The Female Scientists Made Famous in “Silent Sky”

In the theatre profession, the people involved with doing background research for stage productions are called “dramaturgs.” Put simply, the dramaturg does exhaustive work to help a director build the “world of the play” by finding information not included in the script. Very little of that work actually appears on the stage but it can be invaluable to the entire creative team of a play especially to actors in their character development. Lizzy Andretta, one of the Commonweal’s newest resident ensemble members, serves as the dramaturg for our upcoming version of Silent Sky and for this edition of Drama Unfolds, she gives us a glimpse into the world of the famous women of the play in their own words.
Professional Resident Ensemble Member Lizzy Andretta

                                 Lizzy Andretta

Around the turn of the century when women were denied basic rights like voting and owning property, Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, the real-life women of the play Silent Sky, were doing work that would redefine the way we view the universe. Working at the Harvard Observatory for 30 cents an hour, these female scientists (dubbed “computers”) would primarily gather information found on glass plates containing photographs of the stars and record the data they found. While writing in her diary, Williamina Fleming said of the work, “From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination…and of work involved in the reduction of these photographs.” Despite the tediousness, the women found comfort in their work and in each other. Annie Cannon (who would create a standard for classifying stars that is still used today) wrote about her work: “My heart, my life is now the study of astronomy… (I) am able to find contentment in my surroundings; I could not help it, thrown as I am with such kind people.”

One of the famous female scientists in Silent Sky

                  Henrietta Leavitt

While they were restricted to mostly clerical duties, some of the women found ways to pursue their own research. Henrietta Leavitt managed to do this when she noticed that some of the stars she was observing appeared brighter than others. When she pursued this, she discovered that the brightness of the stars was related to their distance from the Earth, which she dubbed “The Period-Luminosity Relation.” When she published her work, Henrietta described her finding as follows: “A straight line can readily be drawn among each of the two series of points corresponding to maxima and minima, thus showing that there is a simple relation between the brightness of the variables and their periods.”

Though most of them would be forgotten by history, the female scientists of the Harvard Observatory continued to work behind the scenes without complaint, even as they were passed over for the recognition they so deserved. Annie Cannon, in particular, continued to work into old age and would do so right up until she died, commenting that, “In our troubled days it is good to have something outside our planet, something fine and distant for comfort.” Today, astronomers still use the work of these women to measure the stars and universe. Although history may have forgotten these important women, playwright Lauren Gunderson has not by memorializing them in Silent Sky and setting them among the most famous women in history. It has been my pleasure to provide research materials to shine a light on the lives of these famous scientists and their groundbreaking work.

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson opens in two weeks as the featured event of the Stars and Pearls Gala Opening Weekend April 6, 7 & 8 at the Commonweal.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre!

One Man in a Woman’s World

In three weeks, the doors of our 30th Season at the Commonweal will officially open. That season kicks off with the compelling true story of Henrietta Leavitt as told by Lauren Gunderson in Silent Sky. Although the play is based on true events and real people, there is one person who is an embellishment on historical facts. That character is Peter Shaw, Henrietta’s romantic interest and fellow astronomer at the Harvard Observatory. Commonweal resident ensemble member Eric Lee is currently busy rehearsing and creating the role of Peter Shaw for our version and he is this week’s Drama Unfolds contributor to introduce you to the man he will portray.

Commonweal Professional Resident Ensemble Member Eric Lee“I come around.” So says Peter Shaw in Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky, and so he does. In so very many ways. In the most literal sense, he is tasked with coming around to check in on the “computers” of the Harvard Observatory. These were the women working at detailed calculation and computation in the lab, therefore named “computers.” And in this case, those brilliant women were Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, and the most recent addition, Henrietta Leavitt. 

About himself, Peter is forced to “come around” to the knowledge that the women whom he is tasked with supervising are very much in positions they had to work for; had to make every conscious effort to attain. Meanwhile, he holds his own position in a career he never really wanted, for which some strings were apparently pulled. 

Megan Pence, Eric Lee, Abbie Cathcart at the Page to Stage for Silent Sky

Megan Pence, Eric Lee (center), Abbie Cathcart at the Page to Stage for “Silent Sky”

Then there are the ideas themselves. The size of the universe was about to get much bigger at the beginning of the twentieth century. And there are those who are not so comfortable with change. Such a one is Peter. He is hesitant. He bristles at these ideas which seem to uproot the whole of what is known which is where he is firmly grounded. And kindly, generously, and on these ideas, Lauren Gunderson allows Peter to evolve, as it were. 

As he speaks fondly of his rounds, I am given the sense of a planet that is aware of its place, orbiting his sun, which is Henrietta Leavitt. Her brilliance burns brightly and, luckily for us all, was given a chance to shine. We would live in a very different world had her mind been shut out of the world of ideas. And I, like Peter, find myself so deeply fortunate to get to spend my time “coming around” to the world of these talented women, whose story I am grateful to tell.

This is a gorgeous play and the relationship between Peter and Henrietta is simply a joy. Take it from me, you do not want to miss seeing Eric’s creation in person. Tickets are NOW on sale for Silent Sky and you can get yours by CLICKING HERE. Opening night is Saturday, April 7th and the production gets a three month run through June 23rd.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre!—Jeremy

America’s Most Produced Playwright

She is one of the most influential women in the theatre world today and is currently the most produced playwright in the country with 27 of her plays in production in the 2017-18 theatre season. Playwright Simon Stephens is the next in proximity with 15—easily surpassed by Ms. Gunderson. And yet, you’ve probably never heard of her! The good news is you’re about to learn quite a bit about her in the next few months as we prepare to open Season 30 at the Commonweal. Lauren’s play Silent Sky will officially open this season of celebration on April 7th. In this edition of Drama Unfolds, you’ll find excellent introductory information about Ms. Gunderson through links to articles featuring her, an article written by her and a video starring the playwright herself. Enjoy and then make plans to join us for Lauren’s remarkable play about an exceptional woman who made groundbreaking discoveries about the universe in the early 20th century.


compiled by Jeremy van Meter
(click each title for the full article)

You’ve Probably Never Heard of America’s Most Popular PlaywrightThe New Yorker Magazine

Lauren Gunderson: The Most Popular Playwright in America TodayThe Guardian Magazine

Interview with a Playwright: Lauren Gunderson—Playwrights Foundation

The Oldest Tech—Theatre—Might be an Antidote to the Newest—by Lauren Gunderson courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle


Silent Sky previews April 5th & 6th and is the featured event of our Grand Opening Weekend on April 7th. The warm-hearted and witty drama plays through June 23rd. It’s all part of a season of celebration as we mark thirty years as Southeast Minnesota’s only year-round, professional live theatre company.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre!—Jeremy