This week, we're gearing up to open Silent Sky, a magical and inspiring play that tells the story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt who transcended her post as a real-life Harvard "computer" to make a revolutionary discovery about the universe. We were also lucky enough to have an opportunity to interview playwright Lauren Gunderson about her brilliant play.
Read on and then join us at Silent Sky, running September 23 - October 16. For tickets and more information, click here!
Although this play wasn't written that long ago, do you think this play has a new message for today's audiences?
We are still in the unfortunate rut of under-opportunity and under-representation for women in the sciences and tech (and Hollywood, and politics and on and on and on). This play aims to expose and challenge that angering trend with a true story of a woman who changed the course of astronomy and (to the extent that astronomy defines us as a civilization) human life. And she did it in a room with several other brilliant but underpaid, sequestered, unappreciated woman mathematicians that were not allowed to even use the telescopes that the men could. That sends a message across time to us to say that women aren't asking for special treatment, we are showing how special we already are and always have been. We're not asking anyone to let us participate, we are exclaiming that we have participated in discoveries, breakthroughs and wild achievement all along (despite being excluded, barred and presumed incapable). I also intend for the play to show more than one kind of heroine. Women characters are often (even if they are the play's protagonist) surrounded by men. This play reverses that making the male character the rarity. This creates a diverse sisterhood that will give every audience member (male or female) someone to root for.
Do you have any rules for your plays?
I do tend to follow Paula Vogel dictum to include one impossible thing in every play. This generally leads to some exciting theatricality. I also start with an image in my mind for the end of the play and write toward that end. I don't really know a play is worth writing until I get a sense of it's resolution.
Did you find the lack of personal information on the real Henrietta frustrating or liberating?
Liberating! I tried to honor her spirit even if every detail isn't biographically confirmed. The science is accurate as is the history of her various discoveries and publications. And I think that's what she would care most about. I took details that were particularly beautiful or ironic or inspiring and included them faithfully. She did travel on a ocean liner to Europe. She did insist on being identified as an astronomer on her final census. She discovered thousands of cepheid stars from that wallpapered Harvard attic. A member of the Nobel committee did call her for a prize. Before the premiere of the play a few years ago I went to her grave in Cambridge to say thank you for not haunting me for making up parts of her life. So far she has kept to that arrangement. :)
In our research, Henrietta's siblings were seldom mentioned. What inspired you to give her a close companion in a sister?
I wanted to write about women not just one woman. And I thought the contrast between the life that Henrietta, Annie and Will chose and the life of most women of the time would best be juxtaposed in a sister for Henrietta. That way they are in the exact same generation but choosing very different lifestyles. In reality it was Henrietta's mother who was her companion and even moved to Boston to be with her until she died. Also I have a sister and felt that it was about time I wrote about her a bit, too.
In Silent Sky, it is intimated that Will and Annie have a romantic relationship. Is this fiction based?
Mostly yes. But the women that worked there tended to go unmarried (Annie was and Will never married after her horrible husband left her when she was young). I also borrowed from the concept of a "Boston Marriage" (the play is set near Boston after all), which at that time meant a loving sometimes romantic relationship between two women who spent their lives together.
What question do you wish you were asked about Silent Sky?
About the music. I knew this play could be a play as opposed to a short story or blog post because the mathematics of her stars contain music: pattern, volume, rhythm. It quickly became a way to dramatize an idea, to theatricalize her science. The music is another way to connect science to art. More on that here: http://silentskyplay.
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If you had to write a play about a one of today's female scientists, who would it be?
I write about a lot of women scientists (Ada Lovelace, Emilie du Chatelet) and find it better to write about science after a generation or two has time to digest what the discoveries become. It's hard to write fiction about today's science because we can't know what it means. Does it change the world or quickly become obsolete? So I tend to write about science history and trust that, as with any historical story, we apply its essential ideas and lessons to ourselves in the present.
What research would you want audience members to do before seeing this show?
They needn't do any! Just come ready to have fun, learn a bit, and fall in love with these amazing, funny, passionate women and the stars they love.