Staging Earth Data in TACIT’s Earth Data: The Musical

Last April, Theater Arts at Caltech (TACIT) staged the part one beta version of Earth Data: The Musical, an original musical inspired by real-life research at JPL. With shows held on the 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th, this was the culmination of seven months of workshops—students and staff from every corner of the Caltech/JPL community acting, singing, and ideating in concert.

The musical is part of Blended Worlds, Caltech/JPL’s submission to PST ART: Art & Science Collide, a November festival held in affiliation with the Getty, the city of Glendale, the Glendale Arts and Culture Commission, and the Glendale Library Arts & Culture Trust. The April run presented the current rendition of Earth Data’s first act; the remaining acts will be co-written over the coming months. Auditions for this new series were held May 25th in the Steven and Mie Frautschi Rehearsal Hall.

The project began as TeamFlow, a collaboration between The Studio at JPL and the Shimojo Psychophysics Laboratory at Caltech that was instigated in part by TACIT Director Brian Brophy. “[Shimojo Lab] does a lot of research on cognition, and as Shin describes it: ‘the neural, dynamic fingerprint; of the brain and how it works in the flow state. … The process began by asking how we can make future scientists—especially if they’re going to be in space—practice different modalities and come in sync with each other, whether in dance or in song,” Brophy explains. “You play these different possibilities out and take all the cognitive mapping going inside the brain, which can be translated into information for NASA.”

As time progressed, TeamFlow morphed into a different project altogether. “One year, David Delgado, one of the leaders of The Studio, said to me: What if you turned it into a choral musical about Earth data? I could watch that for hours,” Brophy recalled. “This kind of triggered something in me! What if we made a musical about the data we’re collecting? … How do we understand that information? How would we have anyone care about it at all?” Thus began Earth Data, a synthesis of years of JPL mission data toward the narrativization and sonification of how science informs us of our precious planet—and what we do (or don’t do) in response to that information.

Central to Earth Data’s development was its co-creative spirit, a virtue core to Brophy’s theatrical philosophy. “We’ve been listening to everyone,” Brophy said. “Obviously something worked, because we didn’t lose anybody, really, for seven months. That’s the proof to me [that Earth Data was successful]. That we held on to everybody, even when there were odd things or insecurities.” As Brophy sees it, impactful theater is no easy feat. “Working at an emotional level is exhausting at times. Especially if you’re a student who hasn’t explored the human, and just the logical rather than the emotional.” Yet, through empathic collaboration, theater production can access a unique echelon of artistic depth. “Once you get past the skin, and past the bone,” Brophy explains, one approaches the “tuétano”: the psychological marrow of theater as media.

The immense value of such co-creativity was similarly emphasized by Emily Shisko, one of the project’s lead musical composers, particularly in working with inexperienced actors and singers. “I see the work as a way to get [people who don’t see themselves as composers] involved in music,” said Shisko. “The compositional process is often the most mysterious to those who don’t do it, and those who aren’t trained in it feel disqualified from it because they feel like they need education to have a say in it. So I love playing that role in music-making,” she continued. “Human beings are just so innately musical.”

Picture of the cast and crew of Earth Data on stage

Cast and crew of Earth Data, from left to right: Joony Kim, Bradley Gay, Sullivan Braun, Josef Svoboda, Kimberley Rain, Eduardo Nascimento, Anya Janowski, Cole Remmen, Julian Wagner, Karen Shekyan, Maria Azcona Baez, Barbie Insua, Albert “Joey” Jefferson, Solvin Sigurdson, Armin Kleinboehl, Brian Brophy, the author, Eric Smith, Arabella Camuñez, Ariane Helou, Emily Shisko, Boyuan Chen, and Cai Tong Ng. Not pictured is crew member Mateo Delgado.

Indeed, Earth Data was a first exposure to musical theater for much of its cast and crew, and the level of co-creative agency shared by all made it a most invigorating one. Anya Janowski, a CCE staff member, not only played Lorelei—a neurotic-assistant type belonging to the corporate dimension of Earth Data’s narrative—but essentially invented the character. “I had no idea Earth Data was going on; I just wanted to see if I could be involved with the theater department in some way,” Janowski said. “I kept coming back for every workshop and it kept snowballing from there into this character Lorelei.” Surely enough, it was through Brophy’s co-creative, play-driven approach that Lorelei emerged in the script as an evolution of improv done by one of the actors in an earlier workshop. “We once did this exercise with this character, and I think they liked her so much that they created this irritated, kind of on-edge, slightly deranged assistant as one of the antagonists of the show.”

Driven chiefly by collaborative play, Earth Data’s production began with some ambiguity as to its exact textual shape. Albert “Joey” Jefferson, a JPLer who played main character JJ and also wrote (“Water Gives Me Life”) spoke to the anxiety of those early workshops. “It’s scary at first because it feels like there’s no form and we’re not really doing anything. But how Brian works reminds me of phase changes: You have ice and you’re heating it up, and when you hit 32 degrees, all of a sudden something magical happens,” said Albertson. “I think it was something special.”

The musical, as much as this Caltech thespian would like to deem it a success, only clearly took form in its final hours. As Shisko put it: “These plates are all spinning and they’re on sticks and fingers and the tops of heads, and the plates are spinning faster and faster. … You’re like: This is all going to fall apart in a clatter of plate shards and glass. And then you look down, and the table is set.”

Eric Smith (MechE ‘23), Caltech alum and now JPLer who played Sterling—one of the play’s corporate antagonists—found the initial formlessness of Earth Data particularly difficult. “We started with no story, no script, no music in October, and then we didn’t get a story or a script until about [mid-April]. … It was a little bit chaotic,” Smith said.

Yet, Smith was ultimately proud to have helped build Earth Data from the ground up: “I performed in an original musical. … Someone wrote music based on my vocal range, my voice; our composer was writing music based on what the actors could sing. It was really cool.” (I certainly agree with that sentiment.) “It’s going to be a lot of fun if we get to [finish Earth Data],” Smith added.

In true Caltech fashion, the scientific research involved in the musical’s main conflict is inspired by the real-life work of Kimberley Rain and Bradley Gay, two Earth scientists at JPL. “I think a lot about arctic change, but also the human impact on the landscape in addition to climate change,” Rain said.

“Which chemicals are being released where, what the impact of human infrastructure like oil and gas is. … Anything humans have accidentally or intentionally stored is being transmitted into the wider environment, and a lot of these chemicals are pretty intense, pretty bad. Anything from testing nuclear weapons to DDT.” (Such “disregard of where we are,” which he also phrased as “the carelessness of human ingenuity,” was for Brophy Earth Data’s paramount theme.)

Materials from Rain and Gay’s research were even incorporated directly into Earth Data’s scenography. “Brad’s been able to share field notebooks, recordings of wolves, a lot of pictures from our field work that even we did gently,” Rain remarked. “He’s shared as many photos and videos as possible, and that’s informed a lot of the visuals in the set design.” Rain and Gay’s work further drove much of the play’s characterization. “My research has also informed the background for Mab, one of the lead roles,” Rain added.

Maria Azcona Baez (ChemE ‘25), who played Mab, related how pieces like Earth Data ground the import of science like Rain and Gay’s for a general audience: “Revolutions don’t come out of nowhere. … Generally, if you get smaller experiments laying down the groundwork for what would be revolutionary, hence why we use language like ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ throughout the show,” Baez said. “But you do feel this responsibility, especially when asked: Why does your research matter? So we can use that as an anchor to explore these wider societal issues, and it becomes more personal and easier to conceptualize. That’s when people actually learn and engage.”

Arabella Camuñez (ChemE ‘27), who played Dahlia, highlighted the play’s engagement with those ethical conflicts that emerge from the interplay between STEM, money, and corporations. “[Dahlia] was—I’m trying to think of a word that’s not traitor—portrayed as being a sellout, but she played a very important part of the battle between wanting to do research for the sake of doing research and wanting to make money, which I think is a very common struggle that people in the sciences face,” Camuñez said. “It was really cool to see her evolution from someone who’s really involved in research, and passionate about science for the sake of science, to someone who’s trying to climb the corporate ladder and started to care more about the money.”

One reason TACIT is so special for me is that, at least as I see it, pop culture tends to either oversimplify science—occasionally to the point of condescension—or otherwise fails to present actual research in a fashion that can productively redirect people’s attention. “Often, people who are in theater who don’t have experience in science have a limited way of accessing what scientists are like, what sorts of conversations they have, and how they do their work, because it’s a black box for us,” Shisko said. “We don’t see the work that happens in a lab.”

The stakes become elevated when popular media substantively interacts with the social-political discourse whereby popular misconceptions and otherwise disconcerting attitudes toward science can jeopardize the world’s ability to put research (e.g., Rain and Gay’s work) into action. “Whatever you are ideologically, it’s a moment in our time that has probably never been so fractured,” Brophy expressed. “Disinformation, misinformation, information… How can we, in the knowledge commons, find sources of information and discourse that give us agency?”

As if responding to these questions Brophy posed, Cole Remmen—another musical composer for the show—articulated what makes TACIT so magical (and so necessary): “We engage scientists on every step of the process: as writers, collaborators, science advisors, designers, etc. This can really only be done at a place like Caltech, where scientists give really open access to their work and are also really creative. It’s a really exciting place to do theater!”

Earth Data resumes production in the fall.