BETC made our first foray into live theatre under the dome at Fiske Planetarium in 2016, with Vera Rubin: Bringing the Dark to Light. Since then, we’ve been working to partner with other planetariums interested in producing live theatre. To learn more about the world of planetarium content creation, we attended the 2017 IMERSA Summit, held at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science Feb. 22-26. This international conference gave our Director of Programs & Grants, Heather Beasley, the chance to meet people working in “alt-content” or non-astronomy programming at several major national museums and planetariums.
New Audiences, Beyond Astronomy
In a Thursday morning session called “Audience Matters: Cultivating New Audiences,” presenters from:
- the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines, Iowa;
- COSI in Columbus, Ohio;
- Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City;
- and the film marketer and distributor BIG & Digital, based in Las Vegas,
talked about attracting new audiences with non-science content. The speakers expanded the definition of “alt-content” to include live open-heart surgeries and autopsies, architectural explorations, and start-up business competitions. Their shared goal was to expand audiences to include people who aren’t necessarily drawn to their facilities by a love of science. All four clearly loved the fun, creativity, and innovation tied to alt-content programming, and had some great tips to encourage other planetariums to start taking risks with their own schedules.
Audience Interaction: Is It Worth It?
On Friday morning, the session “Interaction Matters: Live Shows and What it Takes to Succeed” featured presenters from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium in Montréal, part of the Montréal Space for Life. One of the performers from DMNS, Jose Zuniga, spoke on how live interactions offered the opportunity to tailor presentations to very specific audiences. The Adler presenters, Nick Lake and Mark Subbarao, described how Adler had shifted from all pre-recorded shows to almost completely live-interaction programming, offering almost 4,500 performances a year.
Rio Tinto staff described how their new space, which contains two separate domes, one with fixed seating and one without, allows them the flexibility to program activities that create more interactive opportunities for audiences. “We use presenters who are professional actors because they realize that they are only one way to lead the story,” said Sébastien Gauthier. “Artists carry emotions into their communication. When the goal is to engage and teach, this approach helps increase our engagement with the audience.”
During the Q&A, presenters agreed that incorporating live interaction made science seem more accessible and less purely cerebral to audiences. Nick from Adler suggested that interaction “gives audiences an unrepeatable experience to see a live show, something they won’t be able to see exactly the same way ever again.” “Live keeps people at the center of the experience,” agreed Sébastien. “Live experience makes for stronger memories.” For a theatre professional sitting in the audience with a knowledge of Philip Auslander’s work (Liveness), it was pretty remarkable to hear professionals from a completely different field beginning to defend the merits of live performance before a room of skeptics.
Art Matters: Between the Ferns
On Saturday night, session coordinator Ty Owen from COSI introduced a Gates-Planetarium-full of IMERSAgoers to some of the professionals bringing visual and performing arts into immersive film spaces in planetariums and museums across the country. In a late-night talk-show format, with plants imported onto the small dome stage specially for the conference occasion, Ty interviewed planetarium directors, programming gatekeepers, and artists who have brought dance, new animation, and 2D and 3D experimental video art into the dome, and spoke with them about creative and practical concerns. Audience members were also invited to ask the interviewees questions, and one that quickly came to the fore was: “How can people working in more, ahem, traditional facilities encourage our bosses to let us take these types of programming risks?”
The ever-growing importance of audience development, attracting new audiences beyond standard school groups and people with lifelong science interests, was the most popular reason for forming collaborations with arts groups beyond the typical astronomy programming spheres. A close second was simple revenue generation: new audiences in the dome mean potential return visitors, and new markets for astronomy products and projects as well. Third, artists are attracted to the creative possibilities that dome, virtual reality, and immersive reality technologies provide, but often lack the expertise to use those tools for their own ends without assistance. The possibility for cross-disciplinary crossover, with each party contributing expertise of value, also has led to a number of artistic programming risks that paid off for the presenters.
Programs like Domelab at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, and its sister program Dome Lab at COSI in Columbus, Ohio, create gateways for planetarium newbies to learn about how to bend dome technologies to their artistic purposes. BETC’s past and future cross-over collaborations under the dome will be the richer for our chance to collaborate with three planetariums within 100 miles of Boulder, at three facilities that are actively working on the cutting edge of creating immersive experiences. The takeaway from this year’s IMERSA was that there is an emerging group of experimental artists in dance, music, and theatre looking for facilities willing to program our work, and there are already-developed audiences eager for the content we create. The next step: to create a network to share creative content and presentational expertise among the interested facilities. BETC looks forward to taking part in the work ahead!