Theater Department puts on “Silent Sky”

Entering Women’s History Month with a play about astronomy’s unsung contributors

Cade Fisher

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Photo by Cade Fisher

The play was performed in Haas Fine Arts Center in the Riverview Theater for the audience to watch all the way around the stage

“Silent Sky” is a two-hour-long play being performed from March 4 to the 13 in Haas Fine Arts Center’s Riverside Theater. The month of March is Women’s History Month and the theater department starts the month with this play about the forgotten women of astronomy. 

This play tells the story of Henrietta Leavitt, who according to a Britannica article, was a female astronomer who helped pave the way for astronomers to calculate the distance between stars. Her work at the Harvard Observatory allowed other astronomers to better analyze how large the universe truly is.

Leavitt is most credited with her work in documenting and interpreting the periods of time that certain stars were bright. This work in understanding the actual luminosity of stars is what allowed scientists to determine distances of stars and galaxies.

Emily Szymanski, a fourth-year comprehensive theater arts student, portrays Leavitt in the play “Silent Sky.” According to Szymanski, in studying for the role, learned more about the women behind big scientific discoveries, specifically Henrietta’s big discovery.

“So many people went on to use her work and became famous for their discoveries using her work – never crediting her,” she said.

According to Lauren Gunderson, the author of the play, this play follows Henrietta through her life and her work at the Harvard Observatory. This play further examines the treatment of women in the fields of science in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

The play also has a cast of five actors. Besides Henrietta, the play showcases two other women working at Harvard, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming.

According to Britannica, these women worked with Henrietta in the observatory to calculate the brightness of all measurable stars.

The play also introduces two new characters, Peter Shaw and Margaret Leavitt. These two characters are not based on historical figures, but were created to take a look at the relationships in the play. 

Margaret Leavitt, according to the UW-Eau Claire website about “Silent Sky,” is used to represent religion in the religion versus science debate. This character is also used to look at Henrietta’s personal life.

Will O’Brien, a fourth-year English student, plays Peter Shaw in the play. O’Brien said part of  Shaw’s role is to help understand the time period’s gender roles.

“The women at the astronomy lab at Harvard were really doing the bare bones labor and really paving the way while the men just stepped in and stole a lot of that work from them,” he said.

As detailed on the UW-Eau Claire website, this play worked to portray the historic treatment of women in numerous scientific fields and detail the history of a significant woman in astronomy that most people don’t know. 

The stage, lighting and sound effects all contribute to the story as well.  The stage is set up in a circle with gears hanging about the stage. The theater is also surrounded by numerous lights, making the sky the focal point of the story.

Lilly Maeder, a fourth-year musical theater student, portrayed Annie Cannon in the play and worked as the dramaturge. As the dramaturge, she worked to research the history of the play to help bring the story to UW-Eau Claire. In terms of all the work done behind the scenes, Maeder talked about the work the lighting team went through to help tell the story.

“We really wanted to encompass the night sky and the passing of time because we go from being in the really late 1800s to about 1918, so there is an expanse of time you see throughout our show,” she said.

The production team and the actors worked together to create a play that delved into a history that a lot of people are unaware of. According to the Women’s History Month government website, Women’s History Month is all about celebrating the work women have put into the world and “Silent Sky” is another contribution to the festivities.

The show will be performed this upcoming weekend until March 13. Tickets can be purchased online or in person before the show.

Fisher can be reached at [email protected]