One of the great things about theatre is that we can turn history into a lived experience for an audience. Silent Sky reveals the important work of a group of women at the Harvard Observatory Laboratory in the early 20th century. Their work was critical in developing a scientific understanding of the distance between stars and the size of our universe. Yet, for so long their story remained untold. For many years, their contributions were a silent shadow in the background of science, quietly providing a foundation for some of our most important knowledge in the field of astronomy. Silent Sky gives them a voice and a story and asks the audience to consider how gender bias through history has shaped the world we know today. The UWEC Department of Music and Theatre Arts is so pleased that this important production can be part of the Bias Inside Us events and be considered within the broader context of this important exhibit.
The title character of the play, Henrietta Leavitt, was a woman with a passion for science and for investigating the meaning of our existence. It is not an accident that this play begins in front of a church; throughout the story, characters wrestle with the nature of God alongside science. This play intertwines the spiritual and the scientific and shows that they are not mutually exclusive pursuits. In the end, the playwright suggests that God and science have a symbiotic relationship that creates connections between humanity and the vast universe. As we watch Henrietta ask, “who are we” “why are we” and “where are we,” the audience is asked to consider how we ourselves find a “dedicated desire unmatched by reason.” The play offers that music – art and art making – can be the key to connecting us to the mysteries of the universe and finding our passion.
Henrietta Leavitt – and all the women “computers” of the Harvard Observatory Lab – saw wonder and possibility in the stars, the world, and in one another. We hope our production inspires you to see this too.
Jennifer Chapman, Director
Professor of Theatre Arts
UWEC Department of Music and Theatre Arts
- About the show and this guide
- In this guide you will get a map to all of our creative and historical stars as well as the sky we we chart for you on stage, and behind it. We wanted to give you the audience a chance to see who this show is really about, but also what went into the making of this show. In this guide you will see 7 main categories not including this one. You will get to see:
- The cast and crew: who is on the stage but also making the magic work behind stage.
- The making of Silent Sky: How the creative and design team came together to make this show and what went into that.
- Plot and Scene Break Down: Just a brief explanation of the plot and individual scenes in this show.
- History: Who these people really were, where they worked, and a little about the time they lived in. (Think of a theatrical IMDB)
- What is a…: Where we answer all of your questions, or as many as we can, that you may have about astronomy and what these women did.
- The Bias Inside Us: a program/instillation that this show is a part of. (It’s really cool you should check it out!)
This guide will be your star map to the show. During intermission, or even before or after the show, take a moment to look and see what goes on behind the scenes and read up on the forgotten stories we are telling to you today.
Cast and Crew
The Making of Silent Sky
- Here are some brief words from our designers on how they went about creating our world.
- Curtis Phillips
- The scenic design for silent sky should match the themes that director Jenn Chapman laid out in our first meetings Sweet, simple, somwhat romantic and evocative of a larger world that is greater than just us. Those words guided the design we came up with. The ceiling, "occulus" as it has been called, and railings reference the telescope and technology used to view the galaxies beyond ours. The circular nature of the platforming not only provides romantic movement, but also eludes to the galaxy and planets. The light bulbs are the stars that are being found and studied.....more than that they represent the light and love that the characters feel for each other, and their work.
- Erin Hisey
- The lighting design for this production of Silent Sky is primarily based off of how it feels to lie under the stars at night. How as you lay there in the silence and observe the universe you wonder about those things so far beyond us in the stars while at the same time pondering your place in it as a speck of life on a single planet, in a single galaxy, in one small corner of the universe. You are simultaneously exploring not only the great reaches of space, but also the great reaches within yourself and your own mind. As these characters learn about the great beyond they also learn about themselves and their place in this world. I wanted the lighting to be able to expand and contract the space the characters occupy to help illustrate how they are learning about both their inner and outer worlds. The small moments in the Wisconsin home, the Boston apartment, and the work room at Harvard needed to be warm, cozy, and contain all that each character treasured while the larger moments needed to show the vastness of space and our ultimate insignificance within it.
- The other important aspect was the circular rhythms of the cosmos. How all around us the stars and planets are constantly moving, changing, and expanding even as we measure our own short lives by the revolutions of the earth within this great cosmic machine. This great machine’s circular rhythm is obvious within the scenic design with the round stage and overhead oculus. To recreate those rhythms in the lighting and bring the audience into the world of the play I needed to create our own night sky within the theatre. The additions of dozens of tiny twinkling lights throughout the space serve to expand the space beyond the confines of the stage floor. As the lights blink and glow they create a sense of movement similar to watching the stars as you lay beneath them pondering the universe beyond.
- The mainstay of all design is research. I needed to see where these characters lived and worked, what the lighting fixtures of the early 1900s looked like, and, of course, how the skies above them looked. This led to research of the constellations in Wisconsin and Boston and how our view of the sky changes on land and sea. I explored the fixtures in Edwardian homes and photographs of the fixtures in the actual room at Harvard where Annie, Henrietta, and Williamina worked.
- Through this research I discovered my color palette for the design taken from the warm amber glow of early incandescent lightbulbs and the coolness of the deep blues, purples, and greens that play out across the night sky. I decided that practicals, lights for the stage that are not actual stage lighting fixtures, would help to both ground us in locations as well open up the playing space to include the audience as well. I added a lamp to Margaret’s piano nook, turn of the century bulbs to the Harvard lab and Henrietta’s Boston home, and the dozens of small twinkle lights to our indoor night sky. I added blue lighting to the audience seating to help bring them into our night atmosphere.
- I used patterns in the light to help turn the non-specific set into the various locations throughout the play as well as to ensure that each scene in some way involved the characters being exposed to the sky. Clouds were added for the scenes in the field and on the ship. In the Wisconsin home there are sash windows and in Boston we have a stately window for the building at Harvard and a skylight for Henrietta’s apartment. In most scenes the stars in the theatre also help to define interior versus exterior areas within the scenes.
- The last important aspect was to incorporate the feeling of movement I had found in both the script and my research. This found its way into the cueing of the show. I wanted each scene to melt into the next with no abruptness or anything that would take the viewer out of the flow of the storyline. There is a subtle circular movement to the lighting as we move from place to place. With each new location the lighting turns slowly and subtly. And, of course, we have the movement of the stars as they blink on and off constellations appear and disappear throughout the story.
- When all of these elements come together in the theatre I hope to create a sense of wonder and joy in the audience. To help bring them into the world of our characters as they explore the universe and themselves.
- Amanda Profaizer
- Here is a link to Amanda’s Pinterest board!
Plot and Scene Breakdown
- When Henrietta Leavitt begins work at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, she isn’t allowed to touch a telescope or express an original idea. Instead, she joins a group of women “computers”, charting the stars for a renowned astronomer who calculates projects in “girl hours” and has no time for the women’s probing theories. As Henrietta, in her free time, attempts to measure the light and distance of stars, she must also take measure of her life on Earth, trying to balance her dedication to science with family obligations and the possibility of love. The true story of 19th century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt explores a woman’s place in society during a time of immense scientific discoveries, when women’s ideas were dismissed until men claimed credit for them. Social progress, like scientific progress, can be hard to see when one is trapped among earthly complications; Henrietta Leavitt and her female peers believe in both, and their dedication changed the way we understand both the heavens and Earth. -Dramatists Play Service
- Act 1
- Scene 1: The late evening sky outside Henrietta and Margret’s father’s rural Wisconsin church-about 1900.
- Scene 2: Vacant room of the Harvard Observatory.
- Scene 3: Morning at Henrietta’s desk about 1905.
- Scene 4: Henrietta’s desk at the Observatory.
- Scene 5: Leavitt home in Wisconsin.
- Scene 6: Henrietta’s study at her family home in Wisconsin.
- Act 2
- Scene 1: The Harvard Observatory December 1910.
- Scene 2: An ocean liner.
- Scene 3: Annie’s desk at the Harvard Observatory.
- Scene 4: Henrietta’s small home in Cambridge in 1918.
- Scene 5: Here, now.
- Act 1
- Here is a character get to know you. We are taking a moment out of history, so here is some more information about these women and their lives.
- Henrietta Leavitt
- Born Henrietta Swan Leavitt, after her mother, on July 4th 1868 in Lancaster, MA. Henrietta is the daughter of George Roswell and Henrietta Swan Leavitt and one of six siblings. During her early life Henrietta had a profound love for math and science. This pushed her to attend Oberlin College and later Radcliffe College. Having a pleasant, friendly, and focused personality she never married. Henrietta began losing her hearing as a young woman due to a condition that only worsened with age causing her to need a hearing aid. In 1893 she started working at the Harvard Observatory for E.C. Pickering. Henrietta’s main focus was working with Cepheid variables. In her lifetime she discovered and catalogued 1,777 of these variables. During her time at the Observatory, she also discovered the period of luminosity relationship, refined standards for photographic measurements of stars, and provided the “standard candle” in cosmic darkness. Her whole life she thought she was just a nameless computer when she was so much more. She discovered how to measure the universe. Eventually her work helped Hubble measure galaxies and create the Hubble Telescope. Henrietta ended up dying of stomach cancer just three years before her her Nobel Prize eligibility. Even in death she still inspires astronomers today and helps them with her contributions.
- Annie Cannon
- Born Annie Jump Cannon on December 11, 1863 in Dover, DE to Delaware state senator Wilson Cannon and Mary Elizabeth Jump. Annie is the oldest of three daughters. Annie shared a love of astronomy and constellations with her mother who later encouraged her to go to school and get an education in science. Annie first attended Wellesley College and then Radcliffe College. After graduating she decided to travel the world and focus on photography. When she returned, she suffered from Scarlett Fever which took her hearing and made her completely deaf most of her adult life. Shortly after she returned her mother died and this pushed her to return to science. In 1896 she was hired by E. C. Pickering as a computer at the Harvard Observatory. During her time at the observatory, she worked on the Draper Catalogue, and developed a system of spectral classification that helped organize stars by color. Her discovery of this classification is still used by astronomers today. In her life she was the first woman to receive many things in history. Some of these things include an honorary doctorate degree for astronomy from Groningen University a college in Europe, an honorary degree from Oxford University, and a Henry Draper Gold Medal for her work. In 1911 she was appointed curator of observational photographs at Harvard. In her life she also worked with the suffragettes and advocated for women’s rights was a part of the National Women’s Party. She continued her work up until a few weeks before her death dying at the age of 77.
- Williamina Fleming
- Born Williamina Paton Stevens on May 15, 1857 in Dundee, Scotland. Williamina was one of nine children. At the age of 14 she became a student teacher to help provide for her family. Her father died a few years later when she was only 17 leaving her to care for her siblings. At the age of 20 she married a man named James Orr Fleming a man, who at the time, was 16 years older than her. When she was 21 Williamina emigrated to the states with James who proceeded to abandon her and their unborn child the minute they docked in the U.S. In 1879 Williamina became a house maid at the home of E.C. Pickering. While she was employed at Pickering’s house, she had a son which she named after Pickering himself. After an incident with his assistant, Pickering ended up hiring Williamina to become Harvard Observatory’s production manager. She oversaw the women dubbed “computers”. In 1899 she became the Curator of Astronomical Photographs, becoming the first woman to hold this title in history. While working at the observatory, Williamina identified distinctive features with each star’s spectrum, classified 28,266 spectra of 10,851 stars on 633 plates in the first edition of the Draper Catalogue, discovered 10 novae, 59 gaseous nebulae, more than 300 variable stars, the horsehead nebula in Orion, and recognized the existence of dwarfs in her lifetime, and was one of the few women who participated in research conferences. She was considered the nations preeminent woman astronomer. Williamina was an advocate for women’s rights and challenged the salary discrepancy between sexes as well as women’s roles in astronomy. She worked until her final hospitalization for pneumonia. At the time of her death she had handled over 200,000 fragile star plates.
- C. Pickering
- Edward Charles Pickering, also known as E.C. Pickering was born on July 19, 1846 in New England. He graduated From Harvard in 1865. After graduation he taught physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he revolutionized the method of scientific pedagogy. At the age of 30 he directed the Harvard Observatory and continued this for 42 years. He was put in charge of a group of women dubbed computers. Between him and his staff 45,000 visual photometric studies of stars were made. He personally made some 1.4 million photometric measurements. Pickering helped produce the Draper catalogue as well as discover the first spectroscopic binary stars and a new series of spectral lines. He founded the American Association of Variable Star Observers. He worked up until his death in 1919 and Annie Cannon took over his position after his death.
- Harvard Observatory
- Established in 1727 by Mr. Thomas Hollis the Harvard Observatory ended up being the center for all astronomical research. In 1839 William Cranc Bond, a clock maker, was appointed as Harvard’s first “astronomical observer” establishing the Observatory at Harvard collage. A visit from a comet a few years later helped bring around the 15 inch Great Refractor Telescope from Munich, Germany. This telescope remained the largest instrument in America for the next two decades. It made the first detailed photographs of the moon. In 1890 E.C. Pickering developed the observatory into a major research institution where our story starts to take place.
- Computers were a group of women that conducted important astronomy research by studying photograph plates of the sky and cataloging the characteristics of stars. These women were not allowed to operate telescopes. This limited their ability to conduct their own research. These skilled women worked to process astronomical data at the Harvard Observatory. Under the direction of E.C. Pickering they were referred to as “Pickering’s Harem”. In 1881 Pickering had the issue of a volume of data coming into his observatory exceeding his staffs limitations to analyze. So he decided to hire women. There were over 80 women between the years 1877 and 1919 when Pickering died. The women would work full days, six days a week for only 25 cents and 50 cents an hour. Contemporary science warned against women and education claiming that women were too frail to handle stress and education is stress. But regardless these women worked.
- Suffragette movement
- For years women have been fighting for their rights. In the mid 1800s women started using their voices to get those rights. In 1948 a national convention was held called the Seneca Falls Convention. This was the dawning of the Suffragette movement. At this convention many things happened. There were state campaigns, court battles, and many petitions to congress. These then led to marches, protests, organizations and eventually the Nineteenth Amendment. Even though women fought for their rights it continued being a struggle. Over the years women fought for the end of slavery, their right to vote, fair wages, among many other things. Eventually women slowly started to get more rights and that has allowed women today to be able to vote, have a proper education, have some of the same opportunities as their male counterparts.
- History of pants
- In this show we see a variety of costumes telling us the stories about what was happening in the different time periods. As our costumer Amanda says “Fashion isn’t an island, it’s a response” and in Annie Cannon we see this response. Our show features a pair of pants, which was very strange for women at the time. Women started wearing and incorporating pants into their fashion in the 1890s. We would see these wide legged pants that often had a panel on the front to mimic a skirt. Women started wearing these to ride horses, do physical activities such as bike riding, tennis, fencing among other activities. Eventually it escalated to everyday ware. It was a small rebellion to the man.
- Insert pattern notes Pg. 37-38 and other pattern pictures.
What is a...
- We had the honor of working with Dr. Nathan Miller and the Astronomy department here at UWEC. Bringing science and theatre together. Dr. Miller helped us put together a What is a… video for you detailing what goes on in our show. He will explain to you the science of what the three women do on stage in a fun interactive way!
The Bias Inside Us
- Welcome to tonight/today’s performance of Silent Sky. This performance is a part of a semester long series of programming where we will explore the issue of bias. The Bias Inside Us is a community engagement project featuring a Smithsonian traveling exhibition and activities that raise awareness about the science and history of bias and what people can do about it. We want to help build our community to convene dialogue that will increase empathy and help people help people understand how implicit bias affects us all and what we all can do to help counter its negative effects on society.
Following tonight’s performance, we hope you will consider attending the Smithsonian exhibition, “The Bias Inside Us,” on display at the Pablo Center from February 26-March 27 as well as the multiple other events taking place such as a keynote presentation by Dr. Calvin Lai, Director of research for Project Implicit, a performance of the play Silent Sky about female astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, a community read of the book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, by Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, and numerous other events.
- Bias Inside Us website