deals with one fateful act in the life of former astronaut Lisa Nowak.

Nowak following her uncontrolled descent
Nowak following her uncontrolled descent

Specifically, the play explores the immediate aftermath of the February 5, 2007 attack in which Nowak, a shuttle astronaut and veteran mission specialist, stalked Air Force officer Colleen Shipman to an Orlando International Airport parking lot and assaulted her with pepper spray.

At the time, the story -- the first time an astronaut had been charged with a felony -- sparked a global media frenzy, especially when it was revealed that Nowak had been recently jilted by Shipman's boyfriend, fellow shuttle astronaut William Oefelein. Even more salacious was the news that Nowak's car trunk was packed with the kind of arsenal and incriminating paraphernalia (famously including astronaut diapers and a 2 lb. sledgehammer) to lend the attack all the tawdry trappings of a deranged kidnap-murder plot aimed at eliminating Nowak's romantic competition.

By the time of Tongues, Bloody Tongues, Tepperman and Dominique were already discussing the possibility of a scaled-down collaboration. "Tongues, Bloody Tongues was a great experience," Dominique remarks, "but we wanted to do something that was smaller, more under control and had a different slant to it.

That's when Tepperman came across the suppressed transcript of Nowak's initial police interrogation following her arrest. "And just reading that transcript, it seemed to me that this already feels like drama," he remembers. "Because she tells that detective some incredibly bonkers things. You know, she talks about how she slept in outer space, she talks about her marriage, she talks about, you know, things you would not normally tell a detective."

David Dominique
David Dominique
Bill Raden

The initial thought was to merely use the unedited transcript as Starcrosser's text. "[Joe] sent me the transcripts a long time ago," Dominique recalls. "And he originally wanted to just use the transcript mostly. ... He said, 'Here it is. We have our libretto.' Originally we were thinking of it more as an opera, actually. But I started to feel uncomfortable setting some of these things to singing. I thought it would be forced."

"It would trivialize the whole situation," Tepperman agrees. "Like we've been trying to preserve as much dignity in this [as possible]. We didn't want to have, like, diaper kick lines and stuff like that. So I rewrote that transcript ... over maybe a year-and-a-half period. And had what I thought was a finished text. Sent it to Dave and got his comments on it." Which, like all playwriting, is the point at which the real writing began.

"Where Tongues, Bloody Tongues was quite abstract, Dominique continues, "at a certain point [Starcrosser] was more bound to what had happened to some degree, because it was based on this transcript and such. But as this process continued -- I don't want to at all take credit -- but I remember at a certain point saying [to Tepperman], 'Now that you have this concrete thing, you can filter this through your voice more.'"

What eventually emerged became a re-imagination -- and "fictionalization," Tepperman is quick to add -- of both Nowak and the transcript itself. In real life, Nowak's attorneys were able to suppress the evidence of Nowak's incriminating, rambling, evasive and continuously self-contradicting recording on the grounds that her interrogator failed to properly Mirandize her.

In performance, Tepperman foregrounds that constant flux of linguistic revision and evasion -- and, later, her attorney's courtroom reinterpretation -- through the medium with which the actual interrogation was originally conducted: a police cassette recorder. The staging conceit resonated with Tepperman for a host of reasons, not the least being his own body of live, cassette-based performances under his performance-art persona, Mooey Moobau.

Joseph Tepperman
Joseph Tepperman
Bill Raden

"It's playing a lot of different roles," he says about the recorder. "The cassette [becomes] a metaphor for memory the same way that it works in plays like Krapp's Last Tape. ... Cassettes are not the same as digital, obviously, or even vinyl. Because cassettes are very malleable. You can tape over them very easily. Every time you listen to them, they degrade just a little bit. And so there's an element of that, of like as she's going though this, she's recounting the same things over and over, but it changes just a little bit every time."

Into that metanarrative lattice, Tepperman has threaded a three-act, two character, 90-minute ethical-existential dialectic that stars Shawn Lockie as Nowak and Tom Colitt as her interrogator, a Detecive Camuso (named after French Existentialist Albert Camus). A kind of hallucinatory Socratic dialogue, the play investigates the tension between the concepts of justice and mercy, and how without one or the other, the moral world collapses. Overlaid onto that is a biting critique of the space program itself.

"Lisa Nowak herself is [used as] a vehicle for exploring this moral question," says Tepperman. "Are we all responsible or can we all be left off the hook for these crimes that we do if it's a crime of passion? It's the same way that we're looking at the moral decline of the United States and the moral decline of NASA, and actually the failure of the space program, the failure of the historical narrative at this point in history, where NASA is using science that was originally developed for the atomic bomb."

If NASA emerges somewhat scathed and blistered from the show, the process of dramatizing Nowak wound up garnering both men's sympathies for the ex-astronaut. "It's really easy to demonize someone who engages in a sensational and bizarre and terrifying act," Dominique notes, "but both of us and probably most people if they're really honest about it have been driven onto the spectrum of insanity and loss of contact with reality by extreme emotional and personal situations."

Nowak in a reflective orbital moment
Nowak in a reflective orbital moment
NASA

For Dominique, that swing in compassion demanded a similar midstream change of course in his approach to the score. The composer, who cites '60s jazz influences like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman along with postwar avant garde masters like György Ligeti, Luciano Berio and John Cage, recalls, "Originally I was going quite dark with it. I was going quite dissonant and terrifying and menacing with the music. But at a certain point when I came to relate more to this character, a bell went off and that's when I realized that I needed to do something that was more compassionate, more childlike, still ambiguous and mysterious, but instead of being on the dark side, on the naïve side."

Tepperman adds that the play has proved just as moving and self-revealing to the cast and crew. "So it's us as the creative team and also other people involved with it say, "Okay, now I get it because I've been there too." ... Anyone of us is capable of doing what she did given the right military training. Given the right circumstances, anyone of us is probably six months away from doing something as bad or worse."

Starcrosser's Cut opens June 8 at Son of Semele Theater for six performances.

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