Nancy Keystone Mechanics and Flight: A Los Angeles-Based Theatremaker Eyes Space Technology in Her Four-Years-in-the-Making Apollo

By Wada, Karen | American Theatre, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview

Nancy Keystone Mechanics and Flight: A Los Angeles-Based Theatremaker Eyes Space Technology in Her Four-Years-in-the-Making Apollo


Wada, Karen, American Theatre


"I'm not a blank-page kind of person," says Nancy Keystone. Indeed, the Los Angeles-based theatre director loves to convert empty spaces (Peter Brook was an early inspiration) into provocative collages of text, movement and design. Keystone has won acclaim around the country, including the 2003 TCG Alan Schneider director's award, for staging Shakespeare, Chekhov and Albee, and contemporary plays such as Clare McIntyre's feminist drama Low Level Panic. She also has ventured into opera and filmmaking.

The 42-year-old San Francisco native grew up in Santa Barbara and received a bachelor's degree in theatre arts from UCLA and a master's degree in directing from Carnegie Mellon University. While at UCLA she founded the ensemble now known as Critical Mass Performance Group, which explores alternate approaches to history through the creation of new works and the reimagining of classics. Keystone and Critical Mass's most notable collaboration to date is The Akhmatova Project, a 2000 multimedia movement piece inspired by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

"I'm very interested in doing in the theatre what can only be done in the theatre," Keystone says. "I want to create transformative events, to explore the human condition through enactment of powerful stories, and I want to engage the audience through the nerves, the mind and the heart." Although she is known for her wildly imaginative style, she sees herself as a formalist: "Both in the play and in the process of presenting it, structure and rigor are important. I love the Martha Graham quote, 'You either lift your leg 500 times, or you don't.' If you practice those lifts you can do the big leap. It's about mechanics and flight. I alternate between those two things."

Currently, Keystone and Critical Mass are preparing Apollo, which she calls a "three-dimensional poem" based on the relationship between German scientists and the American space program. Part 1 (Lebensraum) premieres in June at the Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, Calif. Part 2 is being developed at Portland Center Stage in Oregon through a TCG National Theatre Artist Residency Program grant.

KAREN WADA: Let's talk about Apollo as a way to explore your creative process, which can be quite lengthy.

NANCY KEYSTONE: Don't get the wrong idea. If I need to do something quickly, I will. I've worked a lot within the regional theatre model. However, dealing with a Shakespeare play in three weeks is a bit silly. So when I can, I love to take two to three years to make a piece. First of all, these are really big projects. I'm creating new structures and, along with the actors, a new performance vocabulary. All this involves research, workshops and presentations in front of different audiences. It's very collaborative, too, which takes more time. With Apollo I may be verging on taking too long, but these things need to gestate.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

How did Apollo begin?

In 1990 I read an article about Arthur Rudolph, a German scientist who was the production manager for the V2 missile, which was built through slave labor and cost 20,000 lives. He came to America after World War II and was the project manager for rockets like the Saturn V, which took the Apollo mission to the moon. We had brought these scientists here through a secret military operation in which Army Intelligence had gone through the Germans' dossiers and eliminated any mention of possible crimes. In the '80s there was a big expose. In 1984 Rudolph was investigated by the Justice Department. He relinquished his U.S. citizenship and went back to Germany rather than face a deportation trial. He spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name and return to the U.S.

In 2001 I was ready to start work. I did some research and Critical Mass began to meet that December. I read Jules Verne's book From the Earth to the Moon, which he wrote in France in 1865 during our Civil War.

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