‘Silent Sky’: Sopris Theatre Company explores hidden history of women astronomers
Performances offered live at CMC Spring Valley with livestream options throughout CMC's district
By Kristin Carlson
“Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson opens Feb. 11 at Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley at Glenwood Springs. Rooted in historical events, the play tells the true story of the first women astronomers to work at the Harvard College Observatory during the early 1900s.
Henrietta Leavitt and other women scientists working at the observatory were called “computers” to describe the detail-oriented work they were assigned. Even though these women are brimming with energy, ideas and intellect, they are paid in “girl hours” and viewed as support staff for a renowned male astronomer. As they chart the expansion of the universe, they also strive to create space for new opportunities in their lives.
Leavitt is eager to get her hands on the Great Refractor telescope but is restricted to logging stars photographed by men in the department. Never one to be knocked off course by social expectations, however, she becomes obsessed with the repeating patterns of Cepheid stars, and her meticulous observations and measurements leads to a discovery that still impacts the field of astronomy today.
Women in the lab
The play covers 18 years in two acts, with Leavitt’s story told in a seamless, connective writing style that appealed to seasoned director Wendy Tennis. “The goal for the actors in this piece was to keep the scenes flowing like time-lapse photography of the night sky,” Tennis said.
In her third show with Sopris Theatre, Bostyn Elswick portrays Henrietta Leavitt, whose ambition is as boundless as the cosmos. CMC graduate Joshua Adamson plays Peter Shaw, her would-be suitor. An astronomer who wanted to be an actor, he admires the women in the lab but finds it difficult to relate to them.
Leavitt’s fellow “computers” Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming are portrayed by veteran actor Lisa Langer and newcomer to the CMC stage Julia Whalen. Also in her first role at CMC is Hattie Rensberry, who plays Leavitt’s dutiful sister, Margaret. Abby Owens serves as stage manager.
Elswick said that playing Leavitt and learning about the unsung female astronomers at Harvard was inspiring. “Even when these women were held back and pushed down, they made discoveries that blew the men out of the water,” Elswick said.
As the only male character on the stage, Adamson said he struggled with the condescension his character often displays. “He is in this room with incredibly brilliant women, and he knows it, but he’s been raised to treat them a certain way,” said Adamson.
From Harvard to the heavens
Despite the obstacles they face independently and together, the women in “Silent Sky” take advantage of every opportunity to stretch their minds from Harvard to the heavens.
Live, in-person performances of “Silent Sky” are Feb. 11, 12, 18, 19, 25 and 26 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 13, 20 and 27 at 2 p.m. Livestream access is available Feb. 13 at 2 p.m., and Feb. 19 and 25 at 7 p.m. The 90-minute show includes a 10-minute intermission. The actors will not be wearing masks while on stage though CMC health protocols require audience members to remain masked throughout the production.
Tickets are $20 for adults and all livestreamed shows, and $15 for seniors, students and CMC employees and are available by following the links at CMC Theatre.
The Sopris Theatre Company season presenting sponsor for “Silent Sky” is US Bank. A post-show conversation will follow live performances on February 12, 20 and 25.