The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) proposes to breathe new life into the Asoka Theatre on the Westville Campus by installing a full dome screen and digital projection system. This will enable the theatre to be used as a planetarium and as a visualisation tool to enhance teaching and research within the University but also be available to provide high impact outreach to and engagement with schools and the general public.
UKZN have been investigating the possibility that the Asoka Theatre could be converted into a Digital Dome Theatre. Such a theatre could be used as a traditional planetarium while also providing a visualisation tool for education, research and public engagement in the sciences and other subjects, while still retaining as far as possible its use as a venue for the performing arts.
In support of this concept, UKZN has acquired design drawings for what it considers to be the best way of enabling the theatre to provide an immersive space for the maximum audience.
This is achieved by raising the roof of the theatre, enabling the retrofitting of a 14m, tilted, full dome screen, the installation of a digital projection and a 5.1 surround sound system, supported and operated from a control console installed in the existing lighting control room.
The theatre would continue to have raked seating. Seating would be provided for 160 people under the dome while a total of 184 seats could be available when used as a theatre or lecture venue.
A high-resolution, 8 000 pixel, six-projector system would be installed and customised to meet the specific needs of the planetarium.
South African Context
Until quite recently, dated opto-mechanical systems were in operation at three South African planetariums – at Wits University in Johannesburg, at the Iziko Planetarium in Cape Town and at the Johannesburg Observatory. Then in 2014, the first digital system in sub-Saharan Africa was installed at the old Naval Hill Observatory in Bloemfontein.
Iziko Planetarium is presently in the process of up-grading its facility and will open early next year.
For about the past 15 years, a variety of stakeholders have proposed without success that a planetarium be established in Durban.
It is envisaged that South and Southern Africa will develop a network of Planetarium theatres able to share in training and professional development, creating a critical mass of educator expertise, supporting peer-to-peer exchanges of experiences, developing a local capacity to maintain and service equipment, enhancing the market for local software development and broadening the frontiers of modern research.
It will also be extremely beneficial for the planetariums to band together to develop capacity to produce their own digital shows with local scientific content.
This concept has been shared with and well received by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation, the South African Space Agency and others.
The Asoka Theatre
The Asoka Theatre is architecturally unique, and is based on the design of the famous Questors Theatre in London. As the home of the drama department at the former University of Durban-Westville, it produced generations of South African drama teachers, performers, directors, playwrights and TV personalities, and in particular played a large part in the anti-apartheid struggle, forming close associations with leading struggle playwrights like Ronnie Govender and the late Matsemela Manaka, amongst others.
Regretfully, the theatre has not been used for several years, though the university and wider community would like to see it come alive again.The proposed addition of a digital dome system would enable the theatre to still be used for other purposes such as lectures, play productions and events, with options to combine these with projections onto the overhead dome.
The dome theatre used as a planetarium with a focus on astronomy has evolved into a multi-purpose, digital visualisation tool, able to project full dome shows, illustrate data sets, integrate such data sets into pre-rendered shows, and display other content in real time covering a wide range of sciences and the arts.
The Science and Technology Education Centre
This innovative community outreach programme is housed on the Westville campus. The Science and Technology Education Centre (STEC@UKZN) works towards making the latest innovations and thinking in Science accessible to learners and the public and creates awareness of the disciplines and programmes offered in Science, Agriculture and Engineering at UKZN. STEC offers a glimpse of some current research and its possible applications and showcases current scientific achievements at UKZN.
The Science Centre also conducts science workshops for learners that allow children to try ‘hands-on’ science to stimulate questioning and kinaesthetic learning. The workshops are memorable and challenging and complement and extend the learning of science in the National Curriculum and beyond.The proposed Asoka Planetarium would form part of an innovative scientific experience for these learners and it is planned to incorporate the Science and Technology Education Centre with in the Asoka Planetarium.
The UKZN Foundation is seeking partners who will enable the success of this groundbreaking and state-of-the-art planetarium by funding the technology and the construction which will serve the scientific and educational interests of KwaZulu-Natal.
The budget required to establish the planetarium is R80 000 000 which would include an 8 000 pixel high resolution, six-projector system, the design, dome, hardware and software, lighting and sound systems, installation, commissioning and training, together with the seating.
In addition, there are costs for renovating the theatre, the major element of which would be to raise the roof but would also include a facelift of the existing infrastructure which has been calculated at R 30 000 000 and R50 000 000.
Benefits for Donors
UKZN can offer various profile-raising opportunities to donors who substantially invest in this project which includes: co-branding, naming of the planetarium or parts there of (based on the prevailing naming policy), media coverage and publicity in reports, websites and publications of UKZN. The project is classified as Socio-Economic Development for the purposes of the BBBEE scorecard evaluation and is Section 18 a tax deductible.