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In small steps, he takes a giant leap

Storyteller’s play explores NASA’s history

By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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MARSHFIELD - NASA did the strangest thing to celebrate its 50th birthday last year. It hired a professional storyteller to write a love letter to the institution.

A year and a half ago, Ed Hoffman, director of NASA’s Academy of Program, Project & Engineering Leadership, commissioned Marshfield resident Jay O’Callahan, 71, who has been telling stories all over the world for years, to start working on it. Hoffman hired O’Callahan after a mutual friend insisted the three have lunch together. O’Callahan told Hoffman about a story he had written called “Pouring the Sun,’’ about the hard life in the steel industry in Bethlehem, Pa., as told through an immigrant family.

“It was really right on target,’’ Hoffman says about the approach he was looking for to tell NASA’s history. Soon after, O’Callahan received a $50,000 commission to do the job.

“I was honored and breathless,’’ O’Callahan says. “This was my most ambitious project.’’

He read 30 books and watched hours of NASA tape of events in its history. What O’Callahan came up with is a play titled “Forged in the Stars.’’ He finished his last rehearsal four days ago, and today he will perform it at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at the request of NASA. He will next perform at the Johnson Space Center outside Houston.

“Forged in the Stars’’ arrives as a dangling modifier to last year’s 50th anniversary festivities. O’Callahan needed more time to finish his play, which was OK by NASA. It runs an honest 1 1/4 hours. If true to form, no one in the audience will be checking a watch while he’s on.

The play is a four-character confection that takes place in Boston on Oct. 27, 2007. It is a play within a play in which two characters tell true stories in fictionalized pieces of NASA’s history. O’Callahan plays all parts, providing context to the audience as he goes along. His acting is strong, and his stories indelible. There is poignancy and sadness along with the joy. His goal is to impart the sense of wonder and risk of the place without succumbing to minutiae.

“The story is all about risk because NASA is all about risk,’’ he says. “My job is not to give a lot of facts.’’

O’Callahan caught the storytelling bug early in life. He would entertain his siblings in the back seat of the family car on vacations. As a young adult, he started telling stories for free to kids in Marshfield schools. This arrangement did not put food on the table, but he eventually got paid $100 to perform in one elementary school there. He gradually expanded this paid gig to public schools in Brookline, Newton, Wellesley, and Natick.

He started writing his “Pill Hill’’ stories in the mid-’70s about growing up in the area of Brookline named for the nest of doctors who lived there. His breakthrough came in 1983 with “The Herring Shed,’’ a story he wrote about one year in the life of a young woman working in one such shed in Nova Scotia during World War II. Time magazine called him “a genius’’ for the work.

The man has become a well-known figure on the storytelling circuit and has won many awards for his work. He has performed from London and Dublin to New Zealand, from New York’s Lincoln Center to Boston’s Symphony Hall. The Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned him to write a story to accompany Grieg’s “Peer Gynt’’ for a concert aimed at young people.

His father was headmaster of a defunct, small secretarial and finishing school on Marlborough Street called The Wyndham School. Jay taught and was dean there for half a dozen years before leaving to feed his creative juices. He bounced around at various pursuits before settling in Marshfield in 1970, where his wife, Linda, ran the YWCA and he took care of building maintenance. They raised two children there.

“Forged in the Stars’’ includes Kate DeCordova, a mechanical engineering student at Northeastern who is bracing for the Graduate Records Exam; Jack Carver, a lobsterman’s son from Maine who is a PhD candidate in astrophysics at MIT; Cynthia Moss, Kate’s fiery roommate and a music major at the New England Conservatory of Music; and Edith Whiteside, a Boston Brahmin.

Jack and Kate fall in love, get engaged, then unengaged, and finally marry. Kate is a playwright who performs three short pieces to an MIT audience.

In the first, she tells the story of J.C. High Eagle, an Oklahoma man of Cherokee and Osage blood who spent a long, distinguished career as a key NASA engineer.

Her second performance is about Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, who is being grilled by a fictional admiral about the harrowing drama surrounding the Lunar Module’s final 50,000-foot descent onto the moon’s surface.

Her third tells us about Christa McAuliffe, who was chosen among 4,500 applicants to be the first teacher in space. She was among the crew on the space shuttle Challenger that exploded soon after takeoff in 1986.

O’Callahan will play to a receptive audience. Storytelling, it turns out, is woven into the NASA system as a learning tool. Scientists are trained to share knowledge by telling colleagues their experiences on projects. So he should be among kindred spirits.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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