Birth of Stars

Featuring live performance and projection, weaving in astronomical data, Birth of Stars tells the story of the births, lives, and deaths of stars and we who gaze up at them.


Sofia (Emily Schneiderman) falls for Jake (Brandon Blum).
Left to right: Joan Raspo works blocking with Josh Orlando (crouching), Brandon Blum, Danielle Goupille, Alex Doble, and Nina Mostowfi.
Left to Right: Emily Schneiderman and Gwen Vahey get some notes from Joan.
Sofia (Emily Schneiderman) confronts her mother Ruth (Gwen Vahey).
Front: Jamie (Alex Doble) learns a hard lesson from Jake (Brandon Blum). Behind, a shocked Ash (Josh Orlando), Nikki (Danielle Goupille) and Megan (Nina Mostowfi) wonder if things haven’t gone too far.
Left: Nikki (Danielle Goupille) films while Jake (Brandon Blum) grabs Jamie (Alex Doble).
Stephen (Taras Wybaczinsky) struggles with his inner demons.
Megan (Nina Mostowfi) and Nikki (Danielle Goupille) lament the trials of adolescence.
The cast at work, before the projections are added.
The cast works some fight choreography.
Stephen (Taras Wybaczinsky) works to impress Lacey (Sierra Parsons) while Sofia (Emily Schneiderman) recreates one of Newton’s experiments.


Nathan Ober (front) running sound cues during tech, while Maranda Kleinert (right) surveys the cast.
Joan Raspo works with Sophia (Emily Schneiderman) while projections are tested.
Izzy Quistian (front) runs lighting cues with cast on stage.
Steve Gerlach works on projection cues.
The cast runs through a scene with projection cues.

Cast Photo

Final cast photo.
Credit: Steve DiBartolomeo

Scenic Design

The scenic designer provides the scene shop with drafting of their design. The technical director takes this drafting and creates detailed construction drawings of the internal structure of the scenic elements. This is a construction drawing to show how the frame and decking should be assembled for the planked platform.
An early design of the Birth of Stars stage.
An early design of the Birth of Stars stage.
An early design of the Birth of Stars stage.
An early design of the Birth of Stars stage.
An early design of the Birth of Stars stage.
The Birth of Stars raw stage.

Media Design

Projections/Media consultant David Murakami experiments with a depth-sensing projection rig for Birth of Stars, to be used for Sofia's journey to the stars at the finale of the piece.
Projections/Media consultant David Murakami experiments with a depth-sensing projection rig for Birth of Stars, to be used for Sofia's journey to the stars at the finale of the piece.

Astrophysics Visualizations

The scientific matter of BIRTH OF STARS revolves around debates regarding the origin of stellar masses. Scientists ask “why do stars have the masses that they do?” A star’s mass is vitally important to the large-scale evolution of the cosmos, so this is a hotly debated issue. Most modern approaches focus on the physics of turbulence in the interstellar medium as a universal mechanism for determining the mass of stars. Others, including me, have focused on the role of stellar radiation feedback in determining stars’ characteristic masses. This approach has the virtue that it provides at least a potential mechanism to explain why nuclear reactions inside stars are linked to the processes taking place in the interstellar medium. Nonetheless, the problem is still far from solved.

-Mark Krumholz
Sofia’s personal quest, in the play, is to solve the mystery of why stars have the masses they do, which some scientists call the “Eddington-Jeans” problem. Dr. Heider is an adherent of the stellar turbulence model, but he is smart enough to recognize Sofia’s radiation feedback model as far more advanced than the one he thought up. This is what tempts him, what precipitates his fall from glory. For Sofia, though, the problem is both far more personal and far LESS personal. As a “big picture” kind of girl, Sofia has her eye not on the simple human problems that plague Dr. Heider, but on cosmic problems. Although she uses science to achieve her goal, what happens to her in the play is not explicable by science. This is arguably one small area in which the theatre has an edge on the scientific laboratory: in the theatre, the magical and miraculous is still possible.

-Michael Chemers
A fly through of the Bolshoi-Planck simulation showing the structure of dark matter at the present-day universe. The scene is over half a billion light years across.
The simulation was run on NASA's Pleiades supercomputer. Over 400 terabytes of data were stored and the simulation ran for many million cpu hours.
Video by Alex Bogert.
A galaxy formed but was too small to stay together. After many super novae exploded there was not enough gravity to pull the gas and dust back in.
The simulation was run on Hyades, a super computer in the UCSC data center.
Simulation data from John Forbes. Video by Alex Bogert.
A galaxy simulation run using the GADGET code. The coloring represents the density of gas in the galaxy with blue as low density regions.
Link to simulation data.
Video by Alex Bogert.
A galaxy simulation run using the ENZO code. The coloring represents the density of gas in the galaxy with blue as low density regions.
Simulation data from Ji-hoon Kim. Video by Alex Bogert.
A galaxy simulation run using the ART code. The coloring represents the density of gas in the galaxy with blue as low density regions.
Simulation data from Daniel Ceverino. Video by Alex Bogert.
A fitting software Rockstar was used to fit ellipsoids around dark matter particles in the Bolshoi-Planck simulation called Halos. Here we see the formation of the largest Halo in the simulation. The Milky-way galaxy would hardly be visible if it were shown to scale in the scene.
Video by Alex Bogert.

Interview with Michael M. Chemers and Scott Rappaport

Scott Rappaport: How would you describe the production? The plot?
Michael M. Chemers: Birth of Stars is the story of a fourteen-year-old girl, Sofia, growing up in a rural mountain community in California. Sofia has exceptional gifts - she has an extraordinary facility with science and is obsessed with the life cycles of stars. These gifts, however, come at a terrible price - Sofia is outcast from her community, cruelly bullied (and cyber-bullied) by her classmates, and misunderstood by her mother, who is very religious. The one person who might understand her is a great scientist, but he also wrestles with terrible personal demons. Sofia’s journey through these obstacles is both a compelling and deeply human one, but also, in the end, transcendent and cosmic, in the grandest sense. The show itself combines live action with a variety of digital visual effects, including projections of simulations of stars forming in space. The live action interacts with the projections and other effects to create what we think is a unique experience that is both immediately present and also highly mediated.
SR: What inspired this play? Who actually wrote it?
MC: The play is the final stage of a year-long Research Project hosted by the Digital Arts and New Media Program and spearheaded by myself, Jim Bierman (professor of Playwriting) and Mark Krumholz (professor of Astrophysics). We got together with the intention of developing a research group that would try to find a way to express, artistically, the cutting-edge research in stellar formation that Mark and his colleagues undertake. We were committed to telling a human story that would be strictly true to the science. To that end, we admitted a team of five graduate students into DANM with the express purpose of working on this research. Over the first two quarters, Winter and Spring 2014, this cohort conducted research into astrophysics and advanced performance theories, and we debated ways to generate a human story to support the science. The research group expanded to include graduate and undergraduate students from Theater Arts, Astronomy and Astrophysics, and Computer Science. Other faculty lent their support and expertise. Collaboratively, we worked to develop ideas that incorporated the best in digital media, scenic design, and traditional performance. The performance also features an astonishing original score by DANM student Nathan Ober. At the end of Spring Quarter, we had a pretty solid outline of a play. Although most of the actual writing of the script was done by me, the process was very collaborative. A writing team made from members of the research group worked with me closely to generate the script. Over the summer we had two staged readings of the play using actors from the Theater Arts programs who were very generous with their time and expert opinions. By the beginning of Fall Quarter, we produced a solid script to go into production.
SR: How did the theater students and astrophysics students get along? Was it difficult at first? What were the interactions like?
MC: On the contrary, we had a grand time working together. Right now there is a real hunger on both sides of the art/science divide, which after all is very artificial to begin with, to venture into one another’s camps. I know that the students who did not have a strong background in science (like me) were fascinated by the revelations about the universe that the astrophysicists take for granted, and I think the scientists were really eager to learn new vocabularies for expressing their findings in ways that are not only intellectually but emotionally meaningful for non-scientists. I was really pleased with the patience that both camps showed for one another. It was a very collegial and very idea-rich environment. It was also great fun to share insights and get new perspectives on old problems, to ask and answer new questions. Some of the scientists had great ideas about staging and character development, for instance. We owe great deal to my colleagues Mark Krumholz, who is a scientist with an artistic sensibility, and Jim Bierman, who is an artist unafraid of and fascinated by science, for creating this kind of environment. Of course, theatre itself is always a collaborative environment and anyone who works in theatre needs to have an understanding of such scientific disciplines as physics, optics, anatomy, and sound.
SR: How does this play address the role of technology today? What questions does it raise? Does it have a particular point of view?
MC: I think that in the end the play winds up discussing issues surrounding technology in a very human way. In the play, we see technology applied as tool for expanding human consciousness, communication, and understanding, but we also see it used as a weapon in the psychological warfare of the playground. In the play, technology helps the characters explore the unseen world of the cosmos, but may be a barrier to exploring the unseen world of the spirit. It enables some kinds of communication but shuts down others. The production, both in the story and in the use of digital media on stage, embraces advancing technology but does not mistake it for a panacea. We hope that through the dialectical engagement with the live performance, the audience will come away not with any easy answers, but with some tools for asking better, but perhaps more difficult, questions.
SR: What do you hope that the audience takes away from this event?
MC: In addition to the way the play explores the impact of technology on human existence, it also explores other human conundrums, some old and some new. For example, the question we asked ourselves throughout the process is “what does the birth and death of stars have to do with the lives of real human beings?” We think we’ve provided some answers to this question, but posed new questions as well. What is the obligation of our society to its children as we move into a world more dominated by science? What does it mean to be compassionate and moral, or more specifically, how do we act in compassionate and moral ways? To whom can we turn for answers? How do we tell truth from lies? How do we balance the joy and pain of life in a productive way? Finally, we explore the possibility that through knowledge, and maybe also through suffering, each one of us has the potential to become more, perhaps much more, than what we are. Since prehistory humanity has looked to the stars for answers, and those answers have changed as humanity has changed. If the stars teach us anything, it is that the humblest, most insignificant specks in the universe contain within themselves a seed of overwhelming greatness. Perhaps BIRTH OF STARS can help to figure out how to unlock it.

Script Excerpt

An annotated page from the original Birth of Stars script.


Michael M. Chemers is the Director of the Digital Arts and New Media Program and an Associate Professor of Dramatic Literature at the University of California Santa Cruz. Prior to that, he was a professor at the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University where he became the Founding Director of the BFA in Production Dramaturgy Program. He is a scholar of dramaturgy, theatre history, monster studies, and social robotics.


Joan Raspo is a media consultant pursuing a MFA in Digital Art and New Media. In her work as a director and artist, Joan experiments with unexpected processes. She sees art as entertainment—an opportunity to build drama and tension that invites interaction with her audience. This fall, Joan is directing the play, Birth of Stars. This experimental performance weaves in leading-edge astrophysics through the story of a young prodigy who seeks to become one with the Universe. It is a performance that is full of beauty, awe, terror and the innate human potential to change.


Patrick is a theater artist who is incredibly indecisive, jumping around between playwriting, dramaturgy, directing, and occasionally acting. Past productions at UCSC include Shakes-To-Go: Henry V (Scroop/ensemble) and Machinal (Ensemble). His play Patch the Ship has also been produced through the Chautauqua New Play Festival. Outside of Santa Cruz, he serves at the Artistic Director of Beat on the Bard Theatre Company in Washington D.C, where his productions include, Never mind the Bollocks, Here’s a Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Sensational Sans Sullivan Radio Hour.


Nathaniel Ober is a new media artist whose work crosses disciplines from installation and performance to video and sound. His interdisciplinary works examine concepts of human perception and natural phenomena, sound as vibration, time and space, and the finite versus the infinite. Working with multiple facets of technology, he creates immersive installations that intend to pervade the viewers senses. His current research is focused on astronomy and astrophysics, which deal with techniques of sonification and processes that attempt to expose our innate connection to the universe.


David Murakami is an award winning film director, writer, and theatrical multi-media designer working towards integrating emerging technologies with traditional performance on stage, specializing in cyber-performance and fully immersive digital sets. His work has been featured at the Smithsonian Museum, the Maker Faire, and several international film festivals. His current projects include directing his sixth feature-length film, Morningstar, designing the fully immersive set for Heart of Darkness at the Z-Space, and designing and assistant directing Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking with Opera Parallèle at the YBCA Theater in San Francisco.


Hailey Shapiro has been exploring her relationship with theater since she was 10 years old and, upon her recent completion of her undergraduate career, is a Masters student of the UCSC Theater Arts program focusing in dramaturgy. Hailey is very excited to be creating her thesis around the Birth of Stars project; and to continue exploring the ways in which the show can be used to bring the creative and artistic world into a new age of technology. Upon completion of her education, Hailey hopes to use her knowledge to help bring art and expression into a new light in the eyes of modern society.


Alexandra is a digital artist and second year MFA candidate in the Digital Arts New Media program. Her research interests focus on creating interactive, playable works that explore various narrative possibilities. Working within the intersections of art, writing, game design and web development, she focuses on creating new platforms (both physical and digital) for interactive fiction, story and new media art. Her latest efforts have been focused on creating this website for the Birth of Stars production.


Mark Krumholz is an associate professor in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department at UC Santa Cruz. His research focuses on the formation of stars and galaxies, and on the physics of the interstellar medium. He approaches these problems using a mix of analytic and numerical techniques. He has provided invaluable consultation for the scientific aspects of Birth of Stars.


In addition to his interests in dramatic writing, theater history, and dramatic literature, James Bierman is also an enthusiastic participant in the Digital Arts and New Media program’s Performative Technologies research group. His creative work centers around dramatic writing, but also includes theater criticism and the creation of interactive digital artifacts.


Alex is a 22 year-old Master of Drama and Theatre Studies from the University of Kent, having specialised in Contemporary Performance Practice. Returning to UCSC for the Theater Arts grad program, he is thrilled to be performing on campus once again following Honk! (2012) and Peer Gynt (2013). Other notable performances include Joseph in The Nativity Play (1998) and that time he convinced his dad he was a Computer Science major.


Brandon is a senior pursuing a BA in Theater at UC Santa Cruz. UCSC Theater Arts credits include Claudius/Ghost (Shakes-to-Go: Hamlet), Collins (RENT), The Lover (Machinal), and Algernon (The Importance of Being Earnest). Santa Cruz Shakespeare credits include Pistol/Rugby (The Merry Wives of Windsor), Amiens (As You Like It), and John Heminge/Sir Francis Bacon (The Beard of Avon).


Josh Orlando is a third year Legal Studies major and Theater Arts minor. Aside from theatre, he acts in films and performs on his Comedy Joust improv team at UCSC. Josh aspires to perform for as long as he can. "He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it" -George Orwell.


Emily has been performing on stage since 2002. In the past, she has worked with Starting Arts and Wilcox High School Stage Company, as well as various other youth theatre programs in the Bay Area. Emily is a third year student majoring in Theater Arts. Her most recent shows with UCSC include RENT, Machinal, and It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.


Danielle Goupille is a fourth year at UCSC pursing a double major in Theatre Arts and Psychology. She is ecstatic to be sharing the stage with such a talented group of actors. Danielle would like to thank her family and friends for always be so supportive of all her acting endeavors. Danielle will also be accepting cookie donations at the end of the show. (Preferably white chocolate chip macadamia, but chocolate chip is fine too.) Past credits include: Romance of the Roses (Herbalist) The Amen Corner (Choir) Around the World in 80 Days (Passepartout)


Sierra Parsons hails from Culver City, California and is a senior at UCSC pursuing a dual Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre Arts and Creative Writing with a concentration in Poetry. When she’s not writing poems, in rehearsal, or performing, she loves to drink espresso, smell candles, and think existentially, but not necessarily in that order. Past credits include Dracula (Mina Murray), Machinal (Mother), Fefu and Her Friends (Fefu), Eurydice (Big Stone), Styx Run Dry (Cora), The Veldt (Lydia Hadley), and The Laramie Project (Rebecca Hilliker,


Nina Mostowfi is a soft, humble spirit who enjoys romantic candlelight dinners, long walks on the beach, and performing in Birth of Stars! Past credits include: other shows. Nina is particularly good at breathing. Her advice for budding thespians is to drink lots of water! In all seriousness, she genuinely appreciates all the hard work that was put into this wonderful production.


Taras is a Junior Transfer Theater Arts Major from Southern California where he studied and performed at Fullerton College. He has also performed for theater companies around Orange and Riverside Counties. This is Taras's first show at UCSC and he is excited to join a new cast and crew! Favorite roles include: Petruccio (Taming of the Shrew), Marius (Les Miserables- Regional), Younger Brother (Ragtime), John Wilkes Booth (Assassins), R.P. McMurphy (One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest), Roger (RENT), and Jamie (The Last 5 Years).


Ellen Howes is a UCSC Graduate student and aspiring costume designer. She has worked on short films and plays both on and off campus including the Barnstorm production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and the UCSC production of The Normal Heart. Most recently, Ellen traveled to Manhattan to intern for Roundabout Theater's production of Indian Ink (Coming to San Francisco in January). She is very excited to be a part of the incredible artistic team responsible for putting on the very first production of Birth of Stars.


Ian Roque is a second year astrophysics student. He enjoys skateboarding and playing guitar. He spends most of his time in bed and is currently in need of a haircut. He is the assistant costume designer for Birth of Stars, working under Ellen Howes.