‘Starball’ Is a Stellar Adventure for a Weary World

Photo by AJ Epstein

Our lost and perilous age has fallen out of love with unfashionable things like facts, science, wonder and dreams—and what’s worse, has even forgotten that these things are inextricably intertwined. A remedy that can perhaps soothe our aching hearts is a peculiar little show called Starball. Starball first ran in 2002, infinity eons ago, back in the infamous “Early Bush Years,” but even then Starball’s big heart, cosmic quirkiness and comet-dusted whimsy provided a temporary antidote to the unique anxieties of the time. The show was staged under the star-spangled dome of the Seattle Planetarium, as stargazing is crucial to Starball’s raison d’etre. The lights went down, the stars came out and what followed was a fascinating lyrical and musical tour of the universe, plus earnest accordion playing, impromptu Irish drinking songs, a whacked-out astronaut who drank his own pee and delightful discourses on dreams. John Kaufmann and Dan Dennis were the show’s co-creators, Dennis serving as musical maestro, Kaufmann as its adorkable, bowtied host. Kaufmann absconded from Seattle long ago in favor of Wisconsin, got married and became a father of two, but he and Dennis faithfully kept Starball alive. Now, Kauffman and Dennis and their Starball have returned to Seattle for a limited five-night engagement. We reconnected with Kaufmann to talk about where he and Starball have been, the new production and how everything in the universe has changed.

I had no idea you were still doing this show! Give us some background on how it started.  
I’d been working at the Planetarium at Pacific Science Center in the 1990s, doing astronomy shows, and they would get pretty wacky. People were trapped in there in the dark with me, and I had so much fun, but there were limits to what I could do, artistically and legally.  I had the idea for a show that would add music, audience participation and a dystopian storyline to the traditional planetarium show. I recorded an idea for a song and sent it to Dan Dennis for advice on arranging it. Dan was still working at the Planetarium and he became my partner in the show. The shows could last anywhere from 75 minutes to two hours, depending on the audience. AJ Epstein attended several of those early shows and offered to produce it. Rachel Katz Carey joined us as a director and we tightened the backstory and characters, and we added new music.

Is this a reboot, or was there never a pause in production?
We’ve presented the show several times over the years, often at astronomy conferences or special events at planetaria. We’ve been to New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Baton Rouge and even Valencia, Spain.  Every time we get together, we tweak the show to fit the venue. One time we had to include a subplot about Pluto for Maryland Science Center’s “Pluto-is-no-longer-an-official-planet days” (that wasn’t quite the title).  

What do you want people to get out of the show?
Things that have been consistent since the show’s inception are that the audience must share remembered dreams, and these dreams are the inspiration for original constellations that we create during the show. I always wanted to take audience members in two directions: a mental understanding of the mechanics of the sky—how it moves, why it looks different at different times of the year, etc—and a spiritual connection to stargazers throughout history.  Not just “their” constellations, but to identify our own. One of the lines that has been in the show since the beginning is “People throughout history have projected their world into the stars.” I realized that fact when I was first doing shows in the planetarium and I wanted people to experience it with our own world. Our dreams can be an authentic manifestation of our world. They also keep us more authentic. So, the core ideas of the show are still there, but it’s evolved in many ways.

How has Starball evolved since 2002?
The show lives in a science-fiction world, but we’ve moved even closer to a world regime that controls us through mass media and a populace that seldom looks to the sky. In fact, the impetus for this run of the show started with an email thread right after the election with the subject line “A time like this…” We were all wondering where to put our energy. This show felt like the right place. To ask people to look further than our feeds, updates and devices, up to the furthest points of light that we can see, and to recognize that as a radical and subversive act.

Starball runs Sept. 7 – 12  in a pop-up planetarium at West of Lenin.