Tag Archives: Ann McLaughlin

A ‘Celestial’ Find for Harpist, Staerkel Director

The Staerkel Planetarium offered its first light show (featuring the music of Pink Floyd) in 1991. In the years since, other shows have graced the dome, and we’ve done a few live musical acts, too. We had the entire Bowdacious String Band in the dome, plus a guitar trio, a four-piece rock band, and even a laptop orchestra.

However, several years ago, Parkland’s Grants and Contracts Manager Josh Birky approached me about doing something different with our shows, something more classical. I thought, “That’s not a bad idea—maybe something more ‘out of the box,’ as they say.”

I contacted a few colleagues in Fine and Applied Arts and eventually made my way to the University of Illinois’ School of Music in search of a harpist. The first harpist wasn’t available, but she suggested doctoral student musician Ann McLaughlin. Ann and I exchanged a few emails after that. She was also interested in doing something new and different and was excited about the idea of her music being backed by visuals in a theatrical setting.

Ann and I didn’t meet until our first rehearsal in the dome. She immediately struck me as very outgoing, passionate about her craft, and interested in “pushing the envelope.”

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Ann McLaughlin. Photo by Bernard Wolff.

We did our first show in late January 2013 and, much to my surprise, we sold the place out! And, in my standard pre-show introduction, I discovered that a little less than half the crowd had never been in the planetarium before!

Shows like these are challenging, as I had to run the visuals live (nothing could really be programmed) and Ann had to learn how to play in nearly full darkness. I set up two spotlights to illuminate Ann so it wouldn’t be quite as dark and, besides, since she is the “star” of the show, people should see her. We also had to run a couple of microphones (one floor-mounted and the other on a boom) so the harp played through our sound system. Our production designer Waylena McCully set up a screen in our digital system for special effects, with some of the clips she created herself.

Since that first program, Ann has performed in our planetarium a couple of times, one being a wedding in which the bridal party hired her to play. More recently, Ann performed a song at the Illinois state meeting of the Great Lakes Planetarium Association. The intent of this performance was twofold. First, we demonstrated what one could do with live music in a planetarium and, second, it got Ann’s name out there.

Now, as Ann finishes her doctoral degree, she will be leaving the area. But, before leaving, she has set up a “planetarium tour,“ with harp dates at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Illinois State University Planetarium. She’ll kick off her tour with a return to our dome on September 18 at 8:30 p.m. and then a special matinee on Saturday, September 19, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 per person, all sold at the door.

I’ll admit that I don’t have a crate of records at home of harp music, but Ann opened my eyes to a new style, a new sound. Some of the things she does on the harp are amazing! And I’d like to think that we showed Ann another venue for her creativity. I’m looking forward to her last shows beneath the stars. I hope you’ll join us for these special performances!

Harps and Stars in the Dome on Valentine’s Day!

Are you maybe looking for something different to do for Valentine’s Day weekend? How about offering that someone special the stars and live music?

The Staerkel Planetarium is pleased to bring harpist Ann McLaughlin back to the dome on February 13 and 14 for shows at 8:30 p.m. All you have to pay is $5/person at the door.

Oddly enough, Ann’s first trip into the dome to play in the darkness was a “blind date.” Josh Birky, who works at Parkland in grants and contracts, called us and said, “Have you ever thought about a live concert with something different than a rock and roll band?” I asked what he had in mind, and the harp came up. Ann responded to my “to whom it may concern” email, and the rest is history.

Ann was phenomenal to work with and was very open to different ideas about what visuals to sync to her music. The big question, of course, was . . . .is anyone going to come see a live harp concert? That question was answered quickly, as the first of two shows sold out and we had a standing-room-only audience!

Next came  the challenge of making the harp work in the dome. I was surprised as to how loud the harp sounded in the dome, but we decided to mike it anyway. One microphone is floor-mounted while the other is on a stand where Ann has the option of addressing the crowd. Running the visuals aren’t trivial either, as you can’t really program anything. Although scripts can be preprogrammed into the planetarium’s digital system, they have to be started and stopped manually. Plus, we’ll get to use some visuals that may not fit into our regular programming. It’s challenging, but fun.

It’s amazing how often I get asked if we’re going to do Pink Floyd again! We haven’t done our musical light shows since spring 2014. The digital system is wonderful in the capabilities for flying the audience through the universe, but it won’t play the old programs. We can’t control the old projectors that allowed us to do those old shows. Having live acts like these are the closest we can come to the days of old.

So when we discovered that Valentine’s Day 2015 would occur on a weekend, I immediately got on the phone to Ann, and she was game for a return engagement. We look forward to hosting her AND her harp on the 13th and the 14th.