Interview: Creators of “Cosmonaut Number One” explore theatre in the digital space

Calder Levine and Olivia Woods talk adapting the play from the stage to the screen for NTS' Art Apart

Calder Levine (Playwright/Performer) and Olivia Woods (Director) chat with Montreal Theatre Hub about the digital adaptation of Rubber Tree Media’s original play Cosmonaut Number One, now set to premiere on May 15th as one of the National Theatre School of Canada’s #ArtApart selections.

This interview is presented as part of #RiseMTL, Montreal Theatre Hub’s new journalistic series featuring local artists and companies who are spearheading creative community initiatives for artistic and social activity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As theatres across the city, the nation, and the globe go dark amid unprecedented crisis, quarantined artists are finding themselves in the vulnerable unknown of creation at this time: do we preserve our postponed works for our beloved stage homes or delve in the uncharted territories of the vast virtual realm?

Among the resolute latter are Calder Levine and Olivia Woods, prominent emerging voices in Montreal’s arts scene as the respective playwright-actor and director of an original theatrical piece on (and in) the defiance of boundaries. Perhaps inspired by their play’s very temperament of enterprise, the “exploration of space” has come to appear not only as a literal proceeding in their script, but as a vital motif for the collaborators’ own creative process throughout this stage-to-screen adaptation.

Penned and performed solo by Levine, Cosmonaut Number One is a bio-drama of the life of Yuri Gagarin, the first man to fly in space. Following his flight on April 12th, 1961, in which the Russian pilot completed a full orbit around Earth in 108 minutes, Gagarin became a hero in the Soviet Union for his milestone in the international Space Race. Spanning the late years of World War Two to the height of the Cold War, this fictionalized piece closely examines the late astronaut’s story from multiple perspectives in recounting his extraordinary rise and fall from fame.

“Yuri was a remarkable young man”, begins Calder. “and I was initially inspired to write this play by the elements of his story that read like a legendary myth”.

Gagarin completed his historical expedition at the age of twenty-seven, only to then meet his early death from a plane crash at the age of thirty-four. Told through memories, sound, lived experiences, lighting, movement, poetry, and shadow play, Cosmonaut is a tribute to his legacy of human intrepidity.

Calder Levine as Yuri Gagarin in early rehearsals / pre-digital work for Cosmonaut Number One (Photo Credit: Bianca Ambrosino)

The debut production of Cosmonaut Number One was originally slated to premiere at this year’s St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival – until, of course, “mission aborted” with the Québec government’s suspension of large-scale cultural events in the province for the 2020 summer due to the projected COVID-19 developments.

The choice to go virtual was not exactly instantaneous, however. Much deliberation on the concerns of bringing a theatrical piece to the online sphere preceded the venture. The desire to keep creating, however, came to eclipse any perceived barriers.

The opportunity landed with the National Theatre School of Canada’s announcement of its inaugural Art Apart program in March – a commitment from the NTS to broadcast 100 works by emerging artists as support during trying times for the creative industries. Levine’s freshly minted company – Rubber Tree Media – submitted, and the project was selected among hundreds of candidates from across the nation for a coveted grant.

“At first it was just an impulse to keep working on the play,” reveals Woods on the ultimate decision to apply. “At that point we didn’t really know exactly how to make it digital. It was only once we got the funding that we had the time to discover a really exciting way of going about it.”

Having been developing the research and writing for the script with the dramaturgical support of Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal’s Young Creators Unit since the previous summer, “to lose all of that would have been devastating,” shares Levine. “Not that the work would have been totally gone, but there was this momentum that Olivia and I had been building for the Fringe that we wanted to keep going.”

With their Gagarinesque plunge into the cyber space came the daunting discussion of how to adapt to the alien medium.

“We wanted to do something more than just popping a camera and staging it in Calder’s bedroom,” Woods articulates. “But we also knew that we didn’t want a filmic version of a play.” In seeking an in-between form that would be accessible to theatre artists and viewers, and that still preserved the feel of a live event without actual real-time streaming (technical issues with sound and internet connectivity proved it unfeasible), then came their proposed solution: a single take recording, as inspired by one-shot music videos and vlogs.

To that effect, tentatively every available inch of Levine’s home has been strategically repurposed to conjure varying settings, atmosphere, and ambiance for the 30-minute performance. (Ongoing strict physical distancing measures in Montreal also resulted in the isolated actor resourcefully taking on the additional duties of technician, crew and cameraman for the production). “We’ve been really specific about why we’re choosing certain places in the apartment, and how to maximize how we see where the scene is being played out so that the audience can experience that as well.”

Image credit: Darragh Mondoux

Despite the challenges the team has encountered in refitting the work to an untried hybrid/interdisciplinary form, the unusual process has allowed them to reconnect to their artistry through the essential spirit of play.

“When I first read the script, I don’t think ‘play’ would be one of the words I would initially use to describe it,” admits Olivia with a smile in her voice, “but now it has become such a playful piece. All of the settings that Calder has written in are very detailed, yet we can’t recreate an actual launch pad or space shuttle in his home, and I think completely surrendering to that fact has made it feel now like we’re just having fun experimenting.”

“Relishing in that word has been helpful in relaxing that expectations of what something recorded should look like,” confides Calder, who also has a background in camera work (Rubber Tree Media is part theatre group, part film producer). “A part of me wanted to do a lot more work on that end [of filmmaking], but this has been really nice in that it’s been extremely freeing.”

His director echoes the sentiment: “I feel like I have less to prove in a sense because it’s an entirely new thing. None of us have ever worked in this way. I always feel like I’m coming into rehearsal with a very open mind and a very collaborative energy, and we’ve been lucky that the rest of our team has also had that same mentality.”

Among the contributors are Caite Clark for lighting, Marc-Antoine Legault for sound, and Annalise Peterson-Perry and Joanne Kinnear for production design. Despite working remotely through video conferencing, the creative process remains intimate as roles are rewritten and interwoven.

“Their work has been incredible,” says Woods. “Caite and Marc are doing an amazing job using light and sound to take us to space from the comfort of Calder’s bathroom; Joanne made these beautiful costumes before we even had our first production meeting; and then Annalise just has a wonderful sense of visual story telling. The two of us have really been collaborating on finding dynamic camera angles, a whole new creative element for both of us. It’s funny to think that I’ve never even met two of these people in real life” she muses.” It’s amazing that we’ve been able to build such a strong working relationship on Zoom alone.”

Levine extends the gratitude: “I have such big appreciation for everyone on this project. It’s been extraordinary asking all of these what-if questions and just exploring together. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But I love seeing what’s possible and working that way artistically.”

Stripped of the luxuries of high-tech equipment, the company is thus left unfettered to lean into imaginative curiosity – a poignant mirroring of their play’s own baring of Gagarin’s essence.

“What I’ve learned about Yuri is that he was just this simple guy who wanted to fly and play with planes,” observes Olivia. “For him, going to space was never about the fame or the money, and although it somewhat became that, that’s not how it started and it’s not at the core of who he is. We’ve been coming back to that idea for this character and this story.”

Also akin to the celebrated cosmonaut, Levine, Woods, and their crew are at the fore of a novel movement in Montreal. While it is to be recognized that numerous local artists have endeavoured to publish virtualized content over the past weeks in the format of readings, self-taped monologues, and archival screenings, there is yet to be a surge of fully “staged” D-I-Y productions assembled for public presentation in the here and now. In that regard, Cosmonaut Number One is pioneering in its framing of theatre as we know it.

It is a courageous undertaking amid critical scrutiny – and the creators acknowledge and embrace the fear.

Early on in the revisioning phase of the production,”it was paralyzing,” confesses Calder. “The piece was not quite finished, there were still some issues in the writing that we had to work through, and then the transition to performer mode was terrifying. How was I going to act this? There was no immediate thing to compare it to. I didn’t know what to expect.

“But sitting into that feeling of play and understanding that we can rewrite the rules as part of this first wave of digitalizing theatre was really exciting and liberating. We’re still exploring and still creating, but we saw this beautiful thing that could be; it has become and will continue to become as we move along,” he concludes.

As per the old, sage adage, there can be no great achievement without great risk.

A celebration of technology, community, and the human spirit of discovery, Cosmonaut Number One launches on May 15th.

Tune into for the broadcast and follow Rubber Tree Media on social media for more news and information:

Instagram: @rubbertreemedia
Facebook: Rubber Tree Media
Twitter: @rubber__tree

#RiseMTL by Montreal Theatre Hub
Are you or do you know of someone who has started a creative community initiative in response to COVID-19? We’d love to feature it as part of our #RiseMTL series. E-mail us at

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