BWW Interview: Rebecca Wahls, Rebecca Ballinger of REBECCA AND BECCA IN SPACE
From Ad Astra to Gravity, astronauts and the idea of going into the unknown of space has been part of the cinematic subconscious for some time. Movies and TV shows about space can be pretty serious, but DC area theatre artists Rebecca Wahls and Rebecca Ballinger (Becca) decided to take on the lighter side of space in their space-comedy web series, Rebecca and Becca in Space. Over nine episodes, the series focuses on two astronauts, Rebecca and Becca, who find out that their missions have been cut short, as they play truth or dare to pass the time until they can be rescued. The series is funded by George Mason University as part of the Alumni Artist Support Initiative and was presented as part of the Mason at Home Series. At 36 minutes and 55 seconds, Rebecca and Becca in Space is a true #mircobinge.
I virtually interviewed Rebecca and Becca on Earth about the challenges of filming (and editing) a web series, how to make space ice cream on a budget, and their favorite episodes.
What was the inspiration for this series?
Becca: Rebecca and I got this idea that we wanted to write a sketch show together while Rebecca was directing me in a show called Spills for Who What Where about a year ago. When we first met together, we made a list of occupations that at any point we wanted to be when we grew up, and at the top of both of our lists was astronaut. That was the jumping off point for us.
Why did you decide to set this show in space?
Rebecca: We drafted this in July of 2019 and at that point it never occurred to us that we would be living in a world where we couldn't physically be together. The original idea was that we were going to be astronauts on the same space station. Since we were in isolation, we had the time and desire to make this series now. We needed to figure out a way to make it for now. We adjusted our script so that we were on separate space stations. Why space? For me, both of my parents met working at NASA. It is a famous family story that they met at the NASA volleyball league. Space has been a pretty big part of my life and worldview. When I was little, I would watch Disney movies and also Apollo 13. Those were just always in the rotation. It's always been there for me, and it was an exciting thing to write about.
Becca: My Dad has always been a huge astronomy nerd, and I grew up around that. In college, I would take these astronomy classes and I loved it so much. I was going to minor in it, but I realized that there was more math than my brain could handle. I got out of that and decided to write sketch comedy about space instead.
Rebecca: I also took an astronomy class in college. It was the hardest class I took.
Becca: It is hard. There is no room for mistakes in space.
Did you research anything about astronauts for this web series? Did you learn anything interesting?
Becaa: We knew that we wanted our friend Kira Omans to have a cameo as another astronaut. I did all this research trying to find a female Chinese astronaut, and found Liu Yang who is an actual astronaut for China. I researched some things about her before I wrote the script and developed that character for Kira to play.
Rebecca: Liu Yang is Becca's character's absolute hero, and she's a pretty cool lady. I spent a lot of time looking at astronauts' Instagram accounts to see how they spend their day to day. The kind of thing that they post on their Instagrams is the general idea for the show that Rebecca and Becca are meant to be putting on, which is a science show for children. So, just seeing what kinds of things they talked about on Instagram was able to inspire aspects of the show. And of course, there are things that are complete fiction like we have the ability to turn our zero gravity function on and off. That's not real.
Becca: Fun Fact: Scientists have developed the technology to create anti-zero gravity, but the station would have to spin really fast which means there couldn't be any windows. They need to have windows for astronauts' well-being, which is why there isn't any anti-gravity technology in use yet.
Rebecca: Interesting, I didn't know that. There's a joke about boiling water. There is an episode where I dare Becca to eat a potato, which she is growing on her spaceship. It was based on The Martian more than anything else. There is a bit where she is like 'I can't eat the potato because I can't boil water. It's dangerous because it is the one thing that we can't do by ourselves up here.' You can, of course, boil water in space, but it's very complicated.
What challenges have you faced putting this series together?
Becca: It was hard trying to have this intricate FaceTime set-up where we can hear each other, but when we are recording ourselves the other person's audio isn't in the video. Just trying to sync ourselves up while filming the episodes was definitely a challenge. And, anytime we had somebody come on to be a cameo or introduced a third party that filming took a little bit longer.
Rebecca: The single hardest thing we had to do was in the Christmas special, the final episode of this season. Becca wrote a song for us to sing about Sally Ride to the tune of "Oh, Christmas Tree." We kept having issues where we would say 'Rebecca and Becca in Space' out of sync and would have to back up to catch up with each other, which is the worst possible thing you can do in a way. So, what we ended up doing for that song was that I muted Becca and just sang into the void while she followed along with me. Fortunately, it worked. It was very stressful. Another cool thing is that we primarily used stuff we already had in our homes. We ordered the space suits, which are really blue work jumpsuits. I was watching Community the other day, and a bunch of custodians on the show were wearing the same jumpsuits. I was like 'Oh my God, that's my space suit.' We also ordered our own flag patches. Otherwise, everything else was just stuff in our houses.
Becca: I cut up a pita chip bag and made it into a garland for the last episode. I think that was the fanciest tech I did for the show.
Rebecca: You also had to doctor the ice cream sandwich.
Becca: Oh yeah! We didn't want to spend the ten dollars to order a single astronaut ice cream sandwich. So, instead we got rice cakes and put the ice cream sandwich bread on the outside of the rice cake to get that crunch.
Rebecca: Weirdly, what wasn't a challenge was working together virtually.
Becca: Yeah, I think we both didn't get stressed out and we got along really well. We built off each other's ideas super well. Magically, we never got mad at each other. So, that wasn't a challenge, that was a miracle.
What was your favorite episode to film or edit?
Rebecca: Mine is 'Space Walk,' which is the episode where I dare Becca to go outside the space station with a sign that says 'Dance if you think I'm cute.' The vision for a magical moment of little puppet Becca with her sign going past my window in space was one of the overall commanding images for me for this show. I guess from the beginning even before we knew we were going to be isolated (and it is more profound since we are isolated) was this image of the one astronaut looking out the window at the other one with the whimsical sign - that to me is very much our show.
Becca: I had so much fun editing together 'Insane City', the episode where we call Rebecca's Mom. We had these two other audio files from our two cameos. I edited together these two files and doctored the sound to make it like they were on speaker, and then added special effects like the sound of them picking up the phone or pausing before speaking. Adding those things to make it sound natural was fun for me. I really had fun with the sound design for that episode.
Rebecca: It's always fun whenever we brought on guest stars like Kira who plays Liu Yang. Then in 'Insane City,' which Becca just referenced, we had Mary Lechter who played my mom and Tess Higgins who plays my sister. I think the other fun one to shoot was the zero gravity episode itself. It was a fun challenge to write...my hair floats up and the potatoes float around Becca. That was actually our zero gravity technicians (my husband and Becca's fiancé) with sticks and thread just puppeting stuff around us. That was its own special brand of fun. They were good sports.
Are you planning on doing any more episodes in the future?
Rebecca: Loyal viewers will know that people are coming to get us at the end of the current season. So, I think we'll just have to see how good of a job the government does with getting their act together enough to send people into space to get people out of space.
Becca: The double meaning in that sentence! A lot of things could go wrong, and a lot of things can change in space. So, we'll see...