Category Archives: theater

Infinity Box pushing for science fluency through theater

Seattle Astronomy has occasionally explored the relationships and intersections of science with art and faith. Recently we had an enjoyable experience helping to use theater to explain science when we participated in an event called Centrifuge with the Infinity Box Theatre Project.

CentrifugeCentrifuge was billed as “science news meets science fiction.” The event paired five science writers with five playwrights on a Monday evening. By Wednesday each playwright had written a one-act play about a randomly drawn theme, incorporating recent scientific developments brought to the table by the science writers. On Wednesday the cast and directors were paired at random. They had a couple of days to rehearse, and then Friday and Saturday evenings the new plays were performed, preceded by five-minute talks by the writers explaining the science that would appear in the play. It’s a pattern familiar to those who have seen the 14/48 Projects World’s Quickest Theater Festival.

Greg Scheiderer at Centrifuge

Your correspondent explained asteroid 2016 HO3 and Planet 9 before a performance of the Jennifer Dice play “Asteroids of Love” at Centrifuge. Infinity Box photo by Omar Willey.

We brought the news of Earth’s newly found quasi-satellite, 2016 HO3, plus recent computer modeling for the possible existence of Planet 9, to the table. Playwright Jennifer Dice came up with the hilarious play Asteroids of Love. Catherine Blake Smith directed actors Marianna de Fazio and Corey Spruill in the play, a sort of space noir about star-crossed lovers Sybil and Chet headed to Planet 9 to start a new life—and ditch the intergalactic mob. The evening also included plays that incorporated new discoveries in frog mating, human evolution, climate change, and memory loss.

David Mills and Catherine Kettrick created Infinity Box about eight years ago with the intent to create exactly this sort of mash-up between science and theater.

“The idea of Infinity Box is really thinking of a theater as a think tank, and what happens if you look at theater as basically the way that society has always done its collective thinking,” Mills said. He noted that science and technology are advancing rapidly and giving us a lot that we need to consider.

“A lot of the questions are so complex that a story is really the only way to really ask the question, let alone try to answer it,” Mills said.

Kettrick added that this gives scientists new ways to think and talk about their work and an effective means of connecting with people.

“When an audience is able to look at a play on stage and see the issue of the science embodied in the characters and see the characters reacting to this issue, to this situation, that’s a much more real experience than reading an article in the newspaper or even going to a town hall talk,” she said. “It’s human beings up there, there’s an empathetic connection.”

It even worked on Kettrick, who knows all about climate change and does what she can to reduce her own carbon footprint. But the play Chasm by Bret Fetzer and directed by Jon Lutyens spoke to her. It was about climate change from the perspective of two penguins stranded on an iceberg and vulnerable to predators.

“Seeing those two penguins just brought it home to me, on a very personal level, in a way that doesn’t happen when you read the statistics,” she said.

We had a similar experience when, the day after Centrifuge, this post from one of the actors involved appeared on its Facebook event page:

Astronomy education happened

Mission accomplished! Astronomy outreach and education.

Infinity Box is the title of a short story and story collection written in the 1970s by Kate Wilhelm, and it inspired the name for the theater project because what we now know as think tanks were originally called brain boxes.

“Your brain or a theater stage or a radio are all places that are small, but anything is possible,” Mills said.

The next event for Infinity Box is its annual Thought Experiments on the Question of Being Human, which this year will take on the topics of memory and identity. Earlier this year they paired up four scientists and four playwrights.

“They work up a play typically 20 to 30 minutes long exploring the human consequences of what’s happening now or soon probably will be in that area, and what might that mean for the question of what it means to be human,” Mills explained. Staged readings of the plays will be held October 14, 15, and 16 at the Ethnic Cultural Theatre in the University District in Seattle. After the readings the scientists will kick off audience discussions about the shows.

“What the scientists have been getting out of that is a really different sort of conversation about their work,” Mills said.

Mills is hopeful that some day Infinity Box will be funded as a think tank.

“Having ways of doing all of what we’ve done so far and then capturing those insights and doing some analysis on them and feeding them back in to see what happens would fascinating and useful data,” he said. Ultimately, he’d like to move society beyond science literacy to science fluency.

“We’re looking at enhancing the status of discussion of science in society,” Mills said.

Podcast of our interview with Mills and Kettrick:

Some of our other articles about science mixing with art or faith:


New Space conference, and science news meets science fiction this week

The 2016 New Space Conference will be held in Seattle this week, and the city will see five world premiere plays about astronomy and other sciences next weekend.

New Space

New SpaceThis year’s New Space Conference, presented by the Space Frontier Foundation, will be held June 21-23 in Seattle. The conference brings the three pillars of the space industry—startups, established companies, and government agencies—together with private investors and tech innovators. The three-day conference focuses on the current, near term, and future issues and challenges in commercial space and is attended by distinguished members from all sectors and verticals of the space industry, making this conference a hotbed of innovation and partnership.

This conference has been held annually since 2006, and each since 2009 has been held in the Silicon Valley. This year’s is the first to be held in Seattle, in recognition of the city’s growing status as a hub for companies involved in the space industry.

Seattle Astronomy will be attending the conference and will post dispatches about the sessions.

Art meets science

CentrifugeScience news meets science fiction this week as Infinity Box Theatre Project presents Centrifuge, a project that will result in five world-premiere one-act plays based on the latest science headlines. Five pairs of playwrights and science writers will create presentations based on a theme drawn at random on Monday evening. The science writers will help inform the playwrights about the science involved, then the playwrights will have two days to write a ten-minute play, while the science writers create brief presentations about the science presented in the plays. Teams of actors, directors, and designers will run with the scripts starting with rehearsals Wednesday, and the plays will be performed, preceded by the presentations by science writers, beginning at 8 p.m. both Friday, June 24 and Saturday, June 25 at Stage One Theater at North Seattle College.

There will be at least one astronomy-themed play, as Greg Scheiderer of Seattle Astronomy is one of the science writers participating in this interesting project.

There’s more information on the Infinity Box website. Tickets are available online as well. Don’t miss this event, a partner project of the 14/48 Projects.

Rose City

Rose City AstronomersRose City Astronomers will hold their monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 20 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. Jim Todd, director of space science education and manager of the Kendall Planetarium at the museum, will be the guest speaker, on the topic of OMSI’s plans to partner with the Salem Fairgrounds for viewing of the total solar eclipse that will occur on August 21, 2017. The eclipse event will feature science lectures, astronomy-related community groups, entertainment, and more.


The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its free public nights for 9 p.m. Saturday, June 25 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The all-weather program will be about the Sun, and if the skies are clear club members will be on hand with telescopes for observing.


Taproot tells the story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt

Henrietta Leavitt blew up the universe. It’s amazing that so few people know about her. The numbers of the informed grow with each performance of Silent Sky, a play by San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Gunderson running through this weekend at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.

Leavitt is the early 20th century Harvard Observatory astronomer who, while examining and cataloging photographic plates of stars, discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. This breakthrough enabled astronomers to calculate the distances to these stars, some of which turned out to be at vast distances from Earth. What were then called spiral nebulae were actually other galaxies and not part of our own Milky Way. The universe suddenly became a far, far bigger place.

The play, directed by Karen Lund at Taproot, explores Leavitt’s life as she moves away from home to work at Harvard, examines the struggles she and her colleagues faced as women in astronomy, and delves into the ways in which art and faith influenced her life and work. There’s also a sad tale of love.

Hana Lass as Henrietta Leavitt in Taproot Theatre's Silent Sky, running through Feb. 27. Taproot photo.

Hana Lass as Henrietta Leavitt in Taproot Theatre’s Silent Sky, running through Feb. 27. Taproot photo.

The show features five actors, and all did a marvelous job. Hana Lass played Henrietta. Kim Morris played Willamina Fleming, who was actually the housekeeper for Harvard Observatory director Edward Pickering until he hired her, at a pittance of a wage, as a human computer to measure and catalog the brightness of stars on the observatory’s photographic plates. Nikki Visel played Annie Cannon, another computer who developed the stellar classification system still in use today. Candace Vance played Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s sister. Calder Jameson Shilling portrayed Peter Shaw, an assistant to Pickering and a faculty member at Harvard.

Toiling in obscurity

Even many people close to astronomy did not know of Leavitt.

Lund and Wyard

Director Karen Lund and Adrian Wyard of the Counterbalance Foundation drew a large and engaged crowd to Taproot Theatre on a recent Tuesday for a discussion about Silent Sky and the interplay between science and faith. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I am a historian of science and had never heard of any of these people,” said Adrian Wyard, director of the Counterbalance Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit educational organization working to promote the public understanding of science and how the sciences relate to wider society. We did a story about our interview with Wyard earlier this month, in which we discussed the interplay between art, science, and faith. Taproot held a conversation at the theater last week for discussion of similar topics as they relate to Silent Sky. Wyard gave the play a nod of approval, noting that it was highly entertaining and that the science was right on.

“It’s so rare to see great art where the science is represented faithfully,” he said. “Henrietta Leavitt played a major role in an important discovery in the 1900s. It’s fair to say that she blew up the universe.”

Telling the story of Silent Sky

Lund, the director, said that the actors did extensive research about the people they were to portray, and turned up some facts that were not depicted in the play. For example, both Henrietta Leavitt and Cannon were hearing impaired, but only Leavitt was depicted as such for Silent Sky. Lund pointed out that the playwright Gunderson really captured the personalities and the times.

“It’s beautiful, in a composite way, how accurate she is,” Lund said, adding that their own research helped a great deal. “We use the information that we gather as a way of supporting the characters that we build and create.”

The set pieces of the work stations the computers used are faithful reproductions of the gear the women used at Harvard more than a century ago. Lund also brought in an astronomer from the University of Washington to talk the cast through the science of the play, which Lund said was a rewarding day of rehearsal.

“We wanted to be able to speak with authority as those characters,” she said.

Science, faith, and art

Faith came into the story because Leavitt was the daughter of a Congregational minister, and art entered because Henrietta was inspired to recognize the patterns of the Cepheids in part because there were similar tonal relationships in her sister’s piano playing. Art informed and nurtured the scientific mind.

Wyard pointed out that there are some pretty bright lines around what science is supposed to do.

“The job is to understand the natural world that we can measure, and to establish mathematical theories which could be falsifiable,” he said, adding that science must tackle some pretty narrow questions. “Purpose and meaning and value are things we need to eject from science if science is going to do a good job.”

Silent Sky is excellent theater, and one need not be interested in astronomy to enjoy the story. The performances and the staging are grand. Sadly, this is its last weekend, with the final performance on Saturday. We also enjoyed another Gunderson play about women in science, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, which was produced at ArtsWest in West Seattle in 2011. Emilie was a major force in early 18th century math and physics.

Check out Silent Sky if you can.

Read Lauren Gunderson’s plays


Science and art meet in Silent Sky at Taproot Theatre

We love it when science and art meet, and its going to happen this month when Lauren Gunderson’s play Silent Sky, directed by Karen Lund, has its Northwest premiere from Jan. 27 through Feb. 27 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.

FB_Silent_Sky_banner_lowline_700x259Silent Sky is the true story of Henrietta Leavitt, the American astronomer who discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. Her work at Harvard College Observatory received little attention during her lifetime, which spanned 1868–1921, but her discovery was the key to our ability to accurately determine the distances to faraway galaxies. Silent Sky plays out against a landscape of fierce sisterly love, early feminism, universe-revealing science, and a time when humans were called “computers.”

Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson

Gunderson is a marvelous playwright who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. We have seen several of her other plays, including Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, the fascinating tale of Émilie Du Châtelet, the 18th-Century French physicist who not only translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica but also made profound contributions in fine-tuning Newtonian mechanics. Émilie usually bested Voltaire, one of her lovers, in battles of wits. We reviewed the 2011 production at ArtsWest in West Seattle and enjoyed it immensely. Silent Sky promises to be entertaining and enlightening as well. The cast includes Hana Lass, an outstanding local actor, in the title role.

Tickets to Silent Sky are available online.


Tessering around the universe with A Wrinkle in Time at OSF

It is a bonus when our interests in theater and astronomy intersect, and that is happening this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with its production of A Wrinkle in Time, based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Madeleine L’Engle. The OSF play is a world premiere adapted and directed by Tracy Young.


Alejandra Escalante as Meg Murry in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of A Wrinkle in Time.

In A Wrinkle in Time math whiz Meg Murry (Alejandra Escalante), her über-genius little brother Charles Wallace Murry (Sara Bruner), and pal Calvin O’Keefe (Joe Wegner) zip around the universe in search of missing papa Murry (Dan Donohue). They accomplish their travel by bending time and space in a tesseract, or “tessering,” as explained by the helpful science fair project by Science Girl (Jada Rae Perry).

Kids traversing the universe make for some imaginative and wonderfully silly stage effects and costumes, and we think especially of the multi-tentacled Aunt Beast (Daniel T. Parker), for whose costume a good half-dozen vacuum cleaners must have given their lives, or at least their hoses.

The performances are top-notch. We single out Escalante and Bruner especially, as well as Judith-Marie Bergan, who was much fun as Mrs. Whatsit, something of an intergalactic tour guide for the adventurers. Bergan, we think, can play anything, from the comic to the manic (as we note my Sweetie, the official scorer’s, recent review of last year’s production of The Tenth Muse.)

For all of its goofiness, the play takes on some serious themes about the mysteries of the universe, the nature of time and space, the dangers and advantages of technology, and of the strength and importance of family ties and love. The science isn’t so heavy that you need to be a cosmologist or physicist or a math geek like Meg to get it, though a bit of sci-fi familiarity with the concept is helpful.

According to the program notes the book took criticism from all sides when it came out, some charging it with being too religious and others saying it is too secular. That feels like it hit the right spot! The book also has some Cold War undertones about how things would look under a totalitarian society.

We’ve not read the book but plan to pick it up when we return home from Ashland. The play runs at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 1. It’s great fun; check it out!


This review is republished from the West Seattle Weisenheimer.


Apollo 13 rumbles into Tacoma

Several dozen of us journeyed back to 1970 Thursday evening and helped bring Apollo 13 safely back to Earth after one of its oxygen tanks exploded en route to the Moon. Our time machine was the set of Apollo 13: Mission Control, an interactive theater event running at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall through Dec. 30.

Mission Control

The audience at Apollo 13: Mission Control sits at realistic, working, retro consoles at Mission Control.

Producers of the show have created a believable replica of Mission Control in the hall, and audience members sit at consoles and become members of the NASA “White Team” led by flight director Gene Kranz (played by actor Jason Whyte.) The retro realism of the control center, complete with video monitors, communication devices, and myriad warning lights, gives the audience role-playing a certain unexpected urgency. The plight of the flight is especially urgent for one audience member, pressed into service as the third astronaut on the mission–a nod to a late crew change made before the real Apollo 13 mission.

We mission controllers were not in the same room as the astronauts. Instead, the crew was off in a back room, on sets depicting the command and lunar modules of the mission, and we watched them on video from space and communicated by radio. Similarly, mission control often tapped in to Walter Cronkite (played by Gareth Williams) and his news reports about the mission and efforts to bring the astronauts home.

Your author informs "flight" of the figures for the proper engine burn time for the perfect return flight.

Your author informs “flight” of the figures for the proper engine burn time for the perfect return flight.

The audience participation was real; we solved math problems to determine the proper engine “burn time” for an accurate course correction for the return to Earth, combed through flight procedures trying to find a way to scrub excess carbon dioxide from the spacecraft, and had various other tasks and puzzles throughout the evening. And the rumbling of the Saturn V engines as the mission blasted off from Florida was felt all the way in Houston!

A cast of six professional actors portrayed the key figures of the mission, and also helped give us rookie controllers the tools we needed to play our parts. There was no real pressure to this audience participation; though shy participants had the option to sit in the press section and just observe. Nobody took them up on that option on preview night Thursday.

Kids at the performance seemed to especially enjoy playing mission control, but the adults I was with had a marvelous time as well, and many folks stayed after splashdown to have their photos taken with the astronauts.

Apollo 13: Mission Control was created and is directed by Kip Chapman and Brad Knewstubb; it was first produced for the BATS Theatre in New Zealand, and has enjoyed critical success there and in Australia. The show runs in Tacoma through Dec. 30, then plays at the Spokane Convention Center from Jan. 9-20. If you’re a space nut, or enjoyed the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard film about the mission, you should check it out; it makes for a fun evening. Ticket info is available through the mission website, and tickets also are available on Ticketmaster.


Apollo 13: Can you bring them home?

Apollo 13: Mission ControlIf you’re a space geek like yours truly you may be interested in an interactive theater event that’s coming soon to Tacoma and Spokane.  Apollo 13: Mission Control will put you at the console in Houston as part of the team trying to bring the ill-fated Moon mission home safely.

The show was created by a pair of New Zealanders, Kip Chapman and Brad Knewstubb, who were somehow inspired with the idea for the production while on a U.S. roadtrip in 2007. They’ve lined up with Bruce MacTaggart, who created and produced the wildly popular Walking With Dinosaurs arena shows based on the BBC television series. The show has won rave reviews in New Zealand and Australia, and we’re lucky enough to be the first to see it in the U.S.

They create a replica Mission Control, complete with retro phone and computer consoles, in the performance space. A cast of six portrays the lead figures of the Apollo 13 mission, but audience members with premium tickets will be part of the action. Other audience members can sit in the press section and watch as the everyone tries to bring the crew home alive.

If you still get all weepy when the chutes open and Tom Hanks and crew land safely in the 1995 Ron Howard movie, this just might be the ticket for a fun afternoon or evening of entertainment.

Apollo 13: Mission Control plays at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall Dec. 21-30 and at the Spokane Convention Center Jan. 9-20. Tickets are available through the show’s website, at the Tacoma Dome Box Office, and through Ticketmaster.

Here’s the show’s trailer: