Here comes Silent Sky!


The opening of Silent Sky is fast approaching! Rehearsals are in full swing and the production team silentskylogois as busy as ever. Stay up to date with all of the exciting things happening with this show through this site.

There will be inside-looks at rehearsal, historical information on the characters and events, and so much more!

If you have no idea what to expect from this show, then look no further! Silent Sky centers around Henrietta Leavitt, a Harvard “computer” who spent much of her adult life studying the stars. Her biggest contribution is discussed in the play, the Cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship. Playwright Lauren Gunderson brings to life Henrietta, as well as two other incredible astronomers, Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Fleming in this beautiful story about love and the stars. Gunderson captures the struggle of being a female astronomer in a time when women were still not recognized as equals to men.

Silent Sky is directed by Dr. Vivian Appler and will be performed February 16, 2017-February 20, 2017 with all performances at 7:30pm, plus a 2:00pm matinee on Sunday.


Vivian Appler: Science meets Feminism meets Theatre

We are a mere THREE DAYS from opening night of Silent Sky! The cast and crew have been in tech all weekend, working hard to put the final touches on this production. This is a perfect time to take a peek at the amazing director: Dr. Vivian Appler.

Vivian Appler is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the College of Charleston in Charleston, SC. She holds an M.A. from Queen Mary, University of London and a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. At the College of Charleston, she teaches courses in theatre history, devised theatre, and script analysis. She has taught theatre practice and history at the College of William and Mary, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Penn State Abington. Her research interests include science and performance, practice-as-research, puppetry and mask, and activist theatre. Her writing has been published in Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, The Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Comparative Drama, and the forthcoming Routledge Guide to Jacques Lecoq. She is currently developing a monograph about women performing science. Vivian has extensive practical experience in devised and physical theatre. She has acted, directed, devised, and designed masks and puppets in Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Charleston. She holds a certificate in Physical Theatre from the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre. In 2010, she was granted a Fulbright Fellowship for which she worked in residence at the Dimitri Clown School in Verscio, Switzerland, in order to research, write, and design masks and puppets for the science-integrative play, Particle Play: A Romance for Quarks, Strings, and Other Things. Her solo show, In the Still of the Night: Andromeda’s Dark Stuff premiered in 2013.

As noted above, her research greatly aligns with Silent Sky which is why, she says, she was so attracted to this play. More specifically she says, “it’s a play that features Henrietta Leavitt, who was a significant woman in the history of science, but whose story is often downplayed or isn’t as well-known as perhaps it should be.” She goes on to talk about the virtual invisibility of many women in science. Their names are often left off their own work and they are not given due credit for their work. She says this play, and pieces like it, are important because “representational theatre that portrays these women normalizes the woman scientist in a position of authority” and with time women will be depicted in these roles more and more. She also, of course, notes Annie Jump Cannon’s role as a suffragette as another parallel to our current cultural climate.

Her interest in and passion for feminism also lends itself to this play, as well as her recognition that we must include women of all races. On this note she says, “I really think and I hope that we’re in a fourth wave of feminism now, one that really presses on intersectional issues within feminism, where we openly invite an inclusive process. That the struggle is really for equality for all people, not just for white women.”

A Look at the Playwright: Lauren Gunderson

We are a little over one week out from the opening of Silent Sky and I hope everyone is as excited as I am to take a look at this amazing play! Over the past couple of weeks, we have looked at the characters, some history, and the Cepheids themselves, but I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the incredible playwright of this masterpiece.

Lauren Gunderson is from Atlanta, Georgia and now resides in San Francisco. She attended Emory University where she received a BA in English and Creative Writing and later attended NYU where she received her MFA in Dramatic Writing. Gunderson is not only an accomplished playwright, but also a screenwriter and short story author as well. She began writing after a short stint as an actress because she felt like there were not enough meaty female roles, and she was right.

Gunderson has also found ways to intersect academics and theatre, not only in Silent Sky, but in other plays of hers. In Ada and the Engine, she writes about the famous mathematician Ada Lovelace, and in Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, she writes about the play’s namesake.

She also has won numerous awards, including the Dramatist Guild of America award, Berrilla Kerr Award for American Theatre, Global Age Project, and the Sloan Science Script Award.

A Note From Our Choreographer

I bet you didn’t know Silent Sky has dance, did you! Well, guess again. This show truly has everything: a beautiful script, music, dance, and a stunning visual display. Raqui Brown is the choreographer for our production of Silent Sky. Here is what she has to say about her experience working on the dance:

“When Vivian Appler approached me to ask if I would be interested in choreographing for Silent Sky, I jumped at the chance. Had I read the play? No. Did I know what kind of dance she wanted? Not even slightly. Months later, I am glad that I was uncharacteristically spontaneous that day. Working with the cast and crew has been a rewarding experience. Even though I had to teach myself these dances over winter break and then confidently instruct the actors in early 20th century partner dance, I was ecstatic after our first day working together. Everyone had a good time and grasped the concepts quickly. I love teaching dance because I learn a lot about who and what I am teaching in the process. It’s the breakthrough moment when the dancers, actors, etc. feel comfortable enough to just go for it that I work towards in every rehearsal or run-through. As far as choreographing, I approached each segment with a free mind. It helped tremendously to watch the scene in its entirety and get a feel for the characters (their wants, needs, and natural movement). Then, I could loosely put sequences on their bodies. We have not moved into the theater as of right now, but I’m very excited to see how everything translates into a bigger space with the actual set design. I expect a lot of adjusting, but I have faith that in the end it will be a wonderful production because of our determination and work ethic.”

Silent Sky opens in TEN short days. Come join us in this splendid production and see Raqui’s work!

The Cepheid Period Luminosity Relationship

Silent Sky chronicles Henrietta Leavitt’s most famous contribution to astronomy: the Cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship, which discovered in 1912. But what does this mean? It is explained a bit in the play, but if you’re not an astronomy person, then it may take more than a quick snip-it of dialogue to fully understand it. So here is a breakdown of this relationship.

Overall, Henrietta was looking at the overall luminosity (or brightness) of the Cepheids in the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds and found a pattern between the luminosity and the pulsations. In the play, this pattern is related to music, but the actual relationship is not quite as rhythmically interesting. However, the rest of the information in the play is accurate. Henrietta discovered that the more luminous the Cepheid is, the slower it pulses. That is the most simple explanation of her breakthrough, but of course, there are many more factors involved in her overall discovery.

Because of the relative ease in which one can find this relationship, Cepheids can be used to measure the distance to other galaxies. For example, Edwin Hubble used Henrietta’s discovery to measure the distance to the Andromeda Galaxy.

While the this is the most basic information about the Cepheids, it is a simple introduction to the subject matter and is the only relevant information you need to fully understand Silent Sky. If you would like any more information on period-luminosity relationship or Cepheids in general, here are a couple of great resources:

Annie Cannon: Suffragettes Then and Now

Our final character to take a look at is Annie Cannon, the feminist and suffragette extraordinaire. The real life Annie Cannon was just as incredible as the image of her painted in Silent Sky. She was the eldest of three girls to state senator and shipbuilder Wilson Cannon and his wife Mary Jump. Her parents both encouraged her to pursue astronomy; her mother taught her the constellations and her father built a makeshift observatory in their attic. She studied physics and astronomy at Wellesley, graduating in 1884 and later returning to take graduate classes in spectroscopy. She joined the Harvard Observatory in 1896 where she created the OBAFGKM classification and eventually became curator of astronomical photos.

Laighton Cain is the actress who has taken on the daunting task of filling the shoes of Annie Cannon in CofC’s production of Silent Sky. As a self-proclaimed feminist herself, Laighton seems like the perfect fit for this role. When asked about why this play is important to perform now, she was quick to discuss the recent women’s marches (Laighton attended the one in Washington). She mentioned Annie’s suffragette sash with the proud phrase “Votes for Women” and how women at the 2017 march had similar sashes, but boasting things like “Healthcare for Women” and “Equal Rights for Women. Laighton gushes over the similarities, saying, “that’s part of the reason Annie Cannon is so inspiring to me, is that we are still able to experience the same things that she experienced.”

It’s not difficult to see the resemblance between Laighton and Annie, but Laighton mentioned her schooling as a part of what shaped her. She attended an all-girls school and notes she was “raised to believe was that women are just as powerful as men. Women are capable of just as much, if not more, in different ways.”

Margaret Leavitt: A Sister’s Story

Among the characters created from playwright Lauren Gunderson’s imagination is Henrietta’s sister, Margaret Leavitt. The actress who plays her, Katte Noel, describes Margaret as one the plays more “traditional” characters and “a proper Christian woman.” Katte talks passionately about the character and her place in the show. She says that she identifies with Margaret’s upbringing, as well as their mutual love of music (Katte even endearingly says music is a big passion of “ours”).

As Margaret is the only familial link to Henrietta portrayed in Silent Sky, Katte discussed a bit about the sisters’ relationship. She says that they are different, although they were raised the same way and aren’t that far apart in age. Furthermore, in true Margaret fashion, she compares the bond to music, “Their relationship is very beautiful throughout the course of the play because it has natural rhythms, rises and falls.” She also says that she likes their bond because the two sisters grow together and not apart, despite their differences.

In terms of the larger themes of the play, Katte hit on one that none of the other cast members mentioned: science versus religion. She says that the tension between these two subjects is handled beautifully and that “it’s not condemning either side.” As the only character in the play who handles both subjects as well, Katte is the perfect person to comment on this aspect of the play.

Henrietta Leavitt: A Star Before Her Time

Henrietta Swan Leavitt was born in Lancaster, Massachusetts on July 4, 1868 as one of the seven children to George Roswell Leavitt, a Congregationalist minister, and his wife Henrietta Swan Kendrick. She attended Oberlin College from 1886-1888 and later Radcliffe College, where she discovered astronomy during her senior year in 1892. Silent Sky finds Henrietta when she begins working at the Harvard Observatory, but in the real story she began volunteering in 1895 and was not officially hired until 1902. Her biggest contribution to astronomy is, of course, the Cepheid variable period-luminosity relationship which she discovered in 1912.

Jennifer Asouzu is the actress who portrays this point of Henrietta’s life in the College’s production. She says this play is important to be performing right now because of the recent election and also because of the important of a pro-women message. She says, “I just feel like it’s a good lesson and picture to show people how much we have contributed to the world and how a lot of things you couldn’t do without what women have provided.” She goes on to say the simple fact that women bring life into the world is cause enough to celebrate them; “you wouldn’t have all these powerful men without women.”

Jennifer went on to speak highly of the writing in the play, comparing it to poetry a couple of times. She compares rehearsing and the script to being in a “bubble,” where she can see everything in the play and in history happening so clearly.

In regard to the similarities between Henrietta and herself, Jennifer says she identifies with her character’s persistence above all. She is also a self-proclaimed “go-getter” and says, “if I really want something I keep pushing and pushing until I get it and [Henrietta] definitely is that with every single character in the show.

Henrietta is obviously the star (pun intended) of this show and therefore she has the most well-defined relationships with everyone in the story. When prompted to describe her favorite relationship, Jennifer was quick to say Henrietta’s relationship with Peter. She cites this as her favorite because “[Henrietta] puts him right back in his place” as soon as they meet. Quite simply put, she says “[Henrietta] rearranges his world.”

Peter Shaw: Voice of the 20th Century Man

Although Silent Sky is based on real events and people, Lauren Gunderson adds characters and embellishes historical facts in her work. One of those characters is Peter Shaw, Henrietta’s love interest and fellow astronomer at the Harvard Observatory. As the only male in the play, he serves as a sort of representation of all men in the early 20th century.

In our production of Silent Sky, Matthew Walker has tried Peter Shaw on for size and has discovered the psyche of the early modern male. Although he says he identifies more with “the pro-women message, more so than with the character [he plays],” throughout rehearsals he has come to better understand Peter. Specifically, he says he identifies with Peter’s “bumbling and awkward” manner (don’t we all).  Matt has also come to understand that Peter has been pushed around and led a life that is not all his own; his father dictated his career path and the woman he eventually married. Although Matt does not that he wouldn’t consider Peter “a victim of his circumstances, because like anybody you can make your own choices.”

As the “voice of the modern early 20th-century man,” Peter often presents anti-feminist thoughts. However, this is a fairly accurate representation of how many men felt towards women during this time. Peter’s ideals are challenged by Henrietta though when he comes to realize how much she can do. Matt notes that Peter “gets easily infatuated, falls in love with this person that he met that he recognizes as an equal and maybe something more than an equal,” which comes to help him realize women are capable of more than he expected.

Overall, Matt spoke highly of the message presented in Silent Sky. When asked why this play is important to produce right now, he says, “With the current political climate and the current president [elect], I think it’s very important to do a play that is certainly pro-feminist and pro-women in the workplace.”

Williamina Fleming: Fabulous and Funny

Williamina Fleming was born May 15, 1857 in Dundee, Scotland. Her story is one of resilience and determination. She took every opportunity she was given and ran with it. She married James Fleming in 1877 and shortly after that, they both moved to Boston. However, a year later, James left her and their unborn son. To support herself and her son, she took a job as Edward Pickering’s housekeeper. In 1881, Pickering hired her to do clerical and mathematical work in the Harvard Observatory, where he was the director. This, of course, is where we find Williamina in Silent Sky.

Michelle Sullivan is the actress who plays Williamina in College of Charleston’s production. She speaks highly of Williamina, both the character and the historical figure (because of course, much of the traits in the play are somewhat made up). After describing Williamina’s situation in her own words, Michelle comments “she’s in this really desperate dire situation and so instead of shutting down and choosing to give up, she does what a lot of people at the time had to do, which is kind of like screw your courage and find a strategy that works for you to try and go on with your life. And it doesn’t make her bitter.”

Michelle goes on to talk about Williamina’s sense of humor. When asked to compare herself and Williamina, Michelle says, “I choose to get up and look at every day with a positive attitude. I don’t always succeed and she’s kind of an inspiration of mine as a character because she’s facing the kind of adversity that I could really never imagine facing and she’s doing so with grace and humility and a sense of joy and so I really aspire to be like that.”

Williamina Fleming faced an enormous amount of adversity as an immigrant, a woman, and a working single mother. And yet she powered through. By the end of her career, she had discovered 10 novae, 52 gaseous nebulae, and 310 variable stars. She was a force to be reckoned with both in her real life and as a character in Silent Sky and everyone could use a role model like her.

If Lauren Gunderson’s portrayal of Williamina Fleming could be summed up in one sentence, Michelle says it best: “she’s fabulous and very funny.”

Radcliffe College & The Issue With Education

Women’s education has a long and complicated history. Education was not as accessible to women as it was men and even when women’s colleges came about, the quality of learning was not the same.

                                 Longfellow Hall

One particular women’s college that is relevant to Silent Sky, is Radcliffe College. Many notable women attended Radcliffe, including Henrietta Leavitt herself. Radcliffe was one of the seven sister colleges, which included Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, and Radcliffe.

The college’s first president was Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz who ran a school for girls in her Cambridge home 1855-1867. Eventually, in 1879, it was established as the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women and nicknamed the “Harvard Annex.” And finally, it was renamed to Radcliffe College in 1894 after Ann Radcliffe who set up the first scholarship fund.

There was always tension between Radcliffe and Harvard. Radcliffe students were sometimes referred to as “Cliffies” and the Harvard students were encouraged to stay away from them.

Finally, during WWII, Harvard began admitting female students. And by 1963, Radcliffe quit giving out diplomas altogether. At this time, female graduates received Harvard diplomas that were jointly awarded by Harvard and Radcliffe.

                    Elizabeth Cary Agassiz House

In 1999, Harvard and Radcliffe officially merged andRadcliffe became Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Many women’s colleges have similar histories to that of Radcliffe and overall, women were not afforded the same opportunities as men. The federal Office of Education began collecting information on education for 1869-1870. At that time, there were only 63,000 students attaining higher education and 21% of those were women.

It is amazing to see the history of education and to specifically look at the struggles of women at Radcliffe. Henrietta Leavitt was one of the amazing women who defied odds and made something of herself, despite the limitations put on women.