publicity image for the play "Red Planet Respite"

ASU scientists explore creative side in Mars-themed play


Deborah Sussman Susser

The ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and San Diego-based theater company Circle Circle dot dot, in collaboration with scientists from the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Mars Rover team at ASU, are premiering the play "Red Planet Respite."

Some 30 ASU scientists worked with Circle Circle dot dot to inspire this unique production, which was developed along with School of Film, Dance and Theatre alumna Katie Harroff and her fellow artist at Circle Circle dot dot, Saroya Rowley. Written and co-directed by Harroff and Rowley, the play tells the story of the first test crew sent to experience an intergalactic resort on Mars.

Set in 2044, the play follows the would-be crew of the first Mars space voyage, a team comprised of both scientists and elite citizens. The idea for the plot arose out of some of the concerns that the real ASU scientists had for the future of space exploration, which emerged during discussions the ASU artists and scientists have held over the course of the past five years. In the play, the struggle for funding boils down to a compromise between Mars America, a scientific organization, and Globalcom, a multinational organization, which agrees to fund the colony as a luxurious resort as well as a scientific institute. When a disaster strikes back on Earth, the crew must face consequences and psychological extremes they could never prepare for.

Harroff drew inspiration for the piece from her experiences with community-based theater during her time as a graduate student at ASU.

“As a student in 2007, we worked with the Mars Space Flight Facility to create a short show about the rovers,” Harroff says. “That particular class and work inspired me to develop my company, Circle Circle dot dot. I found it fitting to pick up where I left off with this opportunity and develop a full production about exploration and the future of human civilization and colonizing Mars.”

Patrick Young, ASU assistant professor of theoretical astrophysics, and doctoral student Karen Knierman were among the scientists who worked on the project. The pair helped shape the play’s futuristic backdrop. “All of the science in the production is based on realistic projections of what the future might hold,” Harroff says, “but it's still definitely a science-fiction grab-bag.”

The scientists and artists have found great benefits to merging resources. “We had the best time speculating and fantasizing artistically,” says Harroff. “The thing that was the most rewarding to me was how much in common art and science really do have with each other. I found it incredible to see how perfectly we fit together. In fact, this experience has inspired an entire season of science for Circle Circle dot dot.”

“Red Planet Respite” will make its California debut in San Diego later this year.

“Any chance for the scientific community to reach out to people in other walks of life should be seized,” adds Young, who received a writing credit on the play. “Personally, I was interested in the project’s ability to increase public understanding and attitudes toward science by collaborating with artists. Showing that fields as different as astrophysics and theater can not only share ideas, but really collaborate to create new content is powerful.”

Where: Lyceum Theatre, 901 S. Forest Mall, ASU’s Tempe campus

When: April 18-19 at 7:30 p.m.; April 24-26 at 7:30 p.m.; April 27 at 2 p.m.

Cost: $8-$16; Herberger Institute students are offered free admission on tickets reserved in advance

Public contact: Herberger Institute box office, 480-965-6447; School of Film, Dance and Theatre, 480-965-5337