Storytelling under the (virtual) sky

As I write these words, 2009 about to become 2010. And I’m looking back on one particular aspect of my life which I enjoyed very much, which I had to put on hiatus during this last year.

Zeiss Star Projector
A Classic Zeiss Planetarium Star Projector

For quite a few years I’ve been a part-time educator/presenter at the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium, in Concord, New Hampshire. The planetarium is the state of New Hampshire’s official memorial to the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. Of course, Christa was one of the astronauts killed in the Challenger disaster. After much discussion about how to officially remember her, it was decided that a planetarium was the best possible thing — a living institution of teaching and learning.

I have to say, I love doing planetarium shows — it’s something that I have a great time doing. One of the really cool things about the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium is a commitment to doing live shows. While some of the shows on each day’s schedule are pre-recorded (which allows for something much more spectacular,) many shows are at least partially live, and there’s at least one show which is entirely live — Tonight’s Sky. For most presenters, me included, Tonight’s Sky was the most fun show to do. We had pretty much free reign of topics so long as it was something that generally fit under the title of Tonight’s Sky. When I did the show, before we started I would always ask the audience if there was anything that they were hoping to see, or learn about in the show. Often I would get a list of very interesting questions, and would build the show around them — completely customizing it to a particular audience in the theater. To me, this was great fun to do.

Not surprisingly, as someone who loves stories, I would often balance technically heavy content with mythology and stories from all over the world. I would try to reference mythology from at least three continents in every show, and I almost always was able to do that. Sometimes, particularly with younger audiences, I would devote five or more minutes to telling a full story based around a constellation or another object in the sky. I even carried a bamboo flute with me in the theater, I would pick up the flute and played for a few phrases to set the story apart from the scientific content and the rest of the show.

While working at the Planetarium, I saw a lot of planetarium shows, each one many times. This allowed me to study them in depth. Often, when we think about seeing a planetarium show, we think about it in visual terms — the spectacle of the projected sky, amazing and unexplainable special-effects, and feeling like we’re looking into or even traveling through the depths of space. To me though, the thing that made the most successful shows so successful was not a matter of visual production quality, it was a matter of storytelling. The best shows took their topic and wove it into a story — occasionally a literal story where we’re following characters, but more often presenting information in the form of a story — a powerful opening that gets our attention, and inciting event that draws us forward, a course of action that builds to a climax, and a resolution with reflection on the journey.

Unfortunately, the Planetarium is over an hour away from just about everything else I do, and it just became too difficult for me to schedule with any regularity. So I finally had to admit that at least for the time being I had to let it go. I’m sad about that, and I’m sure I’ll be back in one form or another to working under the dome. In fact, I’m about to embark on a different kind of astronomical journey shortly. I’m going to be designing massive, full stage projections for the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestras presentation of The Planets in June. I’ll be talking more about that project here, as I get more involved in doing it.

Well, it’s now 2010. Time for bed.

How to make great art

What is it that makes great art great? I’ve often seen people try to answer this question in a technical way, and have even been guilty of doing that myself on occasion; but I really think that it’s not about anything technical. Great art speaks to you in an intangible way that reaches to your very core. It may bring a deep sense of peace, or a sense of discomfort in the unsettled — but it moves you in a way that’s profoundly real. So as someone who creates art, the question becomes how do you do that?

Closeup of a child's eye
Great art is in the eye and heart of the audience. (photo by Peasap)

There’re a number of things that have been helpful to me in my work, I’ve found that either technical mastery or technical inexperience tend to be good starting points — one end of the spectrum the technique is so natural that it’s not in the way, at the other end of the spectrum there is no sense of technique or how it should be to get in the way. I’m reminded of Prof. Peter Rothbart who I studied electroacoustic music with at Ithaca College. In one of the first intro classes he suggested that those of us who were not really accomplished keyboard players not try to play the synthesizer like a piano but rather treat the keyboard like a row of buttons so that our creativity was not stifled by lack of technical ability.

I’ve also found that for me it’s important to “empty the cup,” that is to stay to start from a position of no expectation about what the outcome will be. When I begin a new design, I do my very best to set aside any preconceived notions and simply read the script and/or score and see what it has to say. Only then, am I ready to talk to the director, with my initial impressions firmly in my mind to ground me.

But I still don’t think that these are the things that make for great art, I believe they can certainly help to facilitate it, but there’s something else. Whenever I do what I later looked back on as some of my best work, I home to a critical point where I am getting out of my way, and letting the work “do,” rather than me doing the work. I really don’t know how else to explain this, in a way it’s very strange, and in a way it’s very natural. It really is about letting go and letting the music, or the imagery, or the stage picture, or the talk comes through me. When I’m able to do that, that’s where the real magic is.