The Journey to Exist

By Dore Ann Mendelsberg, Exist’s Hypatia and Interstellar Chorus Line

“To understand just one human life, you must first swallow the world.”
— Salman Rushdie

I’ve made a career of putting my hand up at odd moments, saying “I’ll do that.”  When I saw Natalie’s call for actors in a circus-based production about the cosmology and mythology of the constellations the last time I’d seen Natalie was the day we met, at a friend’s wedding 16 years ago and I hadn’t been on stage even longer.  Also, I was in Belize planning to spend the next few months in Mexico. But I put my hand up, read the script, said yes, started learning my lines on the boat, slept on the bus, got on a plane, kept learning my lines in the car, and four days later, landed in Tucson and went to my first rehearsal.  Dropping into Tucson has felt a bit like being a comet, crash landing from outer space.

I’ve been a nomad for the last decade and spent the last three years on a full-time spiritual journey toward purpose and meaning.  I’ve spent over a year in India practicing yoga full-time. I’ve spent forty days in silence learning to meditate. I’ve studied Advaita Vedanta, Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra,  Thai massage and energy healing. I’ve dived into shamanic ritual and plant medicine, conscious community and spiritual partnership. The spiritual journey is the journey inward and the lessons of the sages all align in their own constellation with the astronomical truth presented by this show.  The entire Universe exists within each and every one of us. Matter is just energy in form. Everything is made of stars.

I’ve also learned that the journey is never a straight line but a spiral, zeroing in on something before arcing away, before returning again to view the same point from a slightly different perspective.  I was raised in Unitarian Universalist faith where I was encouraged to investigate what I believed in community. It was at the wedding of one of those community members where in 2003 I met Natalie, the show’s director and co-writer.  It’s been a long and spiraling road but as usual it's arc is a map of perfection. I’ve always wanted to join the circus.

Me and Ceclia

By Abby Louise Jensen • Ceclia Payne & Interstellar Chorus Line in Exist

When I saw Nat (Natalie Brewster Nguyen Narrative Director of Exist) put out a Facebook post seeking someone to play a speaking part in Exist: Messengers of the Cosmos, I had no idea what the part was and, even less, who Cecilia Payne was. Nat, however, knew immediately that I would be perfect for the role. It was only much later that I realized how right she was.

Like Cecilia, I've always been a fighter, especially when someone tells me, "No, you can't do that." In Cecilia's case, she won a fellowship to Harvard to continue her research in astronomy when Cambridge refused to award her a degree because she was a woman. In my case, my parents learned early on that telling me "No" just made things worse, so that seldom happened once I entered high school. Yet, I still took on every challenge that I saw. In high school, I loved math and took every math course they offered. In my senior calculus class, the instructor said there was a problem in our book that no one at the school had ever solved. I took the book home that night and came back the next day with the solution. (I still have the book.)

When I told my mom that I was applying to college, she told me that I could apply to whatever school I wanted, but that they wouldn't be able to help me. (Both my parents worked, my dad at two jobs.) So, I applied to Harvard, Stanford and a few other top schools. I got into Stanford and paid my own way for four years. Later, when I went to law school at UC Berkeley, I did it again.

Although, unlike Cecilia, I didn't write a brilliant dissertation or become the first woman professor at Harvard, I did become the first transgender attorney to argue before the Arizona Supreme Court, and the first (and, I dare say, the only) attorney to argue before that court as both a man and a woman (before and after my transition). Today, I continue to create my own "firsts" by making new law as an appellate attorney for the Pima County Public Defender's Office, and by fighting on behalf of Arizona's transgender and gender nonconforming community for equal rights and fair treatment. Even appearing in Exist is a "first": my first return to the acting stage since college.

I hope you enjoy our performance as much as I have enjoyed being part of it!

The Greatest Workers in the Universe - Stars are Factories

A little snippet of our hoop dance that represents the nuclear fusion factory happening inside stars. The whole reason that we EXIST at all!! Check out the video below and read a section from the EXIST script about the process of churning hydrogen into helium in the core of stars, even stars like our Sun.


In all this burning and fusing and energy and power

Stars are great creators

The hardest workers in the universe

Stars are factories.

The “burning” in a star is actually the process of nuclear fusion.   In the special conditions in the cores of stars, the temperatures are so high, and the pressures so great, that 2 hydrogen atoms smash together to become helium, with energies that overcome the incredibly strong repulsive force of two protons.  

This factory never stops.

Working. Fusing. Smashing.   

The building block of all matter, all life, all differentiation in the universe.  

All life, even the life of a star has its limits.   

While they live, nuclear fusion provides an outward pressure

that supports the star under its own weight

Keeping the star in hydrostatic equilibrium.




This long period of stasis gives planets

and potentially life the time to form and evolve.  

Call for Artists for Glendale and Tucson Shows - April/May 2019


Call for Glendale Artist Astronomers

Murphy Park Amphitheater | Glendale, AZ | April 19 at 4pm & April 20 at 5pm

Cirque Roots, a local performing Arts group, is seeking Artists that focus on Astronomy as their subject in any visual art form, to be part of a two-day event.

2D art may be displayed on tabletop or easels. Sculptures may be free-standing. Live performance and spoken word on Friday evening.

We prefer artists to be to be present to discuss their work and how it relates to the universe. Artwork can be for sale with artist receiving all income.

Deadline to be included is April 1, 2019.

Call for Tucson Artist Astronomers

Berger Performing Arts Center | Tucson, AZ | April 19-20, 2019

Cirque Roots, a local performing Arts group, is seeking Artists that focus on Astronomy as their subject in any visual art form, to be part of a two-day event.

2D art may be displayed on tabletop or easels. Sculptures may be free-standing. Live performance and spoken word on Friday evening.

We prefer artists to be to be present to discuss their work and how it relates to the universe. Artwork can be for sale with artist receiving all income.

Deadline to be included is April 1, 2019.

To apply

Please send several images of your work with a description of each and a short artist statement to

Orionness the Hunter

Astronomer & Artist Stéphanie Juneau with her work for the Exist Project

Astronomer & Artist Stéphanie Juneau with her work for the Exist Project

Interested in the intersection of art and science? For the first round of Exist: Messengers of the Cosmos, the opening scene was a collaboration between writer/narrator Natalie Brewster-Nguyen and Stéphanie Juneau. Both artists researched the mythological stories behind the familiar winter constellation, Orion. Orion is a male hunter that defeated a lion in some versions of modern, North American mythology but in Chinese mythology, the projection of physically unconnected stars represent a white tiger. Taking our own artistic license, these Exist artists made Orion a badass woman with a white tiger headdress who had just slaughtered a lion. Below is the opening narration written and performed by Natalie and an image of the final Orionness set piece by Stéphanie.

The Hunter (many)

Orion (Greco-Roman, western current)

Prajapati (Indian)

Osiris (Egypt)

White Tiger (China, Japan, Vietnam)

Al Jabbar  (medieval muslim)

Tayamnicankhu (Lakota)

The winter maker  Kabibona'kan   (Ojibwa/Chippewa)

Brightest of constellations in the winter sky

You were chasing your daughter

You were hunting in the woods

You were swimming in the sea


The arrow pierced you

The scorpion stung you

Your lover shot you

Your tail turned white

And you were placed in the sky

There in the sky

Your stars

Were seen by many peoples

Many cultures

Your parts were identified

The belt

Was also three marias

three zebras

a spine

And a staff

But you, as a whole constellation

Never have you been a woman.

Until now.

Results from EXIST Survey


Oh my! We finished going through all of the surveys from Exist and feel so grateful that we received such positive feedback!! We truly appreciate you taking the time to make some notes, give us some feedback, and share how this show affected you. Here are some highlights of the drawing great!!

It is important to us to reach a broader array of URM groups, especially middle/high school aged young adults. In our closing remarks in Exist, we leave the audience with the idea that “western education isn’t the only way to learn”. The attrition in the sciences appears to be a self-perpetuating problem where less URM scientific leaders results in less URM students entering the STEM fields because they don’t see people like them doing math and science. We’d like to be part of the solution. We surveyed our audience post-show and approximately 180 people participated in the survey. During our one hour performance of Exist, over 90% of the audience learned something new about astronomy, and about 70% of the audience were more interested in astronomy. 65% of those who answered identified as either female, non-binary, or other.

Underrepresented minorities earn far fewer undergraduate and graduate degrees in the physical sciences than should statistically be expected. There is a huge attrition rate that results in a frighteningly low number of minority PhDs and faculty. For example, only four native american women earned PhDs in physics from 1973-1995! As a woman (of native decent) in physics, I was discouraged from pursuing a degree in physics initially because “it’s hard for women.” Even today, this mentality permeates the sciences. One of the ways we intend to change this thinking is to bring the stories and statistics to light, while creating an opportunity for everyone to be inspired by science. Exist highlights the struggle of women, from 400 A.D. to the present, in the form of short monologues.

The Intersection of Art and Science

This project has opened my eyes to the utility of art as a way to teach about science.  I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and from my point of view from being a full time scientist to being a full time artist to finally straddling the two, it seems as though research in art is not as easily respected compared to scientific research. I've had more than one disappointing reaction by some old colleagues when they discovered me performing, on stilts, in full circus getup. There are some big differences between art and science, but there are also some really big similarities. Research in either one can take you on a journey into deep space, learning so much more than you ever thought possible and opening doors to creativity that cause you to change your whole story. For Exist, we have spent so much time researching even just one line in the narration. So much research went into the Orionness Panel, by Stéphanie Juneau, in the different representations of Orion from different cultures, the different ways that the hunter held weapons, the different stars that are sometimes included in the constellation. We found creative freedom to birth our very own version of Orion, and create our own story around it. Natalie, our narrator,  has blown my mind. She went from really not knowing much about the universe to understanding more about the history of astronomy than I do and knowing a lot of the major concepts that a student of astronomy would know.  She deserves lots of recognition (and money!) for her hours upon hours of research and writing for Exist.  Research in art is important, and it is an excellent vehicle for people to learn more about....anything that inspires them.  It's a cool thing, we need more of that in the world.  What kind of research are you excited about?  Can you think of an art project that would you like to use as a vehicle to learn?


From Astronomer to Circus Artist, Exist Was Born


Hi!  My name is Stephanie, the creator of Exist. By day (all 24 hrs of it), I run a circus company with my best friends. Cirque Roots is a grassroots community built circus gym in downtown Tucson, with a performance company that supports it. It’s been open almost 7 years now!!  I love it there. On the side, I teach astronomy at Pima Community College and sometimes do freelance analysis and programming work. People frequently ask what led me to this unique combination of circus and astronomy.  Well, it was one of the most vulnerable, risky, and adventurous paths I could have taken.

Here it goes.  I was in the PhD program in astronomy from 2005-2011 at Steward Observatory at the UofA.  Graduate school was a hard time for me. I compare it to brainwashing as it was used to force people to conform, to force people to believe, to make everyone the same (here’s another opinion of this effect).  The grad school roller coaster is different for everyone, some do really well in that environment, some departments are more nurturing, some advisors are just awesome.  My office mate throughout grad school, who is also named Stephanie, became my best friend and she saw some sweet hoop dancer and encouraged me to order a hula hoop with her.  At the time, I couldn’t even keep it on my waist!  We ordered these gigantic 42” hoops, because the more beginner you are, the bigger the hoop you’ll need. Hooping became my savior from the stresses of grad school, and this planted the seed for all future circus shenanigans...Thanks Steph!  By the way, Steph is a total badass astronomer now, and she also makes fantastic art.  She designed and painted our Orionness set piece (more on this later).

Oh yeah, back to grad school.  I had a few different advisors for a variety of reasons, one went on sabbatical, one moved to a different country - and it would’ve been too hard continue working together long distance. After a couple years, I became a Master of Science and then switched to my third and final advisor.  He was new, young, going through the tenure process, his wife was having babies, and he had a couple grad students - so he had a lot going on. We had a difficult relationship, I felt really lost most of the time, and didn’t know how to approach this problem - so I didn’t.  Now I know that I do better with some helpful, supportive, positive direction (aka good advising), I should’ve believed everyone when they said “choose your advisor wisely”. DUH! Eventually I just got so burnt out, and I knew that I didn’t want to be following the straight and narrow path typical in academia. Hell no! I wasn’t going to jump through all those hoops on top of the challenging relationship issues, to be what they all wanted me to be: a professor at a research university.  I felt trapped and unclear on what the heck else was out there, and nobody talked about other things we could do with our degrees. I had been in school studying physics, math, and astronomy for 11 years - and I was not living the scientific dream that I had in mind.  So I quit. I just quit. One day I just never went back. It was the scariest and most vulnerable decision I had ever made. I went head first into starting a circus company with my best friends, and decided to YOLO for a few years (great decision).  Turns out I don’t do well feeling trapped, so shortly after all of that, I also got a divorce. When it rains, it pours!

Six years later, after doing circus full-time, I decided to go back to astronomy.  But this time, I’m doing astronomy the way that I want to do it.  I teach astronomy 101 and 102 at Pima Community College.  Teaching is great because I get to stay connected to the material, and interact with students who are learning about the wonders of astronomy for the first time.  It’s quite a trip coming to the understanding that we are just one species on a small planet in a vast universe, and that we have only been around for a very, very short time. Witnessing these types of realizations is why I love teaching, and it brings humanity to their lives. It’s important to me to help people understand where we came from and why we’re simultaneously insignificant and special, and we should use that realization to be nicer to one another.  I also do freelance data analysis on the side.  Programming and image analysis were my favorite parts of doing research.  Writing papers and dealing with egos, not so much.  Quitting was the scariest and best decision of my life, and I'm so grateful that I had the courage to do that.  Now I am doing astronomy exactly how I want to be doing it, and now combining it with circus production feels like exactly the right thing to do.  I’ve never had so many things fall into place and feel so certain.  Here’s to quitting and doing what you love!

Call For Artist Astronomers

Cirque Roots, a local performing Arts group, is seeking Artists that focus on Astronomy as their subject in any visual art form, to be part of a one-day event.

The art show will be held in the lobby of the Berger Performing Arts Center, as part of the “Exist” live performances on Saturday, May 26, 2018

Art would be displayed on tabletop or easels. No attaching to walls is allowed.

We would like artists to be present to discuss their work and how it relates to the universe. Artwork can be for sale with artist receiving all income.

Deadline to be included is May 15, 2018

Please send several images of your work with  a description of each and a short artist to