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A celestial romance and true story of discovery, this riveting new play explores the life and career of Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921) as she fearlessly asserts herself in the male-dominated world of early astronomy. Hired by the Harvard Observatory as a human “computer” to catalog the stars, Henrietta’s story plays out against a landscape of early feminism and universe-revealing science.
Silent Sky by acclaimed playwright Lauren Gunderson runs from Aug. 23 through Sept. 10 at International City Theatre in Long Beach.
Decades before the ‘hidden figures’ made famous by the Academy Award-nominated film, astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921) and her female colleagues at the Harvard Observatory acted as “human computers,” using math and measurement to chart the skies. Without ever being allowed to touch a telescope — a task prohibited to women at the turn of the 20th century — Leavitt discovered a method to measure the distances of faraway galaxies and paved the way for modern astronomy.
Todd Nielsen directs Gunderson’s fictionalized biography, an irresistible combination of humor, romance, feminism and universe-revealing science. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls the play “luminously beautiful… an intellectual epic told on an intimate scale.”
“In the play, the very real mathematical relationship discovered by Leavitt is explained not with numbers, but with notes,” the playwright explained in an interview. “Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, is a pianist and just when Henrietta can’t stare at the tables of measurements describing her Cepheid variable stars any longer, she listens… then looks up… then sees/hears what she’s been searching for: a pattern. That moment is what made me write this play, because it could only work in a play. It’s theatrical, it’s musical, it’s not a moment of dialog but a moment of overwhelm, everything changes in this moment.”
Working without recognition in a male-dominated field that refused to treat women as equals, Leavitt discovered more than 2,400 variable stars, about half of the known total in her day. By intense observation of a certain class of variable star, the cepheids, she discovered a direct correlation between the time it took a star to go from bright to dim to how bright it actually was. Knowing this relationship helped other astronomers, including Edwin Hubble, to make their own groundbreaking discoveries. She also developed a standard of photographic measurements that was accepted by the International Committee on Photographic Magnitudes and called the “Harvard Standard.” Remembered by a colleague as “possessing the best mind at the Observatory,” Leavitt worked at the Harvard College Observatory until her death from cancer in 1921.
“We are still in the unfortunate rut of under-opportunity and under-representation for women in the sciences and tech,” Gunderson said. “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 who were not allowed to even use the telescopes that the men could.”
Lauren Gunderson has been identified by American Theatre magazine as the most-produced living playwright of the 2016-17 season, with 16 productions of her plays taking place at theaters across the country. Science is a recurring theme in her work, as are stories of women otherwise neglected by history: Ada and the Engine tells the story of Ada Lovelace, a Victorian mathematician credited with creating the first computer program, and Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight is about a brilliant physicist of the Enlightenment whose commentary and translation of Newton’s Principia is still used today. Another common thread is Shakespeare, with four of her plays inspired by The Bard: Exit Pursued by a Bear Toil & Trouble, We Are Denmark and The Taming. Gunderson’s work has been produced and developed at companies such as South Cost Rep (which commissioned and premiered Silent Sky in 2011), the Kennedy Center, Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks, Crowded Fire, San Francisco Playhouse, Marin Theatre, the Magic, Actors Express, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage, Second Stage, Impact Theatre, the Lark and the O’Neill. Her play I and You was the winner of the 2014 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and a finalist for the 2014 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Silent Sky was a finalist for the 2013 Jane Chambers Award.
Silent Sky runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., Aug. 25 through Sept. 10. Two preview performances take place on Wednesday, Aug. 23 and Thursday, Aug. 24, both at 8 p.m. Tickets are $47 on Thursdays and Fridays, and $49 on Saturdays and Sundays, except for Aug. 25 (opening night) for which tickets are $55 and include a post show reception at Utopia Restaurant. Low-priced tickets to previews are $35. International City Theatre is located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center at 330 East Seaside Way in Long Beach, CA 90802. For reservations and information, call 562-436-4610 or go to InternationalCityTheatre.org.
Presenter / Producer: International City Theatre
Theater > Drama
Event Phone: 562-436-4610
International City Theatre
330 E. Seaside Way
Long Beach CA 90802
LA - Hollywood / Westside
Performance Dates: 8/23/2017 - 9/10/2017
Wed. - Sat. 8:00 pm Sun. 2:00 pm
Sat. and Sun. $49 Thurs. and Fri. $47 Previews $35, Opening night $55
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