Published October 2, 2020
How did Theatre and Dance graduate student Evan Moritz end up on Mars?
First, some context from Earth. With graduation in sight, Baltimore native Evan Moritz has been working on his thesis towards an MA in Theatre Performance. Upon completion he hopes to continue in the PhD program. Moritz is a writer, director, educator, and performer. He was the founding artistic director of Baltimore Annex Theater producing nearly fifty plays and directing twenty over the company's ten years as a leader in Baltimore's experimental theatre community. His work fuses the genres of hard science fiction and neoclassicism.
Given the THD graduate programs’ emphasis on the intersection of theory and practice, Moritz has been working on a different kind of project: about the possible future colonization of Mars by Earth’s leading technological nations and large corporations.
Moritz discussed two robust Mars habitat simulations currently in operation, one in Hanksville, Utah, and the other in the high arctic. Both are run by the Mars Society, founded by Robert Zubrin, a pro-space colonization advocate and astrophysicist who has pitched Mars expeditions to NASA.
The purpose of the simulations is to develop a better understanding of what life on a Mars colony might actually be like. They attempt to replicate as many aspects of a globed existence as possible, including everything from differences in sleep cycles (Mars days being about thirty-seven minutes longer than here), the planet's greater distance from the sun, its light gravity, and a critical forty-minute relay delay in live radio communications from Earth.
“I was interested in how performance practice as a study comes into play once you have these groups of settlers,” Moritz explained. “The people (who likely colonize Mars) may not all be scientists and astronauts because you’ll have a lot of needs to fulfill. You’ll need botanists and all different sorts of research backgrounds, and artists too. I’m arguing in my MA thesis that the quality of live communication is going to matter a great deal.”
Utah's Mars Desert Research Station is typically populated by small crews who reside there for one week to three months, living on aforementioned Mars time. The campus includes a two-story habitat, greenhouse, solar observatory, robotic observatory, engineering pod, and a science building, connected by tunnels that allow crews to travel between buildings without a spacesuit, with the exception of the robotics area.
The 40-minute communications gap between planets is maintained at all times during the simulation, except in the event of a safety emergency. Among other issues the habitats hope to illuminate is the mental health ramifications associated with the impossibility of real-time communications with Earth.
“I was curious about the considerable time lag present between Mars and Earth. How would people handle it? How would early settlers have meaningful live interactions (both within a station and with Earth)? Much of the communication will be passive, at least with Earth to Mars transmissions. Could ‘liveness’ be transmitted between Mars and Earth, or could it only exist on Mars if people performed for each other (in person)?"
"I also look at people who have done Mars simulation performance art, like Red in View at the Whitney, a not-accurate, but weird habit in an ant-farm type of environment constructed by artists MPA, Amapola Prada, and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg. It’s not very big. The performers can only climb over each other and not around. It’s (set up) against the windows of the Whitney so they can look outside. Is the performance for themselves or for others? Is it for their own-well being as well as any potential viewers? Other artists are trying to live on Mars time in oddball performance simulations, too, to try to catalog successful performance strategies.”
“I have a conflicted angle towards colonization," Moritz said. "Abandoning Earth in favor of Mars because we screwed it up rubs me the wrong way. Is going off-world or saving this one a zero sum game?" Moritz asked.
“Part of what's driving the current neo-liberal space race is not (competition) between Russia, China, and the US, but as an expansion of capitalism. It’s new terrain and new resources. Some of the moon materials will be valuable for fusion research and new technologies," Moritz said. "As on Earth, the role of physical laborers will be critical in the actual extraction, but at what cost, literally and figuratively?”
Moritz’s thesis will also look at performance through multiple lenses. He's drawn to the viewpoint of "Afro-Futurist" science fiction authors and performers. “I’m engaging with artists interested in 'decolonizing' space,” he said. In other words, a model that is not exclusively capitalist. The Afro-Futurists “look at Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and say, ‘We need a different viewpoint and ideology for colonizing space.’”
Moritz’s research has been unavoidably shaped by the global pandemic. “The research I’ve been doing, it crashed on the shore of Covid-19. Maybe there’s a bigger, broader swath of things to look at. What does 'liveness' mean for people in a digital medium?”
"We're in a very different situation, but confronting a somewhat similar problem. Theatres are migrating to digital platforms, playwrights are making TikTok videos, rehearsals are happening from home. While this is currently a workaround for these artists and companies, I realized it was of central importance to my thesis, so I began working digitally.”
“I wanted to get a sense of what each platform could afford the artist, rather than dwell on what they lacked. I started streaming my solo work on Twitch and I'm getting a group of artists together to start working on Zoom and across several platforms like HowlRound and YouTube.”
“It’s hard to imagine that the large national theatres don’t keep streaming their performances once things return to normal," he added.
Moritz also recently presented his research at the THD Graduate Colloquium (over Zoom) and in person at the Mid-America Theatre Conference (MATC) in Chicago in March. "The two experiences were quite different," he said. "While the Zoom colloquium was convenient and, technically, we discussed quite a bit, it had hard starts and stops. The symposium at MATC was well-organized and we needed to finish at a certain time, but the ability to continue conversation in a more relaxed manner after the presentation was very valuable and was missed when I clicked 'Leave Meeting' at the end of the Colloquium."
Despite great technological advances which have made remote communications much easier during COVID-19, it appears there is no full substitute for live human interaction. The distanced nature of Mars performance will likely call out for abundant experiences which allow humans valuable outlets for expression and communication.