Star Stories - a mash-up of astronomy and theater

Jul 31

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7/31/2014 8:17 AM  RssIcon

In the world of music, "mash ups" have been a phenomenon for some time. Parts of two songs are typically blended together to create a new song, often with the verses of one song, and the chorus of another.  Astronomy outreach is something I've enjoyed doing for quite a while, whether it be in-person with a telescope and engaging with the public, or via the videos I make and post on YouTube. Particularly with my YouTube offerings, I have often enjoyed "mashing up" theater with astronomy. While the science itself certainly carries its own interesting points, many people already do a fine job of communicating that to the public. What I enjoy is taking some of what is used as a means of identifying what we see in the sky (International Astronomical Union-approved stars and constellations), and telling the stories that the ancient Greeks told about the shapes they saw in the sky - that is, mythology.Star Stories - Hercules over Draco

This weekend, I am trying something new. The city of Kankakee, a somewhat economically depressed location in the state of Illinois, has been trying some various things to jump-start activity in their area. This summer they brought in an artist-in-residence to look at Kankakee with fresh eyes, see what Kankakee has to offer, and communicate that with others. When originally proposed, I was thinking of a sculptor or painter, but was pleasantly surprised when the announcement was made that this artist would have a background in drama!

My own background is in Theater and Communications, so this was exciting. 

A month or so ago I met with this artist, Brandi Burgess. She was looking to see what people in the area were interested in putting together, so I talked with her about some ideas I had that we could explore. One of them was to combine the stories from the night sky - those Greek mythology stories - with an astronomy outreach event. We could act out some of the stories, and then have amateur astronomers actually point out the stars in the sky. 

I've used this technique myself when I give my astronomy presentations at libraries. I've self-produced a number of fun/funny mythology videos (short clips of which have been seen on my YouTube weekly videos during "Astronomy Theater" segments), and narrate them for the audience. This helps people to see a character, then better identify with it when looking at a star chart. Not everyone knows who (or what?) Cepheus is (a mythological king). So seeing a character portrayed, and then looking at a star chart or the sky, can help new observers better relate to what's up there in the stars.

Star Stories Cepheus Cassiopeia AndromedaPlus, these mythology stories are great stories. They also speak to the human condition by discussing greed, deception, redemption. They can be told in interesting, even humorous ways. And by adding a connection of mythology to the sky, audiences get an understanding of how our ancestors connected with the sky, even if we don't currently connect with it that way today. As a bonus, they can learn where a lot of constellations are in the sky! 

Sure, we know that stars are giant balls of gas that shine thanks to nuclear fusion, and their appearance to us is merely their random placement in our Milky Way galaxy from the perspective of our little planet around our little star, and they have nothing to do with mythological gods, creatures or characters.

But the International Astronomical Union still uses these names as a means of identifying these locations in the sky. So why not learn about them? Why not have some fun with them? That's exactly what Brandi and I are going to do this weekend, August 2, at the Willowhaven Interpretive Center. This Bourbonnais Park District location is a couple miles east of the Kankakee / Bradley / Bourbonnais area. And it's an ideal location for doing some stargazing - away from the glare of lights, and minimizing light pollution overhead. The lighting at the center is all good lighting too - aimed and shielded down.

And area actors and actresses have agreed to take part in this. I've written scripts that will be narrated by an actor who is also an English teacher that has taught mythology in class. The actors will use some simple costumes and props to act out the scenes. Then some members of the Kankakee Area Stargazers will use a green laser to assist the audience in identifying the stars and shapes that make up some of these constellations.

Ursa Major Ursa Minor Star StoriesThis exact event is new for me, Brandi, and the groups involved, although each individual component of it is certainly something each group is capable of doing independently. The challenge is to blend the two into a single experience. So far, everyone I have spoken with about it is excited about doing this. It should be interesting, fun, and a wonderful way to "mash up" both theater and astronomy. And really, that's not all that far-fetched - at least a few people (myself included) are active in both the local theater groups AND the Kankakee astronomy club. 

So if you're in the area on August 2, why not join us for "Star Stories"? 

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.