"Houston, we have a problem ...". is where the fun begins in an innovative play which asks the audience to help get the Apollo 13 astronauts home safely. Scott Kara reports

While on a road trip around America a few years ago, Kip Chapman and Brad Knewstubb found themselves at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida watching a space shuttle launch.

Seeing Nasa's latest big bird blast-off into space was great. But what had the two Kiwi lads truly inspired - Chapman's an actor and director, and Knewstubb an industrial designer - was a visit to a replica control room used for the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, which was the first manned rocket flight around the moon.

As they browsed the room, with its 60s-style phones, giant video screens, and computer consoles housed in hospital-green casing, they came up with the idea for a play about space exploration.

Of course, they chose the Apollo 13 mission, given the epic tale of survival by its three astronauts who made it back to earth despite a mid-mission malfunction.

"We went to Walmart the next day and bought the film with Tom Hanks in it," remembers Chapman.

The pair have been in creative cahoots for six years now but the play Apollo 13: Mission Control is their most unique project yet.

They refer to it as "a live interactive film on stage". The audience become part of the mission control team, lead by flight director Gene Kranz (played by Jason Whyte), as they make key decisions to ensure the astronauts get back to earth alive. The theatre is transformed into an authentic replica of Mission Control and we witness the three astronauts cooped up in their tiny tin space ship as they fight for their lives.

"What we are trying to create is that the audience have woken up in a Hollywood blockbuster and for them to get in that zone themselves. It's essentially a movie set," says Chapman.

"There's a great camaraderie between the mission controllers and the more the audience gives, the better the show is basically," adds Knewstubb.

Following the play's successful season in Wellington last year it won the most original production award at the Chapman Trip Theatre Awards. The new season, complete with improvements to allow increased audience interaction and more advanced consoles, opens at Hamilton's Meteor on July 20 and at the Aotea Centre in Auckland from July 31. It is timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Knewstubb and Chapman were not even born when the famous Apollo missions were going on, but the story of Apollo 13 fascinates them. And though Kiwis are not known for space travel Chapman sees no reason why the story can't be told by a couple of New Zealanders.

"We were worried about that because who are we to tell the story? But it's such an interesting story and a universal story of survival so why shouldn't we tell it?

"I think sometimes we can get a little isolationist and think we should only tell our stories, but I don't really agree with that."

Chapman admits he's not a space nut and leaves that obsession to Knewstubb who has had a life-long relationship with it.

"I've always been intrigued by the combination of the science and technology involved, and seeing and learning things about places that are so far away, and I find it difficult to comprehend how they launch a rocket from Earth and land it on Mars. It's mindblowing to me and I just love that kind of stuff."

This love of all things space meant Knewstubb relished the chance to design his own Mission Control, which he based on his visit to the Apollo 8 replica as well as hundreds of images available on the internet.

"Space is something people get really obsessive about so there are amazing archives of photos and documents and all sorts of stuff."

Knewstubb says they were initially going to have fairy lights and fake switches, creating more of a mock control room, but it has developed into a fully functioning system complete with "hospital green" powder-coated panels.

"And it's our intention to keep developing it from season to season."

However, probably the most unique part of the play is the key role the audience plays. Involving the punters happened out of necessity because initially they could not afford to pay 30-or-so actors to be in the mission control team. Nor could they afford three astronauts, so for each show a member of the audience becomes command module pilot Jack Swigert and accompanies fellow astronauts Jim Lovell (played by Ryan O'Kane) and Fred Haise (Lee Smith-Gibbons) in the tiny space craft.

"And from when we decided to get the audience involved things really started rolling," says Chapman. "But we were also really conscious of it not being like theatresports, with actors guiding people through this thing. There is a definite story the audience members are part of."

You don't have to be part of the interactive element of the show and for those keen to sit back and watch the mission unfold - like millions around the world did back in the late 60s and early 70s - there are seats available in "the press gallery".

"Like my mum," says Chapman, "she didn't want a bar of the interacting so we've kind of created seats where people can just watch the action. So it is interactive - yet there is a chance just to watch it if you are freaked out about interacting because we know some people are."

However, most people are keen to get involved and during the Wellington season audience members were even speaking in American accents.

This play also has major international potential: not only is it a well known and universal story, but the pair are telling it in a unique way.

"Our goal is to perform it in the States," says Chapman.

And it also appeals to a diverse demographic. "The theatre community is interested because it's a new take on what you can do with theatre; people who are interested in space want to come just because of the historical aspect of it; and families like it because they can take the kids along and it's theatre that they can do together."

And if you do happen to get the astronauts home safe and sound, Chapman and Knewstubb say feel free to stand up, clap, and hug your fellow mission controllers, just like they do in the movies.

Then, and only then, will that mean mission accomplished.

LOWDOWN
What: Apollo 13: Mission Control, live interactive film on stage telling the story of the ill-fated lunar moon
Who: Kip Chapman (co-creator/writer/director), Brad Knewstubb (co-creator/designer), and starring Jason Whyte as flight director Gene Kranz
When: The Meteor, Hamilton, July 20-26; Aotea Centre, Auckland, July 31-Aug 1