Astronomy on stage

 

Going Dark, examining the effects of blindness on an astronomer


 

In the latest evidence of the rise in popularity of astronomy, news has reached Sky at Night Magazine of an intriguing play, set in a planetarium and investigating the relationship between an astronomer, his son and his sight, which he is gradually losing.

Going Dark uses immersive surround sound, very low lighting, moments of total darkness and projections to tell the story of Max, an astronomer who works in his local planetarium. He has a rare condition that causes him to lose his eyesight, which causes him to re-evaluate his relationship with the world around him.

Speaking to director Tom Espiner about the performance, he tells me that theatre company Sound & Fury has made a name for itself by working with areas of sense deprivation. “We started out doing performances in total darkness, with no fire exit lights at all, “ he says. Their plays, such as Kursk, set in the confined undersea world of a submerged submarine, “…hijack one sense and draw in the audience’s imagination using the other senses and live storytelling.”

Going Dark, funded by the Wellcome Foundation, explores what happens in the adult brain as blindness encroaches. “We’re using the planetarium elements of the show to ask, ‘How do we see and what do we see?’ Almost as if it were the head, with light entering through the eyes. So why do we only see a part of it when there is so much more?” asks Espiner.

After a year-long residency with the Universety of Birmingham physics and astronomy department, Espiner is well aware that astronomers no longer use visual wavelengths of light in research. “That was a brilliant opportunity for me to get to grips with what I thought was a completely visual science but is actually much more about on-screen data,” he says.

“The piece marries these ideas of our visual perception and the indirectness of seeing with the world around us, and how that can have a direct relation to scientific modelling – having a hypothesis and then putting it to the test with data.”

Espiner also points out that theatre is the place for storytelling, for creating empathy with the characters whose story is unfolding in front of you. “The challenge with this piece is to make it a compelling story, as well as the scientific, educational side,” Espiner explains.

“So it’s also a story about a man and his son, with a playful enquiry into the quandaries of the cosmos between this father and son, as well as the more troubling elements of how we relate to each other using our sight,” he says.

What has the reception been since the play began its current tour in Plymouth earlier this month? Espiner reports a reawakening of audiences’ interest in stargazing. “Certainly the people who have seen it so far have told me they’ve been looking up at the stars more,” he says.

“I also want people to consider that our brains are doing the most extraordinary things to interpret the information that’s coming through our eyes, and I hope that’s dealt with in quite a moving way. That’s what I want our piece to drive home – to touch heart and intellect in equal measure.”

Going Dark is at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool from 24-25 February; the Hull Truck Theatre, Hull, from 28-29 February; the Lakeside Theatre, Colchester, on 3 March, and at the Young Vic, London, from 6 to 24 March.

 

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