Our Cosmic Adventure

One morning we woke up and we were spinning through space, everybody in the whole world, women, men, every race and sexuality, transgendered people, the disabled, rich, poor, believers, atheists, your mom, spinning aimlessly, mindlessly, circumscribing a celestial pattern none can escape.

It’s been speculated that there are more stars in the heavens than there are grains of sand on the earth. Don’t believe it? Just count them!

To do so is not unlike the task assigned to the first computers, who were neither machines nor devices, but rather, human beings computing, that is to say, counting.

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Stephanie Lynge, playing at the Hippodrome Theatre through May 7, takes place at the turn of the 20th century and proceeds to the Roaring 20s, but that’s just here on earth. The real story, of course, is in the sky. On earth it’s easy in a male dominated society to shove the mindless, boring, labor-intensive tasks onto menials, you know, women. Henrietta Leavitt is taken by the Harvard laboratory to be such a person.

Silent Sky is part history lesson, so grab it before it’s taken away. The real Henrietta Leavitt has been largely ignored by history, but her process of recording the changes in Cepheid stars is what led to the Hubble telescope and an understanding of astronomy utterly beyond Man’s reach – until she came along to calculate the distance between us and stars no one even knew were there before – lots of them – more than twice as many as had been known to exist before she found them.

Elise Hudson as Henrietta Leavitt (Photo by Michael A. Eaddy)

There are five characters in the play, four women and a man. Henrietta is played by Elise Hudson, her sister Margaret by Savannah Simmerly, and two actual historical characters, Williamina Fleming, the Scottish-American astronomer, played by Laura Shatkus, and Annie Jump Cannon, who merely created the Harvard Classification Scheme, played by Cynthia Beckert.

Laura Shatkus as Margaret (Photo by Michael A. Eaddy)
Savanah Simmerly as Margaret (Photo by Michael A. Eaddy)
Tim Dowd as Peter Shaw (Photo by Michael A. Eaddy)

New to the Hipp with this play is Tim Dowd as Peter Shaw, the only man in this play’s world, the nominal boss astronomer by virtue of his gender.

Shamrock with Stephanie Lynge & Laura Shatkus (photo by Tom Miller)

Tom Miller and I sat down with Silent Sky director Stephanie Lynge and actress Laura Shatkus in the Hippodrome’s rehearsal hall a week before opening to talk about the play and the Hipp and women and science.

With a week to go before opening, Stephanie Lynge and Laura Shatkus are joyful. Partly, it’s because, “We’re ahead of schedule,” Stephanie says of her rehearsal plan to direct Lauren Gunderson’s cosmic drama Silent Sky. But mostly, as Laura, who plays the sassiest of the computers who will merely massively advance all of human history, gleefully tells Stephanie, it’s because, “I love working with you.”

The two friends have known each other for years as members of the Hipp’s company, but surprisingly this is the first time they’ve worked together.

“We’ve never worked together, but we’ve known each other for years, and I come to this play with a whole lot of trust and faith and excitement. This is my ninth or tenth working at the Hipp, I know everybody, I know where everything is. It feels like a second home.”

Stephanie Lynge & the Silent Sky company (Photo by Michael A. Eaddy)

“That’s part of our mission. Art is collaborative,” says Stephanie. “I think it’s really important to have that idea of an ensemble, a company, and even if you’re not working on the same project, as the theatre goes from show to show, it’s like passing the torch. So, even if you’re not working together, you feel like you are, like you’ve been working together all the time. And then you work together on a project, and it immediately clicks. You cut to the chase.”

“Lots of theatres end up microwaving their casts,” Laura reports, having worked in regional theatres around the country. “They’ll get the broccoli from over here and the meat from over there. But if you have a company of people who work together and share their energy, even if they’re not working on the same project, when you put your dinner together, it’s been marinating.”

And it’s also important to add new ingredients.

Stephanie explains, “In this cast we have Laura, whom I’ve never worked directly with, but who’s been here many times and we have a relationship. We have Cynthia Beckert playing Annie, who was with us pre-pandemic in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. We have Elise who was here with us last year in The Revolutionist. We have Savanah Simmerly, who was with us for Christmas Carol and I worked with her before that putting together the cabaret show she did here. And then there’s our brand-new guy Tim, playing Peter, the only man in the room. He’s from New York, but he brings a quality that I think mixes really well with everybody.”

“Laura’s got the project in order,” laura says of her director. “She’s got it staged. The design team is in place. I feel so safe, so protected. The whole project management side is completely taken care of, and not without its own creativity. But when we get to the scene work and the character work, she lets you explore, discover, try things. And patient and relaxed, which is different from me as I director. I tend to want to get there sometimes before the actors do, and they have to catch up.”

“I do have it all staged in my head before we begin,” Stephanie explains, “but what the actors bring to it makes it into something else. If what happened was just what I saw and heard and staged in my head, that would diminish what happens on stage. Even though I have it all staged before we begin rehearsal, only maybe 20% of what I planned remains the same.”

What effect might we expect Silent Sky to have on an audience?

“Wonder. Excitement. Drive.”

Tom got this idea when we walked up the steps of the stately edifice and saw the season’s posters displayed, Silent Sky, a play about the empowerment of women, alongside the Hipp’s next play, its summer musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.

Tom wants to know how the play was chosen and how it fits into the Hipp season. Each play carries its own meaning and message, and then when the plays are compiled, the season itself has a message and a meaning, a unity. Or does it?

Yes . . .and no.

“That’s a great question,” says Stephanie, the Hipp’s artistic director. “We have a play selection committee and we read 150-200 plays, with a lot of different perspectives. If I chose the plays myself, I might have a whole season of Lauren Gunderson. But we narrow it down. And each play has its own raison d’etre, and then we start to fit the whole picture together.

“Once we’ve found the plays that we believe in, the plays that will feed our community, then we look at the whole and ask ourselves, now, what are we saying by that, and what are we supporting?

Silent Sky was part of our season when the pandemic hit, our season that wasn’t, and I chose it because not only is it about the empowerment of women, but it’s a love letter to science. And what’s inspiring is the collaboration, among women and among scientists, and showing that when a scientific theory is espoused, they make every effort to disprove it.

Annie Jump Cannon

“Then there’s the fact that Lauren Gunderson is just such a witty, wonderful writer. Her words dance on the page, and then the poetry jumps out at you and it’s lush, and, yes, you laugh. It’s funny! We’re anxious to find out exactly where and how loud and long people will laugh – because we don’t know. But we know they’ll laugh. And then something real happens, something hits hard, and not just because you weren’t expecting, but because the laugher connected you to these people, it just hits you all the harder.”

If you’re looking for the empowerment of women (and what kind of neanderthal would you have to be were you not?), you need look no further than the Hipp.

The Hipp’s monumental 50-year existence is in great part a testament to women. From its inception through the next half-century, overwhelmingly, women have led the way.

“That’s largely been the case with the regional theatre movement as a whole in this country,” Laura says, having studied it. “It was led by women who wanted to take the whole focus of theatre away from the corporate interests in New York City and show that there were viable opportunities for theatre around the country with a different quality of life than you would have in New York. The Hipp is a great example of that.

“We were on break, and I happened to look over and see these women, Stephanie, Amber, Amanda, Liz, and they’re figuring shit out, getting stuff done, and they’ve got this, they’re mapping out exactly what needs to happen and how, and I thought: we’ve got this.” Laura becomes Williamina for a moment to tell us, “The same dynamic operates in the play. Women working together as a team, collaborating. I call Annie my boss, and she says, no, we share responsibilities here. So, she’s not my boss. There is no boss.”

Williamina Fleming

Laura clearly delights in the character she’s playing. As she talks about Williamina and how to not only portray her and her Scottish accent, but to communicate her experience, she seems guided by the principle: I you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

“Stephanie has only had to pull me back once.” They both laugh. “I do love that these women show others what can be done. Williamina and Annie had made a name for themselves before they met Henrietta. So, they paved the way for her. It’s a matter of: if you see it, you can be it. So, I’m anxious for some of the kids who were in Christmas Carol to come see the play. I hope kids see this play. It’s so important, that idea, that if you see it, you can be it.

“I’ve learned the Scottish accent in the last couple of months. The day I got the offer, I started freaking out, but then I worked with Susan and now I’ve got it, absolutely got it.”

But, of course, Susan Schuld is the Hipp’s dialect coach, who guided me expertly into the realms of Cockney and various particular flavors of British accents when I acted in this year’s Christmas Carol (directed by Laura), and Susan’s understanding of both the cultural and physiological dictates of dialect convey to the practitioner an absolute surety that you’re getting it right.

Does Laura have the accent down enough to try it out in public, say swagger into a tavern in NYC and order a Scotch like a Scot?

“Absolutely, that’s the kind of trickster I am, and Williamina is too. Her through-line is let’s have fun, let’s crack it open, despite the fact that they’re in this environment, everyone’s in corsets, and the men are in charge. It’s fun to watch her bump up against all those walls.”

And within those walls, where will Erin Jester, the Hipp’s costume designer, find the lines, color, shapes, and textures in the sweep of American history from 1900 -1920?

“It’s a period piece. There are interesting costumes and hats. It’s always fun to wear a corset. It changes everything. Cynthia and I were saying to each other, my God, can you imagine wearing one of these 12 hours a day? We’re doing it for two.”

Laura Shatkus as Williamina & Cynthia Beckert as Annie (Photo by Michael A. Eaddy)

Stephanie observes: “You can know all about the character internally, but don’t neglect the physicality. These people were outfitted in restrictive clothing. It changed the way they felt, the way they acted, and the way they thought.

“Even the man in the play is very restricted by what society expects of him, what is acceptable, and he tries to explore and bumps up against that too.

“I love that it begins with everyone in these little boxes, and by the end, the walls between them have been removed. It’s inspiring because it’s about something bigger than ourselves.”


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