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Planetariums: a new kind of star power for the arts

Marsha Regis, Michael Rinaldi, and Dalal Badr in Electric Company Theatre’s You Are Very Star.


Perhaps your last cultural experience in a planetarium involved Pink Floyd and a mind-altering substance. Well, high art under the impressive dome is making a comeback – no lasers required.

In Vancouver, a new site-specific work by the Electric Company Theatre (Tear the Curtain!) has just premiered at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. In Calgary, meanwhile, there's a proposal to turn the now-closed Centennial Planetarium into a contemporary art museum. When you've got a space like that at a time when arts venues are in short supply, why not make the stars align with some inter-disciplinary activity?

The Electric Company's You Are Very Star resulted from a Vancouver gathering where the shortage of performing-arts venues was discussed. The meeting was held at the Museum of Vancouver, which shares a building with the Space Centre in Kitsilano. At one point, the Space Centre's executive director Rob Appleton popped his head in and offered attendees a tour of the centre's theatre spaces. The Electric Company's then artistic producer Nathan Medd (recently named the National Arts Centre's managing director of English theatre) asked to see the planetarium.

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"I took him up, and as soon as we walked in, he said 'Oh my God, we have to do a show here,'" recalls Appleton.

Electric Company co-founder and now artistic director Kevin Kerr inherited the project and began developing a site-specific work to deal with themes suggested by the planetarium.

"I found the room really kind of powerful when I walked in there. It's overwhelming, that huge dome, and it feels very epic," says Kerr, 44. He was also engulfed by nostalgia – his childhood memories of visiting the place with his parents, or those of his teenage years, when he and his friends would travel from Kamloops just to see Laser Floyd.

Kerr was also struck by the notion that he was born the same year the Space Centre opened, 1968. At the time, the centre was a symbol of progress, but it has since become weirdly stuck in a futuristic moment of the past, using antiquated, if ingenious, analog equipment – about 200 slide projectors (every still image the audience sees on the dome requires at least 16 slides, interspersed and blended together so it appears as a single image) and a bunch of creative homemade contraptions (the aurora borealis effect is achieved by filtering light through an old Pepsi bottle).

All of these themes came into play as Kerr and collaborators began to develop what would become You Are Very Star. Then, when the planetarium received funding to make the long overdue switch to a digital system – happening this summer – and the dates lined up with the Electric Company's planned show, this idea of the last night of analog was worked into the story about technology in the past and future – and its impact on humanity.

You Are Very Star's Act I takes place in the lecture theatre; Act II in the star theatre. (The audience is encouraged to participate in immersive games involving nostalgia and old-fashioned technology – a pay phone, a jukebox – during the intermission.)

While aesthetically impressive, the star theatre is a challenging venue for live performance: an acoustic nightmare with archaic technology and weird sightlines. The Electric Company, known for its innovative use of multimedia in live performance, embraced its inefficiencies, and the idea that an important transition point was being marked.

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"We are the last show to use an analog system in a world that has long since moved past analog," says Kerr. "So we're saying a final farewell to this old way."

In Calgary, the former Centennial Planetarium – about the same vintage as Vancouver's – said its farewell two years ago, the science centre having relocated to a shiny new facility. With the city looking for proposals for the heritage building in the west end of the downtown, a coalition of arts groups is pitching the idea of turning it into a contemporary art museum.

"We've a vibrant, growing community and I think it's time. Calgary needs to have a major contemporary-art facility," says Carol Ryder, co-chair of the group Contemporary Calgary, made up of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art (where she sits on the board), the Art Gallery of Calgary and other members of the arts community.

The group isn't calling their vision a contemporary art "museum" or "gallery," but an arts hub – a place to exhibit modern and contemporary art, and a venue for the performing arts and whatever else cultural groups can dream up.

The city received multiple proposals for the space (it won't say how many), but there was a lot of support for Contemporary Calgary's proposal – ranging from school boards to the Glenbow Museum to the chamber of commerce.

While the Calgary group is looking to repurpose an abandoned facility, the idea of the planetarium as a dual-purpose space – a venue for art as well as science – is being explored by institutions from Rochester to Rio de Janeiro.

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Ian McLennan, a Vancouver-based consultant for museums, science centres, planetariums and world expositions, calls Hamburg the "poster child" for cultural programming. "They have educated their audience to check weekly about special events in the star theatre: opera, children's theatre, debates, circuses, laser shows, jazz, chamber music, etc."

In Vancouver, Appleton hopes You Are Very Star is not a one-off; he wants his new-and-improved planetarium to become a cultural space. He has six graduate students from the Centre for Digital Media developing an immersive music experience to replace the old laser shows, and he has plans for more projects.

"Although our mission is space and astronomy, our vision is to become a cultural hub. So we're calling the Electric Company our first artist-in-residence," says Appleton, who has also had a writer-in-residence in the past, B.C.-based sci-fi legend Spider Robinson. "The Electric Company just nails what we're trying to be – more than just the old planetarium."

Electric Company Theatre's You Are Very Star continues at Vancouver's H.R. MacMillan Space Centre until June 29.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More


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