The Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of Silent Sky is simply radiant. A ring of soft lights circles the stage and another hangs over the performers, standing in for the stars and blinking brighter at a key moment. Onstage, lead Alexis Bronkovic echoes their glow. Her character Henrietta Leavitt is guided not by a desire for romance, but by her calling of astronomy. While a love interest does eventually appear, he’s a minor subplot. Henrietta’s work, her ideas, and her camaraderie with her coworkers are far more central to the plot.
Another lovely way that that set informs the production is that it seems designed to suggest a telescope. The back of the stage is a small circular space lined with mirrors that is only inhabited by Henrietta’s sister Margaret, with whom she has a loving but contentious relationship. Several times while the two are separated, Margaret sits in that space, playing her piano and singing—and reflecting her light back at Henrietta. Even when they are distant stars in each other’s lives, they remain connected.
I love that the MRT followed up the very masculine play The Royale with this women-centric production, and I feel very lucky to have such high caliber theater right in my backyard.
There are moments that define when a play is ready for opening night.
One of these moments is the “Designer Run” performance before moving to the stage. The full play is performed in the rehearsal hall with Director Sean Daniels, designers, MRT staff, and cohorts as the audience. The actors wear more of their costume and use many props in the scenes. At this rehearsal, the original music by Dave Keaton is sprinkled between, and with, the actor’s lines and it is lovely. The play ends, there are soft tears and applause. Now the play can be moved to the stage to begin final rehearsals.
At the theatre, the next moment is actually a “full tech” all weekend. The crew doing sound, music, lights and so much more, coordinate their focus on the intricacy of the performance. Everyone is in awe of the set, furniture of the time and strewn with lights into the audience – it is more than beautiful. While the crew does their magic, the actors are in their fine ladies and gentleman costumes and their props have been set. The actors walk around on the stage – stretch, whisper, smile – they are clearly ready to perform their roles together. But, they must wait and wait and wait – all must be perfect before the actors step into their light. Finally, they are called into place to begin the scene. There it is – the production that is almost ready for opening night. And, it is beguiling.
In a few days there will be reviews and then opening night. It would be best to request tickets for a performance soon: it will be a success.
The rehearsals for Silent Sky are anything but silent.
It is a pleasure to watch these five talented actors bring their historic characters to life in the rehearsal hall. Developing a character of history is not an easy task, but they are passionate about their roles. They have studied the late 1800’s when women astronomers were hired by Harvard University as “assistants” and required to use a magnifying glass to perform research, which led to the discovery of star composition. Their scribbled log book and notes were ground breaking in astronomy and changed who could do this scientific research.
The actors bring humor to rehearsals for this serious history in science. They support each other, not to just keep the script on cue, but share laughter for forgotten lines and creative ad-libs along the way. This is enhanced by Director Sean Daniels, who blends in with his unique style of humor. Sean also has a keen imagination – when the scene is about a holiday he asks the actors to think about how their family would ask them to come home, which brings about sharing from the actors and real-life perspective to the scene.
The actors follow an outline on the floor which represents the stage. There are some props, others are “pretended” for now. The actors wear pieces of their costumes to be “in character” which can be challenging because they are both in the play period and the now. They have known their lines for a long time, becoming their character in style, dialect and persona has been the challenge.
The actors share insight about scenes with the director which becomes a series of repetitions and patience shifting a scene. There is professional respect between the actors and director which is so needed for the success of going from rehearsals to the stage. There is also a supportive, talented crew hovering over all that is needed for the play. And too, playwright Lauren Gunderson sits quietly and watches her work unfold by these talented artists.
The actors recently made an appearance at UMass Lowell with astrophysics faculty and astronomy club and also chatted with WCAP radio host. Lauren Gunderson’s interview about the play is on the MRT website. So, this production is not just about learning lines in the rehearsal hall, it is about creating a realistic reflection of this brilliant contribution to science by women.
How and when did you first learn about Henrietta, and what about her story really interested you?
I found a book about her – a very thin volume – called Miss Leavitt’s Stars. It was on a table of books in the basement of the Strand Bookstore in New York. I kind of collect stories of women scientists and I didn’t recognize the scientist, a woman named Henrietta Leavitt. And with further investigation I realized this could be a play, not just because the history was interesting and the science was interesting, but because there were such great metaphors that could be made theatrical. The math and music being of a similar root, and the feminism and activism of that time, the sisterhood, light and pattern. And because we don’t know a ton about Henrietta, and for a playwright that’s good news in some cases, so I can make up some of the fun stuff. [Laughs] But most of this is based in truth.
What is it that has you collecting stories of women scientists?
A lot of it is because I’ve found for a long time that science makes great theater; it’s very dramatic. There are moments of discovery, there’s eureka moments, you can stage them, you can embody them, you can hear and see them, and it’s very actable. Science may not seem like an obvious choice to put on stage over and over again, but for almost two decades I’ve found so much inspiration in the stories of science – especially women scientists, because the deck is stacked against them more than men. They have more to prove, more at risk, and the presumptions are so constant against them, so their victories and triumphs are sweeter. Over and over again I find stories of women so compelling, and I just can’t not write a play about them, and Henrietta was one of those.
You’ve talked about why stories about science make good theatre. What makes theatre good for science?
Because I’m not a scientist I’m not the best person to answer, but several of my friends are and my husband is a scientist. And I do think that any artform comes out of a desire to see the world differently, to interpret it and explore it in a way that regular life doesn’t encourage. That would seem to be good for scientists – thinking differently, seeing through somebody else’s perspective, experiencing the human condition in an alternate way. I think it helps creativity, broadening awareness, and making emotions more acceptable; there are emotional truths that are just as important as intellectual truths, so I hope that’s part of it. I also think there’s great community building and cohort building in theatre: we’re all coming together in one place to watch a story. And if it’s a play about science, oftentimes scientists are invited to give talkbacks and be part of the show, and I think that does a lot in terms of continuing to make sure that citizens have access to scientists and stories of science, so that it doesn’t feel like something happening in a lab that doesn’t impact everyday life. Hopefully plays about science bring more awareness to the humanity behind science and how necessary and urgent the work of science still is.
There’s an accessibility that art gives to stories. It seems like people find science topics remote in a way.
Yeah, it adds heart to a field that’s often described as cold and practical. But especially now – not to make everything about Trump, but the administration is cutting science funding left and right – stories like this remind us of the pattern-breaking, huge shift that science gives us in terms of our ability to understand ourselves and save ourselves. And that’s massively important – critical – to our society. And stories of science – and women in science, people of color in science, and on and on and on – makes it even more important for us to hear those stories now.
You’ve talked about how there’s a lot of blanks in what we know about Henrietta, but that you feel that the play is still very much rooted in truth, and that the question of truth is a huge part of the actual narrative. When you’re adapting a story like that, how do you decide what the most important moments of truth are? And where you get to bend and be creative?
The main thing is to tell an unforgettable story, so whatever I have to do for that is generally what I try to do. But if you’re telling a story about science, the science has to be right, and the historical events of note must stay accurate. When Einstein’s papers were discovered, and the access the women would have had to that knowledge, that remains the same. The suffragette movement and the way women were treated in society, all of that is accurate. What I shifted are some of the personal details of Henrietta’s life to help tell the story that I wanted to tell and hopefully help make it more unforgettable. Henrietta’s mother was actually more like the role I’ve created as her sister; that relationship would have made an excellent play on its own, but it wasn’t the play I wanted to write. I wanted to write about literal and figurative sisters, so giving Henrietta a sister that could complement her experience with a more traditional life was important to me. And then there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t know. She did write a letter from an ocean liner, so we know that she went on one. I don’t know where, what her experience was, or why she did it – all of that is the fun I get to have as a playwright. And the male character is kind of an amalgam of lots of the male scientists there at the time: not choosing one person, but creating a love story for her. We don’t know that it happened, but we don’t know that it didn’t. [Laughs]
There are so many women in the play, and they each seem to have a different type of journey. How do you weave all of those together into one story?
That’s the work of a good play, right? To have some converging but independent journeys for each of these characters. If this were a play about men, we wouldn’t question it, but you have to note it if it’s a play about women. Oftentimes we’re given one character, maybe two, but certainly not a handful of complex, individual women that are after different things and on different journeys. So that was the joy and, frankly, the liberation of writing a play like this: I got to tell the story of friends and sisters and colleagues and activists and scientists – and they’re all women! It’s so cool! [Laughs] So yeah, I think part of what the work hopes to do is show that diversity of female experience, that of course you can’t write a play with one woman in it and have them represent all of womanhood, just like you couldn’t do that with a man. So hopefully it’s a good example of the diversity of experience.
Why did you think it was important to include Henrietta’s hearing aid in the stage directions?
Henrietta and Annie actually both had hearing loss; Annie Cannon had a hearing aid as well. But then it felt like this would be a play about deafness, and I don’t feel quite equipped to write that, so I just gave Henrietta the hearing loss. I think it’s quite important to show somebody that has a different ability on stage. And for her, oftentimes they said that she would take the hearing aid out when she was working, which would give her much more concentration than some of her colleagues: you know, working in a small room with twenty women and men up and down the stairs outside. So in some ways her disability was an ability, which was really interesting.
The last time that MRT audiences saw one of your plays was in 2015 with I and You. What were the different challenges in writing Silent Sky versus that play?
Silent Sky came first, so I and You was a divergence for me, and it still really is. I write a lot of history plays, a lot of stories of women in science in different decades, and I and You was – and still is – a really unique play of mine. It’s contemporary and dramatic and has a big twist and is about teenagers; it’s kind of a music box of a play that appears small and kind of bursts open at the end. So they were completely different processes, but in both cases I knew where the story was going before I wrote it. I knew where we were going to end up. And for Henrietta, because I have history to guide me, I knew what her discovery would be, and how it would look, and how it would exist in the theatrical imagining that was my job to figure out how to put on stage. And with I and You, because there was kind of a secret at the heart of the play, it was really setting up and hopefully earning this big ending I wanted to try and pull off. But they’re both about love, right? And they’re both about loss, and they’re both about resilience and needing to be known by your friends and the people you love, and kind of in some ways about the awe of the universe, of the way the world can actually work. Very different kinds of awe, but still, I think there are a lot of similarities to a lot of my work that kind of land in those categories.
What about this story felt like it would uniquely work for the stage, and how did you take the story and craft it into something really theatrical?
It’s about pattern and repetition and tone, and I realized that those things could be made musical, so then I put music as a thread in this play – her sister is a pianist and plays at the church, so a hymn would of course be quite common for her to play. But then what if the music becomes how we articulate this scientific discovery? It was stuff like that started as an ancillary element of the story that became this sort of essential core element of how to tell it on stage. And it’s what I’m actually most proud of in some ways: how it allows science to be more than fact, how it makes science visceral, and it makes it beautiful, and those I think are really important. It will be rare for some people to walk away being like, “Wow, that astronomy was the most gorgeous thing I’ve seen in a long time!”
And of course the element of light: it’s a play about stars, so how does lighting play into the scene. I’ve seen this production done in a thousand different ways, all sorts of manner of interpretation while consistently asking its designers to really innovate.
So the musical aspect of Henrietta’s discovery, that was from history?
Well, the discovery itself is in some ways musical – you can think of it as music. But the discovery that she made was probably decidedly non-musical: partly because she was deaf, but also because it was math, it was nothing but math for her. But the idea that math can also be musical if you’re someone like her sister Margaret, who is a musician so can interpret the same data in a different way. I also kind of like that, that pattern can be mathematical or musical.
You’ve had the pleasure of being able to see so many productions of this work. What are you looking forward to most about Sean and his team and their vision?
What I love about Sean’s genius as a director is that his productions are always so full of heart, but also so full of wit and humanity. He’s just one of the funniest directors I’ve ever worked with. He knows how comedy is one of the pillars of humanity and human interaction, and it’s not about being funny, it’s about being real. So I think that is something I’m really excited to see with this play, which when people hear about it, they’ll probably think it’s pretty serious, right? It’s turn of the century women, they wear those high collars and corsets and they’re talking about math and this sounds like no fun at all, right? [Laughs] But Sean is so good at making the human experience beautiful and funny and honest. So I think that’s going to be just extraordinary.
The show is very powerful and the cast is great. I’m guessing that it may have felt that the audience wasn’t as involved as it might be during the show, but I think it is just the power of it. My wife and I didn’t want to stay and talk – we wanted to get out and talk to each other which we did for awhile. The long standing ovation at the end I think shows how we all felt.
I find myself wondering what it is like for the cast do this show in the first place, but to have Charlottesville happen during rehearsals must have been really hard. With that background, the show is very timely and even more thought provoking. And well, honestly, more frightening.
Blows both physical and psychic are a running theme in Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s new production The Royale and they are punctuated throughout by a stream of claps and stomps from the cast. It’s an unexpected touch, and it works brilliantly.
I wasn’t sure if a play about boxing would be for me, but I got hooked as I watched the play’s percussive rhythm begin to take shape in an early rehearsal. The physical soundtrack plays into the inner landscape of lead character Jay, an African American boxer. It’s in his blood, as he joyfully practices to a jazz beat and struggles with the traumatic memory behind a door he pounded on long ago.
The boxing matches are a particularly innovative piece of staging. Rather than pantomiming punches, the actors face the audience. The lighting shifts, turning the ring into a sort of dream space. We watch them as they jab and weave, and are made partners in both their triumph and their pain. And we feel every blow.
But when the play’s final, surprising, and heartbreaking blow lands, it’s quiet. This makes it all the more shocking. I think I gasped. Knockout.
We begin round one of the fantastic MRT season with The Royale, a play about the “sweet science of boxing,” or so it seems. During rehearsals, the fight choreographer brought realistic movements to actors who are not boxers. The director stepped in to match movements for the character to develop “full intention” of expression as they move around and toward each other in the ring. Rehearsals are a tireless learning of matching movements and script, often in front of a huge mirror.
Now, tech weekend brings the actors to the stage to work on the set with lights and sound. The director, stage manager and all the crew bring the play to life for opening night. This timely, provocative play is about the courage, confidences, or lack of these, and prejudices within the history of boxing. These, along with the reflections of dreams, aging, and family bring this play to the heart of pondering a fight to the finish. Is the dream worth the outcome, is it possible to have it all? So, attend The Royale and I promise you will come away reflecting those thoughts on the drive home.