Spanel Planetarium: Interactive performances

by Nikko Van Wyck

photo by Tommy Calderon

On the third floor of Western Washington University’s library sits an unassuming door. Narrow corridors of books and comfortable nooks and crannies dominate the field of view, making it seem like the door almost wants to be missed by the eyes. Behind this door lives WWU’s Spanel Planetarium, a dark lukewarm room with theatre style seating and a domed projection ceiling, that as of late, has been used for more than showing the stars to academics.

Kristin Nelson, WWU senior, saw the space as an opportunity to present visual art and music to students and the public. What started as a series of coincidences quickly garnered a strong show of support and following. “I’ve always been fascinated with light. I used to work at Value Village and I started collecting the weird lights that would come in, and I started doing weird lighting for music shows,” Nelson explained. “I happened to be at a bar one night, and my friend was like, ‘Kristin, I do stuff at the Planetarium! It’s sounds like something you’d be down with!’ and it was a ‘Yeah! That is correct!’ moment for me.” The timing was perfect.

Another student, Andrew Lindsey, had written a grant to use the space for a project, which eventually led to the Planetarium offering a key at the desk for checkout to access the space in 2016. While there was a lot of activity in the space directly after the new program started, it suffered a lull in use after Andrew departed to manage a planetarium in California. Kristin, noticing the inactivity, wanted to reinvigorate the space.

“The planetarium is just too cool to let it sit, after it had quieted down I really wanted to find a creative way to use it,” she added. That’s when the idea for live music started.

“We started doing shows about a year ago, it was last March when we hosted our first one, but prior to that my friend Keenan Ketzner used the space for his senior project. He used the space to play an album, and had visuals that complimented the music. The coolest part about it was that he had included these interactive instruments that complimented the album and visuals so well. It was one of the most unique things we’ve had happen in here,” she explained. “After that, Keenan and I worked on putting together another show in the room and the music community was super receptive to it. Keenan graduated and I’ve just kept putting them on myself.”

One might assume that it would be hard to convince a university to convert an expensive planetarium into a space for shows, but Kristen said it was just about the opposite of difficult. “I’ve had so much support from the planetarium manager, Brad Snowder. He used to be a musician and has always supported the arts, and from the first time I approached him, he’s been so supportive. It was shockingly not that hard to get this going. It’s been great, we’ve even moved the shows to after hours for the library so we can do performances without interrupting any students.”

With limited seating (the room seats about 45) performances have started selling out, and it’s no wonder. It’s not every day that you can immerse yourself in a visually interactive musical performance. The intimacy that the Planetarium provides its patrons for shows is unmatched in town. Be sure to catch one before the school year comes to a close.


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