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AHAB: BAD FOR BUSINESS
or How Superstorm Sandy Saved My Spaceship
It was my fault. I was asked on the day when I signed contracts, “What if you don’t raise enough money to do the show, what then?” I said, “The spaceship can launch with a room, people and music. That’s all we need.” Though I may have been right, I didn’t really answer the question.
I didn’t balk when the administrator called me from the “art and technology center” that was to be our launch pad and gave me an out. To protect the guilty let’s call him Kent. When Kent kindly called in July of 2012 he offered, “If you want to postpone until February or after just say the word.” But Ahab, that’s me, would have none of it. Onward!
In summer 2012 I was of the thought that the world as we know it might not exist after December 21, 2012. If there was any chance of this then I was determined to see our Earth-bound spacecraft cruise the cosmos by September 27, 2012, our first test flight.
After I told Kent that I wasn’t going to postpone I heard him yell out to the front office, “He’s going for it!” before hanging up the phone.
From here I had six weeks before I’d move into the spaceport to begin building the Universe and the ship to traverse it. Much of the $20,000 that I had raised was going to the Spaceship Kaleidoscope, as it was the big development since our Maiden Voyage in 2010 and we wanted to utilize the opportunity of the art and tech center.
When FLIGHT 18: Maiden Voyage set sail from a defunct retail store in South Street Seaport the Kaleidoscope affectively had one large window with a Google version of outer space mixed by a videographer using a dozen or so prerecorded video sequences: going to the Moon, to a mysterious orb, through the stars etc. The Captain conducted all of the movements of the trip and the flight crew and passengers responded. “Enjoy your trip” was the motto.
For the 2012 incarnation called, FLIGHT18: the cosmic joyride, our vision was to manifest a ship that could A. fly willy-nilly through our solar system; B. allow anyone to fly and C. that our improvised movement though space can be recorded and played back instantaneously. Our space pilot Matt Tennie made all our dreams come true and on time. He rallied a small army of programmers to build the apparatus and the playing field. We had just enough money to get us to our second test flight in September.
Let it be known that over the two years prior to this time I had begun relationships with five “producers” or those that said they would help me at least with fundraising. Through trial and lots of error I witnessed each of them not be capable of doing the job. I also applied for every grant possible and knocked on every door for over a decade. It was the financial support of over sixty beautiful people that kept us alive for as long as we had been.
Kent was minimally impressed and helped us even less. The pilots in our cockpit referred to Kent as “the guy with the red shirt”. The detachment and disregard we were experiencing at our new home was apparent. Indeed, though Kent purports to be helming an incubator for new works of artistic daring, the thrill of our art making was met with chills and cold shoulders.
I scheduled four weeks of test flights as our way to learn the dynamics of the FLIGHT18 experience. Like no other show I’ve ever encountered, the audience was literally half of the happening so we need the passengers for rehearsal.
Throughout the test flight process I had a horrible condition with my foot that made it randomly bloat and hurt. From time to time I had to soak my foot on board. It was misdiagnosed as a spider bite, but was later revealed to be Lyme’s Disease that was climbing up my leg throughout the entire process. Somewhere in October I felt like I was walking on fossilized bone, Ahab hobbling around on a peg leg.
Problems continued aboard the Kaleidoscope, as I didn’t have enough money to pay our nine flight attendants properly. In their dressing room, the Wednesday following our first weekend of test flights, I was forced to ask them if they’d see us through the official opening weekend without pay. I said I would catch up financially after our first weekend of serious box office income.
We officially launched on Thursday October 25, 2012. We didn’t break a bottle on the bough and the hoi polloi kept at bay. We were about $18,000 in debt at that point. Though the FLIGHT18 experience had arrived and achieved its vision, the weight of the debt soured the exultation that should’ve been taking place. Further irritating the glow of “opening night” was the fact that after we got back to Earth, FLIGHT18’s Cruise Director and DJ Rachel Kann had to take a connecting flight to Los Angeles to give a TED Talk.
The following night DJ Jeanne Hopper stepped in to spin throughout the cosmic joyride that was a revelation for all of us. On Saturday night Captain Wally stepped to the turntables and DJ’d for the first time. From this vantage point my mind was blown as I started to bring in music from my own library.
The reviews were already coming in from our test flights: “A wonderfully eccentric and unique night … a mind-bending cosmic dimension … for those brave enough to step outside normal conventions and enter a fun, innovative and highly interactive experience.” – Sarah Congress, nytheatre.com
“It’s a totally unpredictable, bizarre, experience. … If you are willing to let your guard down, leave your cynicism at the door and just roll with it, you will experience a highly imaginative and inventive off-beat adventure. BOTTOM LINE: Weird and random? Pretty much. Creative and one-of-a-kind? For sure.” – Brett Epstein, theasy.com
By noon on Sunday morning we were told that due to the coming “super storm” our Sunday flight would be cancelled. On Monday Superstorm Sandy hit Lower Manhattan hard. Throughout the city there was devastation, homes and lives were lost, everything shut down. Despite being at street level the Spaceship Kaleidoscope and her terminal was unharmed. The art and technology center suffered flooding in the basement and lower level theatre.
For three weeks we waited to hear if the Kent would let us liftoff again. During that time I revamped the inventory of music and restructured the master list, of over 400 tracks of sound, music and spoken word, for what we hoped would be our triumphant return.
The fire alarm system apparently became more damaged then it was before the storm. Kent made the executive decision to not allow the spaceship to launch again despite the fact that it was physically possible. The Center was looking forward to seeking disaster relief for damages and it would hurt their application if they allowed me to continue with business as usual. This I was told.
Without the Center’s permission, just to video record the experience in the best way possible, FLIGHT18 took off for one last sojourn on November 20, 2012. The Spaceship Kaleidoscope and her non-paying passengers exalted in outer space one last time. It was awesome and heartbreaking.
Before our last return to space I had to face the ensemble and apologize for putting everyone in the financial situation we were in. Yes, if there wasn’t a Superstorm I am confident that we would have made the money we needed to pay off all our debts. Regardless, I shared with everyone my realization that it was not wise to both produce and direct FLIGHT18 and that I should not do that double duty again. It is not the best situation for a Captain of an Earth-bound spacecraft to also be the one responsible for contracts and paychecks.
Through tears I promised my crew that I had learned my lesson and would never put anyone in that situation again. After over twenty years of producing and directing my own work I had never not paid performers what was their due, I had never lost money on a show. My long positive streak was over.
As soon as we were grounded for good I went and saw a doctor about my foot and leg. The bite affects reached all the way up to my jaw now. Antibiotics didn’t help but three acupuncture sessions with Mei Qiang over two weeks certainly did. I would wager that if the Superstorm Sandy hadn’t hit, and we flew well into December, I wouldn’t have had the time to save my leg or myself.
Over these next three weeks I single-handedly moved the ship out of the center. As I had no money to pay anyone to help, I did most of the work to restore the studio back to its all grey. Upon moving out Kent had me in his office to go over final details. When I told him that I was leaving $20,000 in debt he said, “Well, now you know what it feels like to be a real artist”. I was also asked to put together all my receipts together and make a detailed accounting of our losses so they could be included in Kent’s application to FEMA. It took me a couple of weeks of work.
I was able to apply for relief funds from three foundations each of which gave what they could. From the Actor’s Fund, the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Dance Fund, FLIGHT18 received approximately $10,000. I was able to send a good percentage of what I owed to the ensemble members and to our other debts. When the Center received over $100,000 from FEMA they did not send a dime to us, the offered a dollar. When I realized Kent had no intention of giving FLIGHT18 any part of the award our receipts helped garner I set out to find a volunteer lawyer.
I got us on a list through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. A midtown firm took up our case after months of being listed. Though Kent had warned me that his lawyers were “big dogs” not to be messed with, I had a team that recognized the injustice that had occurred and made a contract with us to keep the case up for seven years. After over two years there has been no movement and I expect nothing to come of it, save for wasting lawyer time and Kent having a consistent reminder that he screwed us.
How did the Sandy save the ship? She postponed our day in the spotlight giving us time to continue to sharpen the focus of the experience and make necessary improvements.
I have never stopped working on what is now titled SPACEFLIGHT18. Over these three years I have had the opportunity to do the dramaturgical work I had wanted to do ever since FLIGHT 18 turned into a spaceship in 2010. Last year I finished our first script that now features threads of narrative and added extra-terrestrials. Also, the script has now properly cast the Spaceflight Attendants as dancers; no speaking, acting or singing necessary, just be the music.
And with more research I have found a new Captain as a better role model than Ahab. Via Henry Miller, our Brooklyn brother, I have found Captain George Dibbern, the first “citizen of the world”, “the man with no country” who sailed away from Germany in 1930 to be a friend to all peoples, a bridge and a champion for the brotherhood of humanity. He made his own flag and passport. He lived free and shared all that he had.
My “feel free” spirit is a flame I want to share. The come-hell-or-high- water attitude has given way to gratitude and generosity. Over and over I’m shown that the good work of bringing people back into outer space is important. Someone has to set off the inherent freedom-loving spirit in all of us. We will praise our planet and we’ll celebrate her humanity and the expanding cosmic consciousness.
The Universe is a boomerang of love. Off we go again.
– Captain Wally