Crystal Skillman’s THE ROCKET MEN to be Presented by The Athenian Players This Month

This premiere production will be directed by Dr. Hugh K. Long at Alabama Center for the Arts April 20th-23rd.


Crystal Skillman's THE ROCKET MEN to be Presented by The Athenian Players This Month

In the first-ever play commissioned by the Alabama Center for the Arts, acclaimed NYC playwright, Crystal Skillman explores the German Rocket Team that was instrumental in the development of the US Space Program turning the small farming community of Huntsville, Alabama into “Rocket City, USA”.

This new play commission, created for Athens State University and Calhoun Community College, allowed Skillman to work on the play in a unique three-year process. This premiere production will be directed by Dr. Hugh K. Long at Alabama Center for the Arts April 20th-23rd.

“The Rocket Men” is a unique theatrical experience that carries us through time, and sometimes across the world, in a blink of an eye to present the story of the German “Rocket Men” who used their scientific skills to flee Nazi Germany and settle in the most unlikely of places…North Alabama. Set in a futuristic planetarium, we follow the dynamic relationship of Wernher von Braun and Heinz-Hermann Koelle, a lesser-known young German rocketeer, who joined the “Operation Paperclip” team several years later. These two have set their sights on Apollo’s success in space exploration and colonization beyond the moon. Still, as the play counts down, we experience the haunting cost of their scientific advancements as the play asks us to consider whose names are remembered in history, and why?

“When invited to see my play Geek!, directed by Dr. Long five years ago, with his Athenian Players, two things happened: I fell in love with the work Hugh was doing at Athens State University and Calhoun Community Center, while at the same time, I visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. There, I discovered von Braun’s story as I got to know the region heavily influenced by his accomplishments,” Crystal shares. “When I discovered the story of Heinz-Hermann Koelle, thirteen years younger, who was brought over to work on the team, I found a way to tell this complex story.”

“It is rare for any actor, let alone students, to have the unique experience of working on a brand new full-length play. It is even more special for these actors to witness a play develop from a conceptual idea and see as it matures into a fully actualized production,” notes Dr. Long. “Crystal’s direct involvement has been invaluable, as she not only taught our students through an online playwriting course offered last fall at Athens State, but has generously used her time to teach our actors about the craft of playwriting as this new play commission progressed. This has been an exciting opportunity for all of us involved, as we not only are able to create new work, but share with our community a play about Huntsville and North Alabama,” Dr. Long states.

“Commissioning a new play is incredibly exciting because we are part of creating something new that will have impact for many decades to come,” Interim President Catherine Wehlburg notes, offering: “Working with Crystal Skillman to bring to life part of the transformative development of rocket science in North Alabama has had a huge impact on our students and our community. Athens State’s ongoing commitment to engage in both the arts and sciences beyond the classroom is central to our mission as a public university; we look forward to sharing this new play with the world.”

The “Rocket Men” cast features Allyson Payne, Marcus Patten, Sarah Smith, Chelsea Baker, David Dyer, Kathy Earnest, Lennie Flowers, Mary J. Graben, Christina Johnson, Emma Schroer, and William Scott Tuttle. The production’s creative team features lighting design by William Richardson, costume design by Dr. Kim Jack, projection designs by Zana Mercury, sound design by Abby Smith, props design by Giorgi Smith, and original music score composed by Mark Pettey. The production is stage managed by Honey Leeann with production assistants Hailey Board (Projection), Vann Pedersen and Jamar Echols (Costumes).

Directed by Dr. Hugh K. Long, The Rocket Men will run April 20th-22nd at 7 PM with a matinee on April 23rd at 2 PM. All performances will take place in the Studio Theatre of the Performing Arts Center at the Alabama Center for the Arts, 133 Second Avenue NE, Decatur, AL. General Admission tickets are $15, and Students/Seniors/Faculty/Staff are $10.

This production is rated Theatre-MA for Mature Language and Adult Themes. Audience discretion is advised. For more information, please visit: Click Here

Inside the Rainbow: Athenian Players ‘Log Cabin’ addresses issues facing LGBTQIA community

By Catherine Godbey, Decatur Daily, Nov. 11, 2022


Athenian Players actors rehearse a scene of “Log Cabin,” which opens tonight at the Alabama Center for the Arts. [JERONI NISA/DECATUR DAILY]

Standing on the set of “Log Cabin” in the middle of the Alabama Center for the Art’s empty theater, Dallas Coffey thought about the importance of the upcoming production. “It’s incredible that this play with a trans man as a lead character is being shown here. It’s really cool to finally see stuff that’s usually not talked about in a positive light down here being talked about so people who may not understand can have the opportunity to understand,” Coffey said.

Written in 2018 by Jordan Harrison, “Log Cabin” focuses on a lesbian couple and a gay couple who struggle to understand the issues faced by their transgender male friend.

The lights will go up at 7 tonight on “Log Cabin,” a production of Athens State’s Athenian Players. Other performances will take place Friday, Saturday and Nov. 18-20 at 7 p.m. at the Alabama Center for the Arts, 133 Second Ave. N.E.

“What drew me to this play were the topics. LGBTQIA rights, specifically trans rights, are so prevalent today,” said director Hugh Long. “Theater should be a slice of life. It’s not here to tell anyone how to feel, it’s simply bringing a conversation out that people are having in their homes. Shakespeare told us to ‘hold a mirror up to nature.’ We are just holding the mirror up and showing what the world is.”

Set in New York City from 2012 to 2016, the comedy examines the cultural divide within the LGBTQIA community — those largely accepted by society and those still under-recognized — and the issues of marriage, parenthood and gender identity.

The play, Long understands, contains hot-button topics not embraced in the South. “When I moved down here, I noticed some of the resistance to this change stemmed from people saying, ‘How dare those city people, those liberals, those Democrats tell me how to live,’” said Long, who grew up in Massachusetts and attended school in New York. “I understand that resistance, whether or not I agree with it. I understand that impulse to push back when someone says you are wrong.”

Through the play, Long hopes to show that those challenging conversations take place in a variety of communities, not just in the South. “The play shows that sometimes resistance and opinions considered conservative occur in the most liberal places,” Long said. “It’s like saying, ‘Look, this gay couple and this lesbian couple have questions and concerns too.’ Let’s just talk about it as humans without bringing politics into it.”

All of the actors in the six-member “Log Cabin” cast either identify on the LGBTQ-intersex-asexual spectrum or as allies.

“They need to tell their story. All I want to do is use my privilege as a cis-gender (birth gender) white male to give them a platform where they can share their truth,” Long said. “There is an audience here for this play. This is the Alabama of the 21st century. People who are on the LGBTQIA spectrum need to know there is representation and a voice for them here.”

The production is rated mature for language and adult themes. Tickets to the play cost $15 for general admission and $10 for students, seniors, faculty and staff. Tickets must be purchased in advance on Eventbrite. Audience members are encouraged to wear masks and practice social distancing.

‘right before i go’: Athenian Players’ staged reading raises suicide awarenes

By Catherine Godbey, Decatur Daily, July 7, 2022

62c598e9096a5From left, Chelsea Baker, Taylor McPeters, Vicki Montgomery, Dallas Coffey, Kathy Earnest and Jamar Echols rehearse the Athenian Players’ production of “right before i go.” [JERONIMO NISA/DECATUR DAILY]

The last words written by individuals lost to suicide, including musician Kurt Cobain, artist Ralph Barton and authors Virginia Woolf and Hunter S. Thompson, will come to life in the Athenian Players’ production of “right before i go.”

“What really struck me about this piece is, not only does it have this gravitas and seriousness to it, it’s written in such a way and includes letters from those who survived their suicide attempts that there is lightness and hope in it,” director Hugh Long said.

The Athenian Players will present the staged reading of “right before i go” tonight and Friday at 7 p.m. at the Alabama Center for the Arts in downtown Decatur. Admission is free with a requested donation of $10, which will be donated to a local north Alabama nonprofit specializing in mental health awareness. A discussion with the actors, playwright and mental health professional will follow the play

“I know a lot of people are scared to bring up the word ‘suicide.’ But we need to. It’s important to ask questions and talk about our feelings. It’s better that we have these conversations rather than retreat in our corners and not talk,” said playwright Stan Zimmerman.

Ten years ago, the death of a friend by suicide inspired Zimmerman, best known for writing for the comedic sitcoms “The Golden Girls,” “Roseanne” and “Gilmore Girls,” to pen “right before i go,” which features excerpts of suicide notes.

“There was so much shame around the topic of suicide and what happened with my friend that I felt I had to do something about this using my craft. That’s when I started looking up suicide notes,” Zimmerman said. “Initially, I was looking for answers to why my friend did what he did. Because I was unable to read his note, I thought I could read other people’s notes and find their why.”

Along with notes by famous individuals, “right before i go” includes the final words of military veterans, individuals in the LGBTQ community, bullied teenagers and people who survived a suicide attempt.

“I was taken back and surprised by how poetic the notes were, not just from people like Virginia Woolf, but by ordinary people. There’s a clarity in them, and they have a point to make and an urgency,” Zimmerman said.

In his notes to theater groups staging the play, Zimmerman said: “Actors should read each letter with emotion and urgency. Do not play it sad…Give these letters and people life.”

Following the advice of Broadway director Michael Wilson, Zimmerman interspersed his story with the letters.

“I was reluctant to tell my story with my friend Kevin because I was afraid to open that part of my heart again because it hurt so much,” Zimmerman said. “The play eventually turned into what happened to a funny guy when something tragic happened in his life. That became the spine of the play and meant revealing everything in my own life.”

To allow more theater groups the opportunity to perform the piece, Zimmerman designed “right before i go” as a staged reading in the vein of “The Vagina Monologues.”

“I specifically created it so it could be read at music stands and stools. That way it could be put up in a couple of days. Also, it could be done with four actors or 25 actors. It makes it very flexible for community theater groups and universities,” Zimmerman said.

Long became aware of the piece in December when Zimmerman posted about how the administration at a university canceled a planned reading of ‘right before I go’ at the school.

“I messaged him and told him I have a theater, a really supportive administration and a group of student actors hungry for honest and truthful work,” Long said.

To prepare for the reading, the cast researched the people behind the letters.

“We spent hours going through the script and finding out who these people were. We even watched clips of them to understand their vocal patterns. Our goal was to try to understand what these people were trying to say in their last moments and where they were coming from,” Long said.

They learned about Ida Craddock, a 19th century American woman who advocated for free speech and women’s rights, Bill Zeller, an American computer programmer who was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and James Whale, the director of the original “Frankenstein” and an openly gay male in 1930s Hollywood.

“It helped a lot to have Kathy Earnest, who is a licensed professional counselor, in the cast. If we had questions or wanted to talk about mental health, we had a professional right there we could talk with,” Long said.

Along with Earnest, the cast includes Chelsea Baker, Dallas Coffey, Jamar Echols, Taylor McPeters, Vicki Montgomery and Zimmerman, who traveled from his home in Los Angeles to Decatur to read the role of the narrator.

“I still get very emotional doing the reading, especially when I get to the part where I have to say my friend’s name. It still gets stuck in my throat. But, doing the play is also very empowering. I know it’s important to do because it is bringing awareness and raises money for suicide prevention,” Zimmerman said.

Past Articles:

“Rumor Has It: Athenian Players to stage ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan'”, by Catherine Godbey, The Decatur Daily, April 14, 2022

“‘Something Rotten’: Alabama Center for the Arts to present first Athens State and Calhoun collaborative musical.” by Catherine GodbeyThe Decatur Daily, July 22, 2021

“Return to the Stage: Athenian Players to stage ‘Love’s Fire’ for live audience.” by Catherine Godbey, The Decatur Daily, April 15, 2021

“Getting a Clue: Athenian Players to bring the board game to life via the Internet.” by Catherine Godbey, The Decatur Daily, Nov. 12, 2020,116888

“Hitting the Big Time,” by Robert Bocknak, Alma Matters, Winter 2011, vol. 6, No. 2

“Even Professors Need Practice,” by Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, The Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2007

“Siblings-in-Arms,” by Joanna Schlegel, Alma Matters, Spring 2010, vol. 5, No. 1