October, 1957. Elvis Presley is dominating the charts. “Bridge on the River Kwai” debuts in England. The Little Rock 9 just began their first days of school in Arkansas, under the protection of Army National Guard troops. Jack Kerouac’s tome, On The Road, has just been published, launching the beatnik generation.
The Gaither report is weeks from being published, which will sound a clanging bell for the need for more fallout shelters during the early days of the Cold War.
And on Oct. 4, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, putting the first man-made object into space, scaring the beejeezus out of every U.S. citizen.
The Theater Company of Lafayette and its artistic director Madge Montgomery see the 50th anniversary of the launch as more than just a date.
So much so, in fact, that she’s dedicated a whole show run about the topic. “The Deep Beep-Beep: Short Plays Inspired by Sputnik” is a collection of eight short plays inspired by the launch of the Space Race.
“There are some obvious parallels between the late 1950s and today,” Montgomery says. “We used to have communists and duck-and-cover; now we have terrorists and lockdown drills.”
She brought this unusual production to fruition, gathering the directors and writers together and grabbing a couple of the pieces herself to direct.
Writer Edith Weiss was only too excited to be involved in the project. Her piece, “Dancing with the Jihad,” is about a cheerfully patriotic dance instructor who, relieved that America won the Space Race, “inadvertently destroys her student during a dance lesson.”
“The space race,” Weiss says, “with us in second place, was used by the government to instill great fear in Americans. I saw parallels to today.” It didn’t take too long to bang out a script with such inspiration. The theater company’s commitment to stretching artistically and producing untested material proves to be an incentive to fledgling playwrights.
“Giving new plays full productions is a risky act,” Weiss says, “…and it nurtures new playwrights. I was so impressed with the ‘Frankenstein Experiment’ and wanted to work with Lafayette again.”
“The Frankenstein Experiment” was a similar concept piece produced in 2006; 12 short plays, 11 of which had been written and produced just for that show. But coming up with a good concept is one thing, inspiration another. Enter Sputnik.
“A few years ago,” Montgomery says, “I ran across a book called Sputnik: The Shock of the Century by Paul Dickson. (It) proposed that Sputnik was one of the most important and pivotal events of the 20th century. I realized that we were coming up to the 50th anniversary of the launch, and thought that it was a rich topic that sheds light on who we were back then, as well as who we are today. I think I was particularly drawn to Sputnik, because it represents both the hope and fear that Americans experienced in the late 1950s.”
“The Deep Beep-Beep : Short Plays Inspired By Sputnik”
by Rob Gerlach, directed by Jackie Tisinai
A fast-paced farce featuring Mamie and Ike in the White House master bedroom on the night Sputnik is launched.
“If This Had Been A Real Emergency”
by Susan Hickey, directed by Jackie Tisinai
Two girl scouts, one from 1962 and one from 2007, find common ground as they discuss communists, terrorists, lockdown drills and Ken dolls.
by David McClinton, directed by Bill Graham
In this parody of “Star Trek,” Chekhov proves once and for all the superiority of the Russians as he recounts his own version of the launch of Sputnik.
“Unit One, Female”
by John Thornberry, directed by Tim Housand
Inspired by true events, this play provides a snapshot of Mercury 13 women astronauts with the right stuff at the wrong time in history.
by C.P. Stancich, directed by Madge Montgomery
Four individuals have been drawn together into a bizarre support group after they discover the shocking truth about Sputnik and their own origins.
by Nora Douglass, directed by Madge Montgomery
A dark comedy in which a German scientist ponders his unlikely fate as he builds a satellite more lovable than Sputnik.
by David Golden, directed by Brian Miller
The launch of Sputnik reverberates with three different women from three different eras in this time-tripping romp.
“Dancing With the Jihad”
by Edith Weiss, directed by Billie McBride
Relieved that America won the Space Race, a cheerfully patriotic dance instructor inadvertently destroys her student during a tango lesson.