HPU’s Culp Planetarium Helps Make Theater History

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A collaboration between science and art has brought dreams to life in this one-of-a-kind location.

With its 50-foot dome and five surround sound speakers, the Culp Planetarium bring whoever sits down in a world as deep as the ocean to the Milky Way and beyond.

The images are breathtaking and the sound makes everything seen and felt feel inches away. Meanwhile, in a 125-seat auditorium where the headrest encourages everyone to look up and around, the room introduces any observer to a beauty rarely seen or imagined.

HPU professors call the Culp Planetarium the “Wow Room.” So, with software and space that make it the most immersive room on campus, the Culp Planetarium became HPU’s new live theater venue this spring.

The Culp Planetarium also became something else –– a story maker.

For the first time in 425 years of history, an opera has been created specifically to be performed in a planetarium. And the place chosen was the Culp Planetarium.

In April, High Point University unveiled the world premiere of “Galaxies in Her Eyes” at the Culp Planetarium, an opera about a young girl’s love of space and how three famous women scientists influenced her to reach Mars.

The five-performance run brought many opera experts to campus – an internationally acclaimed director; an acclaimed composer, librettist and graphic designer; four professional opera singers; and the assistant conductor and five musicians of the Winston-Salem Symphony.

How?

Because of the pandemic and Dr. Scott MacLeod of HPU.

A “beautiful marriage” of science and art

In March 2020, when it all came to a halt, MacLeod had his first artistic break in two decades. MacLeod, an associate professor of music, called a friend to discuss potential ideas and heard, “Let’s do something we’ve never done before.”

MacLeod brought up the planetarium, which led him to connect with veteran director Kristine McIntyre. She had conducted more than 100 operas and enjoyed creating productions in what she called “found spaces”.

When MacLeod told her about the HPU planetarium, she immediately thought of three female scientists: Annie Jump Cannon, Katherine Johnson, and Ada Lovelace. She always wanted to mount a production on their incredible discoveries, and she knew she could call on a cadre of talent.

Now she had a space to create an opera where it had never been done before.

In a planetarium.

MacLeod then approached Dr. Brad Barlow, associate professor of astrophysics at HPU and director of the Culp Planetarium. Barlow has been playing the piano for decades and he creates his own soundtracks to the videos he produces when he takes his students to study the stars at a mountaintop observatory in Chile.

“Boy, do I have anything for you,” MacLeod told him.

Barlow loved the idea. Barlow secured a $4,500 grant from the National Science Foundation and worked with opera experts to ensure the science depicted in “Galaxies” was accurate.

He teamed up with a graphic designer from Minnesota and a librettist from California. Then, like an artist with a paintbrush, he worked with planetarium software and helped create sets such as a space capsule landing on the actual NASA-photographed landscape of Mars.

Barlow calls this work a “labor of love” and the most important project he has ever done.

“It’s the most beautiful marriage of arts and science I’ve ever seen,” says Barlow. “I’ve always had a passion for telling a story around music, and it fulfills a childhood dream.”

But “Galaxies in Her Eyes” wasn’t Barlow’s first marriage of arts and science inside the Culp Planetarium. It was his second.

Enter Jay Putnam, associate professor of theater at HPU.

“It Makes You Gasp”

Two years ago, with Barlow at his side, Putnam walked into the planetarium and exclaimed, “There’s storytelling in this space!”

But Putnam had to figure out what story he wanted to tell. Putnam conducts plays; he does not write plays. But in March 2020, when learning went virtual after his students had to leave campus due to the pandemic, Putnam began spending a lot of time with his young daughter, Maggie.

At the time, she was 4 years old. He took her to the park, he played with her at home and they walked together in their neighborhood with Greta, their golden retriever. He began to think about the relationship between a father and a daughter and the aspect of time.

Weather. Past and present. A room with that kind of theme, he thought, would work well at Planetarium Culp. That’s when he pulled out his laptop and spent months creating “Time Like Water.”

He explained why a woman in college initially avoided getting married because of her fear of loss after her father’s death. He was writing on his couch. He wrote in parking lots. He revised and revised again until his pile of drafts was six inches high.

He collaborated with his students, giving them new scripts on rehearsal day and telling them, “Be nice, please. He collaborated with Barlow and Emily Crofford, HPU’s assistant dance instructor, and fused science with movement.

He collaborated with Erin Brady, the manager of the planetarium. Brady, an HPU alumnus who majored in physics and studio art, worked with Putnam and the cast and spent many nights and weekends making sure the footage on the dome matched the script. and working on stage.

But that was not all. Putnam also collaborated with the planetarium itself.

Putnam staged scenes with student actors and student dancers behind the second level of the dome to illustrate the past. He perched the student playing the father behind the third floor of the dome to illustrate the memory. He used planetarium software to breathe images of the solar system into the room to illustrate the wow of an astronomy class where the student first fell in love.

“You walk in there and you have toys to play with,” Putnam says. “It makes you gasp.”

This was the case for audiences and cast when the show aired in February.

“The planetarium made it a better show,” says Hannah Hutter, the junior double major in broadcast journalism and criminal justice who played Nina, the play’s title character. “If we were doing this show on stage, it wouldn’t have the emotional depth. But having produced it in the planetarium, you were truly transformed as an audience member.

“You were there with us,” she said. “I know it sounds totally cliché, but it brings to mind that phrase, ‘Oh, the places you’ll go.’ The potential of this space is limitless.

MacLeod believes it too.

“With what we are able to do in our planetarium, I see it as so personally and artistically rewarding.” McLeod said. “Our students gain a real perspective of the arts, and through the arts we have a rare, opaque window into the human soul that we otherwise don’t have.”

The life lessons of the “galaxies”

Other opera companies around the country are interested in performing “Galaxies in Her Eyes” in a planetarium. Meanwhile, the opera has won support from the National Science Foundation and NASA because they see the production as the spark needed to get young people interested in STEM, the well-known acronym for science and technology. , engineering and mathematics.

And by telling the story of women scientists of color in such a compelling way, Barlow sees the opera as a production that could encourage young girls and students of color to pursue their curiosity in STEM.

“It shows you the importance of being able to see yourself in this role and being able to interact with other people who look like you,” says Barlow, a married father of two girls under 4.

Reyna Alston, a young music student from Durham, North Carolina, understands this. She’s one of the voice students MacLeod recruited for a class to help with the “Galaxies” screenplay and score workshop last semester. She played Eden, the main character of the opera.

“His story stuck with me,” says Alston, who hopes to one day pursue a doctorate and head a music department at a university. “I don’t see a lot of people who look like me who want to do what I want to do. I have big goals. Her too.

MacLeod also brought in Steph Stone, a senior vocal performance specialist from Short Hills, New Jersey. Stone played scientist Ada Lovelace last semester.

“We wanted to do him justice,” she says. “And for me, it was more than a musical performance. It’s about women overcoming obstacles to be part of history, and we were all women working together during COVID, when other arts ceased to create.

“It made him special, it made him powerful. We were telling about the lives of these isolated women in their industry, and we were isolated in the world.

Culp’s Life Lessons

At HPU, the premier life skills university, timeless lessons about the importance of resilience stay with students. But ironically for students majoring in drama, those lessons were learned in a place they almost never entered.

The Wanek School of Natural Sciences. And his Culp planetarium.

Becca Korn, a senior from Potomac, Maryland, double majored in theater performance and computer science, recalls. In February, she played the teacher and celebrant in “Time Like Water.”

“When Jay told us about the planetarium, I was like, ‘Oh shit, the science building?'” she says. “We were all theater kids, and we don’t walk into this building, and we thought we wouldn’t feel like we belonged.”

They did not do it. Like Alston and Stone, Korn discovered a life lesson inside the Culp Planetarium that she would use for the rest of her life.

“It’s adaptability,” she says. “It’s huge in the theater world. You sometimes have jobs where you go on stage at different times without rehearsal and make things work with a new script. So when you get that experience in college – and not for the first time in the job market – it really helps.


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