Parallel Lives of Humans and Stars

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Surrounded by darkness, a young astrophysicist throws an apple that bursts into a galaxy, illuminating the stage.

This scene is one of many in UC Santa Cruz’s new production “Birth of Stars,” which immerses the audience in an intertwining of science and theater.

Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) approached UCSC associate professor of theater arts Michael Chemers and asked him to put together a research project. It would be the first of the four projects that DANM hosts each year. Each production involves an interaction between different types of research collected at UCSC and digital media.

Chemers collaborated with associate UCSC professor and leading astrophysicist Mark Krumholz and theater arts professor Jim Bierman to form a one-year research plan. Students were then brought in to bring the production to life.

“I wanted to take the science astrophysicists like Mark Krumholz use everyday and turn it into a human story through the medium of theater,” Chemers said.

Projections of images, animations, scientific equations and data interact with the performers on stage. The digital projections provide insight into the characters’ minds while also illustrating the science of the story, Chemers said.

“We wanted to explain tremendously difficult astrophysical computations that explain the chemical process of stellar evolution without losing our audience,” director Joan Raspo said. “Through these digital projections, we wanted to bring life to the science.”

For Raspo, the play correlates the human life to the life of a star.

“We are all made of stardust. We are all dead stars,” Raspo said. “If you stand back and think about what the universe is all about, you realize it’s just like the system of society. We have a birth, a life and a death just like a star. It’s a universal system.”

The play tells the story of a young female prodigy who develops a new theory, based on Mark Krumholz’s real research. Through the discovery of the young prodigy’s YouTube channel, an older astrophysicist becomes her mentor. In addition to science, the play also deals with bullying and the challenges of growing up, Chemers said.

“The main character, Sofia, is treated very badly in the play,” Chemers said. “She is bullied by her classmates, not protected by her teachers and is exploited by this other genius who she meets.”

One of the play’s main questions is, “What would you give to gain the universe?” This challenges Sofia to question what she is willing to do to achieve her dreams, Chemers said.

“To get what she wants from her understanding of science and the universe, she risks alienating her friends, mother and mentor,” Chemers said. “What does she gain in turn for that?”

The play also explores the relationship between science, religion, and the impact of technology. As opposed to technology representing something that makes us less human, the play examines how technology can make us something more than human, Chemers said.

“The production poses a lot of big cosmic questions,” said assistant director and writer Patrick Denney. “It’s about your insignificance as one human, on one planet, in one solar system, in one galaxy. But at the same time, as we say in the play, we are stars. It’s very distancing and incredibly intimate at the same time.”

The play will run until Nov. 16 at the Experimental Theatre. Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at 3 p.m. Admission is free for UCSC students.