“Silent Sky” illuminates female astronomy pioneers

by | Jun 25, 2021 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

For more than a year now, Leigh Matthews Bock has hosted gatherings of her theater friends in her backyard (socially distanced, of course) to read plays and to “process life together and enjoy a bit of creativity.”

In November, “under my deck cover and under electric blankets,” Bock said, a small group gathered to read Lauren Gunderson’s play “Silent Sky.”

The play follows the career of trailblazing astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, one of the so-called “Harvard Computers,” a group of women who worked at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s – and who made major discoveries – even though the men at the observatory took most of the credit.

“I immediately fell in love with this story,” Bock said. “It celebrates women by bringing to light their hard-earned and groundbreaking discoveries in a time when they were not even allowed to use a telescope or vote.”

Now, Bock is bringing “Silent Sky” from her deck to the virtual stage of the Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company. The show is streaming this weekend, Saturday and Sunday. (See the information box at the end of the story or click here for ticket information.)

From the left: Laurie Dwire, Lauren Schaffner and Diane Slamp work to unlock the secrets of the stars in Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky,” the June production of the Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company. (Photo courtesy of Leigh Matthews Bock.)

Gunderson, the most-produced playwright in the United States two of the last three seasons (once you factor out Shakespeare and “A Christmas Carol”), often writes about historical women in science. (Her “Ada and the Engine” was produced by the Readers’ Theatre a few seasons ago and a play about Marie Curie had a brief New York run in 2019.)

In “Silent Sky,” the focus is on Leavitt. Her work provided the key tool that allowed astronomers to measure the distance to faraway galaxies; of course, when the paper announcing this discovery was published, it was signed by Edward Pickering, the director of the Harvard Observatory, although he did give “Miss Leavitt” credit. (Leavitt’s discovery also paved the way for Edwin Hubble’s determination that the universe is expanding.)

Lauren Schaffner, who plays Leavitt in the Readers’ Theatre production, said she was immediately drawn to the character: “She’s very passionate and blunt and no-nonsense, committed to her goal of doing this work.”

But, Schaffner said, there’s more to Henrietta Leavitt than just commitment to the job: “She’s also asking hard questions about what it means to mature and to have a life that is holistically fruitful.” It was a challenge to capture both sides of Leavitt, Schaffner said.

In addition, Schaffner said she was attracted to Gunderson’s script for its blend of drama and comedy. “There’s a lot of levity to the story, which is really nice amongst all the heavier topics and challenges the characters face,” she said.

Moving the production from that first reading in Bock’s backyard to the Majestic’s virtual stage in the midst of the COVID pandemic presented its own set of challenges. But, near the end of rehearsals, Majestic officials gave the all-clear for the fully vaccinated cast and crew to film on the theater’s main stage – all together and without masks, although Bock was asked to block the show in a socially distanced manner.

“We were asked to not get touchy-feely and leave some space between actors,” Bock said. “The show has some tender and intimate moments; we had to get creative and find workarounds.”

Still, Bock said, when Jimbo Ivy, the Majestic’s supervisor, gave the green light for filming without masks, “it was a thrilling moment for all of us. It felt like we were beginning to get our theater lives back.”

A play about astronomers ideally needs to feature visuals of stars, and that provided another challenge for Bock and her crew.

“The stars are part of the show,” Bock said – but due to lighting issues, the Majestic crew discovered that the stars would have to be added during post-production.

Schaffner is curious to finally get a chance this weekend to view the finished production, complete with effects and music. (Majestic veteran Jim Martinez is the music director for the show.) It’s a little like acting in a movie, when you can’t see he final edited project until much later.

“It’s just going to be a very interesting and exciting piece,” she said, “and it’s kind of fun to be a little bit in the dark about that because of the nature of how we had to go about it. So, yeah, it will be exciting to watch.”

What: “Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson, the June production of the Majestic Readers’ Theatre Company.

When: The performance streams on the Majestic’s website, majestic.org, all weekend long, Saturday and Sunday, June 25 and 26. A ticket to the performance allows you to view the show at any time.

Cast and crew: The cast includes Lauren Schaffner, Kimberly Gifford Olbrich, Diane Slamp, Laurie Dwire and Matthew Otten. Leigh Matthews Bock is the director. Tom Martin is assistant director. Jim Martinez is the musical director.

Ticket information: Tickets are $10, $15 and $20. A $2 processing fee will be added to online orders. Click here to buy tickets and for more information.

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