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Starball offers a different kind of theater under the stars

John Kaufmann
John Kaufmann
Photos courtesy of Starball

Starry, starry night. It’s always such at the Adler Planetarium, but tonight the indoor galaxies will host two stars of a different sort of sparkle. With a mix of goofily irreverent humor, music, Greek and Roman mythology and dream interpretation, performers/astronomy experts Dan Dennis and John Kaufmann aim to give Chicagoans a new view of the night.

From 7 to 9 p.m. in the Grainger Sky Theater at the Adler Planetarium, the pair will perform Starball: A Dreamy Musical Astronomy Show. The quasi-interactive show incorporates science with storytelling, and astronomy with astrology as it guides audiences to glimpse a thousand or more points of light in a whole new way.

“I have a beautiful night sky where I live in rural Ohio,” says Dennis, “But in Chicago, people might not be used to looking up and seeing much past the sky scrapers. I want people to be able to look up and think about where they are in relation to the universe. I hope people look to the stars and see themselves.”

If all that sounds a bit esoteric, rest assured it isn’t. Gazing skyward, Starball offers a down-to-earth evening wherein the lofty moons of Jupiter and the notches on Orion’s belt become as accessible as a skyscraper’s lobby-level coffee shop. At the top of Starball, Kaufmann and Dennis become modern day dreamcatchers, – asking audience members to write down what they recall of their latest nocturnal flight of fancy. Those stories become part of a show that’s a mix of music (Dennis plays the accordion and banjo, both men sing) , scripted dialogue and improv. Think audience participation for audience members who would rather not and you’ve got an idea of the loopy charms of Starball.

“Audience participation is kind of a dirty word for a lot of people,” says Kaufmann, ““We understand that some people would rather have a root canal than be involved it, so we give people a choice. They can participate or they can sit back and just take it all in.

”I think the fact that we’re all sitting there in the dark helps, “ he adds, “No one’s going to put you on the spot under the lights.”

“What we do is connect the dream images with astronomy,” Dennis adds, “We try to get people to connect their dreams to the mechanics of the sky. To connect the dots, and to get people to connect to the sky in a way they haven’t before.”

Woven into Starball’s dreamy content is a comic romp of a narrative involving a pair of rascals on the lam under a glittering night sky. The show is punctuated by music – Dennis and Kaufman’s original songs can arguably be described as a mix of lilting indie folk and weird Al Yankovic funny business. In all, Starball simply isn’t your average evening at the theater.

Kaufmann and Dennis became astronomy geeks accidentally. Both were struggling actors when they took minimum wage jobs as docents at a planetarium in Seattle.

“I really didn’t know anything about anything in astronomy,” says Dennis, “But for me, the planetarium was just the coolest place. I learned a year’s worth of skies fairly quickly. The job was kind of perfect for an actor, because we were constantly telling stories. Groups would come in and we’d go into all the stories about the stars.”

Their collaboration on Starball was a natural off-shoot of Kaufmann and Dennis’ extensive theater backgrounds. Kaufmann is an actor whose range shows up in a resume that includes roles in both Valley of the Dolls and Shakespearean tragedy. Dennis is finishing up a doctoral degree in the School ofInterdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University, where he teaches an Introduction to the Visual and Performing Arts in History and Culture for the Interdisciplinary Arts and Theater Departments.

Starball, which has played throughout North America and in Valencia, Spain, showcases Kaufmann and Dennis’ combined acumen for academic rigor and theatrical flourish.

“The whole show grew out of that deep human connection that exists between humans and the farthest, oldest points of light in the universe, “ says Kaufmann. “The sky becomes a Rorschach test of our own stories. People thousands of years ago who couldn’t read or write could look into the night sky and tell you what time it was, and exactly where they were. I want to get back to that kind of literacy, even just a little. I want people to look to the sky and see themselves.”

Starball will be performed from 7 to 9 p.m. tonight (April 19) at the Grainger Sky Theater at the Adler Planetarium 1300 S. Lake Shore Dr. Tickets to the 21-and-over event will be available at the door and are $12 for members of the Adler, $17 for non-members. For more information, go to or call 312/922-9827.


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