Friday, 7 September 2012

“A mote of dust suspended in a sun beam”: Optic Nerve’s PALE BLUE DOT

Pale Blue Dot - see it? In the sunbeam on the right?
That's Earth from 6 billion kilometres away


The cinema has a grand tradition of science fiction that is cherished and respected, lauded and revered. The genre seems quietly overlooked by theatre. Where are the great plays about scientific discovery? Where are the great plays of specualtive fiction? Please, if you know of any, recommend them to me. It’s certainly a wish of mine to try my hand at science fiction on stage.

Optic Nerve’s Pale Blue Dot is a mix of fact and fiction – an ode to science, which reveres its grandeur while also poking and proding its humanity. A collage of stories about the infinity of space and the limits of photography and art at capturing such epic majesty.

“Pale Blue Dot” is a photograph taken by the Voyager space craft in 1990, a photograph of Earth not taken for strict scientific purposes but as a picture of perspective. Carl Sagan fought to have the photograph taken, just as early astronauts postponed sleep for mere minutes of “sight seeing” in space – human need over scientific necessity.

The play fictionalises the stories of Carl Sagan and his wife Annie Druyen, and their role in creating the “golden records” – pressed gold archives of songs, sounds, greetings, music, images and brainwaves that were sent on Voyager as a depiction of Earth. The experience of watching this production feels pressed into me, just as these images, sounds and songs of Earth are pressed into those records.

There is also the story of a French New Wave filmmaker, a war photographer and a child – and the ebb and flow of these characters and their reaction to light and movement, reflecting the many different emotions contained in the record of Earth that is “Pale Blue Dot”.

Entering the theatre, I knew little of Optic Nerve’s work but a lot about the premise of this play – given the title alone. The glossary in the programme, with its definitions of the titular photograph, the Golden Records and Voyager, etc., suggests the general public aren’t as familiar with Carl Sagan’s work as I am. Space exploration is a keen interest of mine. A subject that fascinates me. And a genre I have and will always try to write in.

But knowing the subject matter and having a preconcieved notion of what may lie in store could easily have worked against this production. What if I didn’t like the depiction of Carl and his wife? What if I thought the metaphor was overused or the importance of the photograph were diminished? What if the collage was more a mess than a cohesive experience?

The work of a smart, inciteful cast of actors and a strong director respected the material – they found a way to capture this vast subject matter and distill it into a 75 minute meditation on light and photography, space and infinity. Distilling the essence of “Pale Blue Dot” into an extraordinary theatrical experience.

Theatre, at its best, feels universal but plays to the personal. As a theatre-maker, I want my audience to understand and empathise. As an audience member, I love to feel like the play is talking directly to me. This show, in particular, felt like it hit many of my buttons – my passion for space exploration, my wonder at the universe, my general interest in photography and my intrigue in the life of war photographers – who choose to be observers, their camera sometimes distancing themselves from the hand that reaches toward them.

And light. And constants. And space. And movement. And memory.

In a very insightful Q&A forum after the show, hosted by an astronomer, there was a discussion about finding a way to draw this vast subject matter into a coherent piece of theatre (stemming from a question of mine). But there was also a discussion about how science and theatre are similar – and how they can support each other through shows like this. And how the limits of both can inform each other; science is dictated by certain universal laws and theatre is defined by its ephemeral nature.

To creators and performers Stephen Phillips, Lachlan Woods, Luisa Hastings Edge and Ben Pfeiffer – whose collaboration on and off stage are second-to-none. Director Tanya Gerstle, whose wise choices kept the show in the precise focus it needs to be. And the entire crew – particularly Russell Goldsmith and Tom Willis, whose sound and production design were the icing on the cake.

Thank you.

Pale Blue Dot finds the human inquistiveness behind the scientific principal and conveys it to the audience in a carefully judged, beautifully captivating piece of theatre. As the great Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And any greatly concieved, exquisitely produced piece of theatre is indistinguishable from magic, too.

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"Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space


Pale Blue Dot is on at the Tower Theatre at the Malthouse as part of the Helium season until September 15

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