New two-man show ‘Space Dogs’ to premiere Off-Broadway next month

Nick Blaemire and Van Hughes at the MCC Theater.
Photo: Da Ping Luo

A new musical that is telling the story of a dog’s role in the space race will premiere Off-Broadway in the coming weeks.

“Space Dogs” tells the story of a top-secret Russian scientist who sent Laika, a stray dog, up into space on a solo mission during the Cold War. Written and performed by Nick Blaemire and Van Hughes, the show takes a look at the space race between the United States and Russia not just from the human perspective but also from the perspective of the dogs that went to space.

“I’ve always been obsessed with space and I never really explored it in my writing. I was sort of poking around YouTube trying to figure out what to do for my next show,” said Hughes. “I kind of fell upon this story of the Russian space race with America and I didn’t know there were 40 dogs that were used during the space race. Once I found that out I was like, wait a minute, this sounds like an incredible story.”

The story of “Space Dogs” charts the history of the space race from its beginnings to the moon landing in 1969, including a ton of information that was previously made available to the public before. Along the way, the audience gets to explore the relationship between man and dog through the lens of the events of the space exploration and competition between the US and the Soviet Union.

“There is something so pure about the relationship between man and dog partially because there’s historical evidence that we bred dogs to love us,” said Blaemire. “The story takes in that large scope but focuses on the beginning of the space race from 1950 to 1966 as Russia sends 40 dogs into space, America sends two chimps and tries to send up a bear and a monkey. It’s a lot of stuff that has not really been publicized because a lot was classified until 2002, we’re opening the vaults here.”

“The story obviously follows the historical steps it took to get us where we are in terms of how did we get to space, why do we go to space, kind of connected to as the world is shifting now,” said Hughes. “People talk about climate change, how do we get off this planet? There was always something in humanity’s mind and where space exploration comes from. You throw dogs into the mix, they don’t know what’s going on but they are here to serve us. It just makes the story more fascinating.”

“In some ways, dogs are deeper than humans. There’s this sense of humans wanting more and looking skyward and dogs are satisfied looking right at us,” said Blaemire.

The show takes a “Lonely Island” approach where the show blends genres and takes an absurdist look at the story. Both Blaemire and Hughes used that opportunity to put a new spin on what a Broadway show could potentially look like.

“The fact that first living beings in space were dogs was kind of an absurd concept and really lends itself well to the theatre we like to make, stuff that shifts form,” said Blaemire. “We love rock operas and concept albums as much as we love Broadway. It really gave us the opportunity to look at how form and content really match here and the absurdity of the true story offers us really interesting opportunities stylistically while also talking about a real all too real political dynamic that we are still living in with America and Russia.”

“It had a new take on what a musical could look like. We’ve done some shows and see how they come around, wanted to create our own version of what a highly theatricalized musical could really feel like,” said Hughes. “So we started talking about this bonkers story where you’re like, how did all this happen with little technology over 50 years ago that we felt like we could tell it. We jump from genre to genre trying to find different worlds in how we can explain these different ideas. We had so much fun explaining them to each other and we wanted to bring the audience into that.”

As a two-man show, Blaemire and Hughes are tasked to bring every character to life. Blaemire plays Laika and Hughes plays the scientist who sent Laika into space, and both actors take on every other character in the show, including President Lyndon B. Johnson and Former Premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev.

Though there won’t be any real animals on stage, “Space Dogs” has an impressive lineup of puppets that take on the animal roles in the story. Both Blaemire and Hughes are in awe of the design team who helped bring “Space Dogs” to life.

“We have an unbelievable puppet designer named Amanda Villalobos who has made 40 dog puppets, including multiple Laika puppets,” said Blaemire. “We both puppet her throughout the show. One thing that Amanda really taught us was to have a really nuanced relationship with the puppet and make it feel real. It’s been a really magical thing to watch a show come to life in that way.”

“The design team we have working on this is so humbling because they are throwing everything they possibly can at this in the same way we tried to do to the story and make it as high energy and fun as possible,” said Hughes. “No real animals were affected in the making of of the musical.” 

In addition to playing the roles on stage, both Hughes and Blaemire will be live scoring the show at every performance, with Blaemire describing the full show as a “rock opera meets a TED Talk meets a political thriller.”

“We have a lot of instruments to play. We’ve been working on this for 4 years, we have lots of tracks to support our songs,” said Hughes. “It’s like you’re coming to our laboratory and making music come out of the air. There’s a lot of tech aspects because not only are we controlling the music, but it’s connected to the lights and the projection and everything is going to be working together in this crazy way.”

The two hope that those who come to see “Space Dogs” can see the connection that dogs can bring humans and see the world differently from how they did before seeing the show.

“We’re really hoping to whisk you away from what we know is a crazy time and when you are spat back out of the theatre at the end, you’ll see the world a little bit differently,” said Blaemire. “I hope [the audience] realizes what a deep thing it is that we connect with an animal who can’t speak or tell us what they’re feeling. There is this profound thing between living beings that is so worth protecting and honoring, sometimes we lose sight of it in our quest to win and be right and first.”

Previews for “Space Dogs” begin on Jan. 25 with the show opening on Feb. 13 at the MCC Theater. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit mcctheater.org.

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