Most people would recognize the name Hubble, as in the Hubble Space Telescope and its namesake, American astronomer Edwin Hubble. Fewer know of the debt he owes to Henrietta Leavitt, one of many female astronomers operating in relative obscurity at the Harvard College Observatory in the early 20th century.
Madison’s Forward Theater Company aims to shift that focus with its first show of the 2015–16 season. Playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, running Nov. 5 – 22, sheds new light on the early days of astronomy and how Leavitt’s star-mapping contributions led Hubble to realize that there were galaxies extending beyond the Milky Way.
“Henrietta Leavitt was a brilliant scientist and astronomer who made some fundamentally important discoveries,” says Forward artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Grey, directing the production. ”Not surprisingly, there is very little known about her personal life, so the playwright took the facts we do have and then imagined the rich life from there.”
Leavitt (Clare Haden), the Massachusetts-born daughter of a Congregational Church minister who relocated his family to preach in Beloit, graduated from Radcliffe College before joining a group of women employed by Harvard professor Edward Pickering to measure and catalogue the brightness of the stars.
The women, who were not allowed to touch the telescope, were computers in the original sense of the word — working from glass photographic plates to compute the distances and characteristics of the heavenly bodies.
Pickering hired the women because he found the work of male astronomers less accurate and unsatisfactory, Gray says. As a woman of some means, Leavitt was initially not paid for her efforts, but eventually worked her way up to a wage of 30 cents per hour.
Silent Sky is one of a growing number of efforts to tell the story of women’s contributions to scientific development, Gray says. She adds that the play is a story well told, with dimensions that reach well beyond the play’s scientific content.
“It is a phenomenal play about a phenomenal group of women and a gorgeous blend of science, history and art,” Gray says. “One of the things I love about it is that, while it is a fantastic girl-power story, there is nothing man-bashing about the play.”
Gray says the play also offers high production values, an original piano score performed live onstage and a cast that, in addition to Haden, boats Colleen Madden, Carrie Hitchcock, Michael Huftile and Liz Cassarino.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson also will make an appearance in Madison. The Atlanta-area native will give a presentation, “Survival of the Storied: Why Science Needs Art and Art Needs Science” on Oct. 24 at the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, 330 N. Orchard St. on the UW-Madison campus. The 50-minute presentation will explore the ways that science and story share a structure that begs for heroism, action, surprise, mystery and wonder.
It’s a concept that could well describe Silent Sky, Gray says, with its emphasis on how analytical and creative perspectives benefit each other.
“There is a real desire to tell the unknown stories of women in science who have been overlooked,” says Gray. “History, science and art intersect at the same time and I love that. It’s a fantastic, beautiful story.”
Forward Theater Co.’s production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky runs Nov. 5 – 22 in The Playhouse in Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. For tickets, call 608-258-4141 or visit forwardtheater.com.
Forward Theater’s New Season
Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky kicks off a strong season for Madison’s only equity theater troupe, all performed at the Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison.
Annie Baker’s The Flick, a funny and touching play about three underpaid movie theater workers in Massachusetts that won the 2014 Pulitzer Play for Drama, is the company’s first show of 2016. The story about race, class, family and sex, all seen through the eyes of ordinary people, runs Jan. 28 – Feb. 14.
The season closes with Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns (A Post-Electric Play), a 2014 Drama Desk nominee for best play. Washburn’s imaginative dark comedy, a post-apocalyptic thrill ride that depicts retellings of the same episode of The Simpsons in the days, years and decades after a catastrophic event, runs April 7 – 24.