Digital technology has revolutionized films, television, video games and how we see the world.
On Sunday night, the California Academy of Sciences pioneered a new use of digital images to explore the life of 16th Century astronomer Johannes Kepler. Instead of a traditional stage, Kepler’s work and his theory of planetary harmony came alive within the Morrison Planetarium through a combination of a performance by actor Norbert Weisser and immersive computer-generated projections on the planetarium’s dome.
It’s an ambitious theatrical undertaking by writer director Nina Wise, artistic director of the Motion Institute, academy visual artists headed by Planetarium Director Ryan Wyatt, sound designer Christopher Hedge and cellist Zoe Keating.
Kepler’s work on the three laws of planetary motion was one of the milestones in the history of astronomy and removed the earth as the center of the universe.
His personal life was tragic as Kepler and his family tried to survive religious wars, disease and the trial of his mother on charges of witchcraft.
But it was Kepler’s belief that the universe was interconnected that attracted Wise. In discussions with mathematician Ralph Abraham, she decided that in age when much of society seems disconnected, a theatrical tribute to the great astronomer was needed.
Kepler maintained his world view despite personal hardships, Wise said.
“Even when they burned down his house, he still kept talking about the harmony of the universe,” Wise said.
“There is a line in our play where he says that ‘if they could see that everything is singing, there would be no war,’” he added.
A pilot version of “The Kepler Story” ran at the planetarium in November 2011 and Wise staged readings of the work in Sacramento before producing the current one-hour show.
Weisser is a veteran actor who has appeared in films including “Schindler’s List” and the television show “Breaking Bad.”
Wise originally offered the part to actor Ed Harris but he was unable to perform it due to other commitments, she said.
Using only a small table and a lantern Weisser recreates Kepler’s world as the dome projections surround the audience with images of snowflakes, scientific documents, a cavernous cathedral and geometric forms, to name a few.
The effect is like peering into the scientist’s mind to experience his memories and scientific concepts. It’s an enveloping experience because Morrison is the largest all-digital planetarium in the world.
Unlike standard theater, where light queues and set changes are done manually, the projections are run on an elaborate set of computer codes which have to be written for the images to change in time with Weisser’s dialogue.
“It’s not an easy environment to work in due to the software but it provides opportunities that no other medium can provide, Wise said, “We think it’s the wave of the future.”
Wise had praise for the academy and Wyatt for their cooperation in producing the show.
“It’s thrilling to work in an environment that is so high tech, and that the California Academy is willing to take a risk to do this piece,” she said.
Arizona State University will soon stage a 3-D version of “The Kepler Story” where the audience will enjoy the visuals via 3-D glasses, Wise said.
“The Kepler Story” will run Sunday nights through Oct 27.
Performances at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 13 and Oct. 20 are sold out, but some seats remain for the Oct. 27 6:30 p.m. performance.
Due to popular demand, 8:30 p.m. shows have been added on Oct. 13, Oct. 20 and Oct. 27 with tickets available.
For more information visit: http://www.calacademy.org/events/special_programs/keplerstory.