Thaddeus Phillips: Inflatable Space

In 1977, the Golden Record was launched on the Voyager probe – together with instructions for any aliens who come across it on how to play a disc. It’s amusing to think that just 40 years later, our Millennial generation of Earthlings would struggle to cope with such archaic technology – and would perhaps find the images of cheery sportsmen, and the sound of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode puzzling!

Thaddeus Phillips is known to Ed Fringe audiences for 17 Border Crossings, which gave us a cleverly staged mix of autobiography and social commentary as its protagonist took us on a thrilling journey across the world’s most challenging passport controls and frontiers. Inflatable Space (created by Phillips and Tatiana Mallarino) is very different in form and content, but is similarly a clever piece that takes true life stories as its starting point. This time, the journey takes us beyond the boundaries of this earth, out through our solar system and way beyond…

We start with an empty stage, house lights on. A man comes in, pops something down at the back, and while the ‘something’ inflates into an enormous doughnut shaped structure, we listen in to a series of phone calls – to CERN, to NASA, to a company called JPL who are apparently in charge of tracking the Voyager probe. Our Voyager-obsessed protagonist manages to get a meeting with the probe’s caretaker, a Mr Stephens, and by an odd co-incidence, this meeting happens the day after contact with the Voyager is lost – what was a very faint signal is now no signal at all…

We whizz back and forth in space and time (although aware that time is not a river, and all times exist simultaneously, so of course we can time travel). The great big doughnut is sometimes the probe; and sometimes the ‘habitats’ that would have been used had we got round to colonising the moon (inflatables being easier to cart through space than building bricks!). There again, it becomes a space station, or the moon. Or, as a little illuminated model Voyager on a stick glides over it, and past it off into the auditorium, it becomes Jupiter (1979), Saturn (1980), Uranus (1986), Neptune (1989). We learn that by 2017 it will – or has, depending where you are on the timeline, if we’re allowed a timeline for just a moment – pass or have passed into interstellar space. And from there? It’ll just go on and on forever. There is nothing to corrupt or destroy it. It will, in theory, outlive all of us. Outlive humanity. Outlive earth. There’s a fantastic thought. Johnny B Goode and Mozart’s Magic Flute out there forever and ever, long after the human race has ceased to exist (even if locked into a format no one can unlock).

This is just one of many fascinating scientific facts that emerge throughout the piece. Here’s another one: there’s more computer power on that thing in your pocket than they had on Voyager. And no, he’s not talking about your smartphone, he’s talking about your key fob.

What a delightful piece of work this is! It is a highly visual piece with not one but two giant inflatable structures, the lovely little Voyager model on a stick, projections onto the surface of the main inflatable, and great live physical interaction with the structures. The science is delivered with a light hand, mostly through conversations between the two men (Thaddeus Phillips and Ean Sheehy).

I left feeling full of wonder – and a little less frightened of Stephen Hawking’s inflation theory.

Thaddeus Phillips: Inflatable Space is presented in association with Aurora Nova 

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing.