Actors from the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest original production will have the full breadth and majesty of the known universe as their set piece.
That’s thanks to the promising creative partnership between the BETC and Fiske Planetarium, one that seeks to fuse the best original live theater that Boulder has to offer with the cutting-edge resources of a thoroughly modern planetarium.
A short preview of a brand-new play written specifically for a planetarium setting will run during the IMERSA Summit in Denver on Saturday, with the full production to follow in Boulder during the Fiske’s Full Dome Festival Aug. 6-20.
“(The festival) will be the world premiere, as it were, followed by public and school performances in September,” Stephen Weitz, BETC’s producing ensemble director, said of local playwright William C. Kovacsik’s new play titled “Vera Rubin: Bringing the Dark to the Light.” Weitz will discuss “Vera Rubin” on Saturday at IMERSA, which is sponsored by Immersive Media Entertainment, Research, Science & Arts, a nonprofit trade association.
A select audience of a few dozen were on hand in December to see “Vera Rubin,” the first fruits of the joint effort between BETC and Fiske, as BETC ensemble members Mackenzie Paulson and Chip Persons played out four scenes from Kovacsik’s new work.
The unfinished work details the contributions of one of the 20th century’s most influential astronomers. Rubin’s work proving the idea of dark matter solved the theoretical issue of “galaxy rotation,” a dilemma tied to the speed and gravity of galaxies. Rubin was the first woman to be allowed to use tools at the Palomar Observatory in California; she revolutionized the entire field of astronomy despite the overt sexism that marked her academic and professional career.
Playing the role of the famed American astronomer in front of a sparse crowd at Fiske on the University of Colorado campus, Paulson patiently explained the modern view of the cosmos to Persons, who wore the colorful garb of an 18th century nobleman. That costume choice made perfect sense — Persons had taken the stage as renowned scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton.
As Rubin, Paulson offered an overview of the evolution of astronomy since the 1720s. She spoke animatedly of galaxies, stars and suns. She offered an updated scale of the cosmos, speaking on a Sagan-esque scale of billions and billions of light years. She spelled out a straightforward take on the origins of the universe, including her work on the concept of dark matter that so revolutionized the scientific world in the 1970s.
Paulson didn’t have to rely solely on her skill as an actor to convey the most abstract components of the script-in-progress by Kovacsik. Above the two actors, stunning animations flashed on Fiske’s massive, domed screen designed to bring the mysteries of the cosmos to life. As Paulson spoke of spiral and elliptical galaxies, vivid images of the celestial bodies beamed above. As she effusively sketched out the dimensions of the Milky Way and its relative position in the universe, an expansive tableau of the stars twinkled over her head.
“It’s all amazing and beautiful,” Paulson-as-Rubin said, in a bit of an understatement.
The project came thanks in part to a $25,000 grant from the Boulder Arts Commission, as well as seed grants from other sources. The concept has roots in the BETC’s 2012 production of “And the Sun Stood Still,” a historical drama that examined Nicolas Coperincus’ contributions to the world of astronomy. Fiske was a sponsor for that critically acclaimed show, and the current project — dubbed the “Star Power Series” — gained steamed from there.
“We imagined the possibility of a production that combined live theatrical performance with these tools,” said Weitz, of BETC. “(We want) to figure out how to package and export the show,” he added, hinting at a production that eventually could visit planetariums across the state and across the country.
It’s a very realistic goal, judging from the jaw-dropping graphics, animations and film clips that beamed on their state-of-the-art system in December.
Last year, the planetarium upgraded its projection system by figurative light years. The new, high-definition projector beams graphics at dimensions of 8,000 pixels by 8,000 pixels; the dome’s “star ball” can show up to 20 million stars on its 360-degree circular screen
Those updated resources have made Fiske one of the top planetariums in the country and a perfect laboratory to test this new marriage of art and science.
“Now, there are hundreds of U.S. planetariums where the entire dome is a video screen,” said Douglas Duncan, director of the Fiske Planetarium. “This happens to be the finest one … It immerses you right into the play.”
Duncan and the BETC crew wanted to directly address those issues in the play, which is specifically geared toward middle school audiences. Duncan brought a degree of personal inspiration to the story.
“In 1991, I was on the staff of the Hubble telescope … We looked around and realized all 40 (staff members) were male,” Duncan told the audience at Fiske, adding that the crew organized conferences to address the issue. “Behind the scenes, our adviser was Vera Rubin.”
Her input was an important lesson for Duncan, and he insisted that facing fears and criticism would form an important part of the story. BETC ensemble member Justin Walvoord appeared in the preview in film form as several different characters offering a similar foil. Clips of Walvoord as a high school physics teacher, a Princeton admission official and an adviser at Cornell all offered a similar message: “This is no place for girls.”
Overcoming those challenges is an important part of the piece, as is all of the astronomical brilliance that forms the core of Rubin’s contributions. The creative crew from both institutions still have a long way to go before the planned world premiere in August. As Weitz pointed out, combining the demands of live theater with the dynamic of a planetarium takes plenty of adjustments. For example, a 30-second piece of animation for the screen takes about six days to put together.
“We have to make our script much more fluid than normal,” Weitz said.
If the stunning and inspiring results from the preview production are any indication, the combined Fiske and BETC team are well on their way to finding that perfect balance.