By Cat Pastoor (‘21)
This past November, Gordon College’s theater department produced Silent
Sky, written by Lauren Gunderson. The play is based on the life and work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who discovered the period luminosity relationship of Cepheid variables, providing a benchmark for measuring distance in outerspace.
The play covers Leavitt’s time working as a computer at Harvard, to her universe-expanding discovery, to the end of her life and the birth of her legacy.
According to Norman Jones, Director of Silent Sky and chair of the Gordon College Theatre department, this was the first college production of this play in the Boston area.
“We got to go to the Harvard Observatory,” said Jones, “The curator was very excited about our being there…She knows all about these women and all about this collection. There are over half a million glass plates there. They still have them all,” Jones said, referring to the glass panels mapping the stars used by the female computers at the Harvard Observatory, as seen in Silent Sky.
“We were able to see some of the plates Henrietta Leavitt actually used,” Said Jones. Sure enough, Leavitt even used something very similar to the wooden frames used in the play, which were built by Lauren Snyder (’19) based on the exact specifications of the plates Leavitt worked with.
Gordon’s Silent Sky is an unusual production for many reasons, particularly in its composition of characters. “It’s great for the department,” said costume coordinator Hannah Schuurman (’20), “because it’s a small cast, but it’s very female heavy, which is something that the department hasn’t really gotten the opportunity to do, especially because there are so many women in the department.”
“That’s one of the things that drew me toward the play. Four female characters that are very strong, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. There are far too many plays that are heavily male” said Jones, even citing strong female characters as criteria for choosing plays for production. Jones was also interested in what the plays had to say about the roles of women. “There are important issues that can come up even by looking back, even a hundred years ago to see how that speaks to us now.”
Women’s roles are a topic of great concern to Silent Sky, openly showing Henrietta’s clashes with limitations and the way the other women around her approach their lives. This includes her sister Margaret (Olivia Neal (’20)), a foil to Henrietta, living a more traditionally bound life.
The spirit of the play is embodied in the journey of Henrietta Leavitt, played by Julia Ragusa (’20) in the Gordon production. Most people know the big names historically responsible for our understanding of the cosmos, like Copernicus, Hubble, or Einstein. But Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, and Henrietta Leavitt don’t have the same household notoriety.
“There were different ways to respond to not being acknowledged or recognized or given a chance” says Jones. In this case, Annie Cannon (played by Lauren Popillo (’19)), tried to deflect her own bitterness by dismissing it, Williamina’s (played by Olyvia Shaw (’21))debt due to Dr. Pickering’s generosity, and Henrietta’s frustration with being relegated to working with glass plates, rather than the great refractor telescope at Harvard.
The historical aspect of the play was another beast to tackle, especially for the actors. It started with acknowledging the parts of the play that took some artistic license, character-wise. For example, there was no Peter Shaw (the play’s romantic lead, portrayed by Ryan Cannister (’19)) in real life.
“Lauren Gunderson…said that she wanted to give Henrietta the gift of a romance. So Peter didn’t exist, but it’s lovely” says Jones, “but, in terms of things like what those people really wanted, what their experience was, and how they responded to it, those were real things.”
Thankfully, there were plenty of records of the lives of these women that the actors were able to build their characters effectively. Photographed portraits of them also exist, giving a sense of who they were. “Pictures of how they’re standing, you read descriptions of what other people thought about them…So you try to integrate that into the play. [Henrietta] was fairly reticent to interact with other people or be outspoken, but she was required to if she was going to follow this sense of mission and purpose that she sad. Julia worked a lot on how to be able to portray that.” There was a fun aspect to playing people that really existed. “You really want to give them everything they’re owed,” says Jones.
“I think that [Silent Sky] tells us some important things about not assuming that we know everything,” says Jones, “It’s easy to think ‘well, okay, we’ve got knowledge all wrapped up!’ and lose our sense of curiosity and wonder and allowing all of who we are to be part of that curiosity.”