by Clare Arena Haden
When asked to write a short blog post for Forward Theater about my experience working on Silent Sky, I didn't quite know where to begin. Not because I didn't have plenty to discuss, but because I wasn't sure how to succinctly sum up possibly one of the most positive experiences of my professional career.
It started with Lauren Gunderson's play. The first time I read it, I laughed, I cried, and I immediately read it again. Then I decided that even if it meant just replacing light bulbs on the set, I had to be involved somehow on this project. Thankfully, Jen Gray allowed me the humbling, awesome opportunity to walk for a while in Henrietta's footsteps. How could so little be known about this incredible mind and spirit? While I knew I couldn't come close to matching her mathematical intelligence (I got my BFA in Musical Theatre, so while I can't solve math problems, I do know how to solve a problem like Maria), I did my best to illuminate the passion and enthusiasm Lauren gifted her in the play. From the first read-through to opening night, I have been genuinely grateful for every moment of this production. The cast are some of the most talented and generous actors with whom I've ever had the pleasure of sharing the stage, the designers created a stunning environment in which to play, the stage managers and backstage presence are unmatched, and the director thoughtfully and sophisticatedly led the whole team to bring this gem of a story to you, the audience.
The audience! The most important piece of any theater puzzle. For me, as a storyteller, there is nothing better than the give-and-take visceral response of sharing a great story with a smart, engaged audience. Madison audiences provide the very best around. Thank you for being an integral part of this one. I am forever grateful.
To quote Ms. Leavitt, "...the real point is seeing something bigger, and knowing we're a small part of it, if we're lucky. In the end that is a life well lived." I feel like the luckiest lady around being a tiny pinch of this truly cosmic experience. Hearts and stars, ☺
Clare Arena Haden
by Jake Penner
You probably don’t know that name. Or, maybe, it bears a passing resemblance – distant and fuzzy in your memory like a faraway star cluster. Maybe you skimmed it over once in a footnote buried deep in a biography about more recognizable names like Hertzprung or Hubble. Maybe you heard the name once or twice on your drive home listening to All Things Considered. Or maybe, like most earthbound mortals, you haven’t a clue what that name – Henrietta Swan Leavitt – means.
But you should. Because that name belongs to one of the most influential astronomers of the 20th century.
Simply put, Henrietta’s key discovery made it possible for others to measure the universe, a discovery she made without being allowed to touch a telescope while she was relegated to the astronomical equivalent of the typing pool.
Henrietta Leavitt was born on July 4th 1868 in a crowded household in Lancaster, Massachusetts, the daughter of George Orwell Leavitt, a Congregationalist minister. The Leavitts remained in the Eastern part of the country until the 1890s, when Henrietta's father was appointed minister of a church in Beloit, and the family relocated to Wisconsin.
Her Puritan family placed a great emphasis on education. Henrietta herself studied at both Oberlin College and the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women (later Radcliffe, now a division of Harvard). While in school she immersed herself in classic literature, multiple European languages, fine arts, philosophy, physics, and math. In 1892 she earned a certificate equivalent to a bachelor of arts degree at Harvard today, but her curiosity kept her in place – at least for a time – taking graduate level courses and, essentially, interning at the Harvard Observatory among Harvard’s esteemed astronomers, including her future employer, Edward Pickering. With the professional mission of amassing at Harvard the world’s most comprehensive star catalog, Dr. Pickering had great need for well-educated, Puritanically self-disciplined young woman at-home counting stars in cramped conditions for little pay. Henrietta Leavitt was perfect for just such employment.
While working under Pickering at the Harvard Observatory, Henrietta spent her days studying ‘variable stars,’ meaning stars whose brightness varies over time. Henrietta and her fellow “computers” poured over thousands of photographic plates that contained the negative prints of the stars in limited sections of sky. Great passion seems necessary for maintaining focus on such tedious work – well, that, and a bit of self-imposed sensory deprivation: Henrietta went partially deaf while in college and wore a hearing aid, an instrument, she joked, that she removed in order to focus more intently on the task at-hand.
And focus she did. Henrietta is credited with cataloging a Herculean 2,400 stars during her time at Harvard, in addition to discovering what became known as the Period Luminosity-Relationship. The Period Luminosity-Relationship means essentially that the brightest a star gets is in direct relationship to how long it pulses. This simple discovery made it possible to calculate the distance to stars, and eventually to prove that the Milky Way is one of many, many galaxies.
The reason why you’ve only heard of Henrietta Leavitt in passing, if at all, is likely obvious to you already: Henrietta Leavitt is, of course, female. However, the historically male dominated field of astronomy, as well as the culture at large, has begun to give Miss Leavitt her due. There is now a moon crater and an asteroid (5383 Leavitt) named after her. Henrietta never received a Nobel Prize, but likely only because Nobel Prizes are never awarded posthumously. Henrietta has recently become the subject of her own biography, Miss Leavitt’s Stars by George Johnson, detailing her life and scientific contributions. And of course, Henrietta is now the subject of a work penned by one of the country’s most produced playwrights, Lauren Gunderson, of which you are about to witness.
We hope that Forward Theater Company’s production of Silent Sky can be one more step – small though it may be – in helping Henrietta Swan Leavitt achieve her rightful place among all of the other stars of scientific discovery.
by Kimberly Megna Yarnall
For the millions of people who mull these subjects late into the night, commissioning a play isn’t as easy as it seems. You might think that to commission a play means to send an email that says, “Hey, Bob. Can you write us a play? Deadline sometime next June. Thanks!” Aaaand… done.
Well it ain’t that easy. I mean, sure, yes, there is a component of the commissioning process that is exactly that. But there is way more. And there are cookies.
First you have to decide why you want to commission a play. Many more resources and risks are involved with commissioning a new work than just producing a nice Neil Simon comedy. In order to use those resources you need your board’s blessing, so the reasons why had better be well-thought-out and you’d better present them at a board meeting with a polished PowerPoint and warm cookies.
Generally the reason we commission a play are noble. We want to bring a work of art to our audience that has never been seen before. We want that work to be specific to our community’s interests, our theater’s space and artistry, and to say something to the world that needs to be said right now, right here, and preferably without flying by Foy.
Once you’ve got the Board’s approval and secured the line item in the budget, you need to decide who should write the play. So you make a wish list of writers and you review it. Shakespeare: dead. Beckett: too avant-garde; also, dead. JJ Abrams: too much sci-fi; also, lost. Candace Bushnell: too into sex and New York City. Jim DeVita: Local! Smart! Alive!
So you’ve got your playwright. Hooray! And then you need to give the playwright a little guidance. And I use the work delicately. You probably have an idea of what you want this play to discuss and to whom it should speak (remember that “why” section above?). But if you’d like to ever work with living writers again, you can’t tell them exactly what you want them to write, because, well, that’s not fun for them. Pretend the writer is Michelangelo and you are the pope. Except that you’re not. You’re really not the pope. So you need to tone it down a bit. Although you can probably have a conversation about clothing the nudes.
And here is when you get to send that email, probably eating about three cookies while writing and rewriting, and working up the courage to hit Send. It probably says something like: “Hey, Jim! Would you like to write a play for us? The attached contract has all the particulars about dates and money. (Yeah, we’re gonna pay you. Pretty neat, huh?) And actually, we have a pretty amazing book we though you’d like to adapt. The cast should require under 8 actors. And, um, no flying, okay? Think about it and we’ll have a planning meeting in a few weeks. Then we can take a look at a draft of the first act and see where we are. Hopefully we’ll get it in front of a reading audience next October.”
And then you send the writer cookies.
During the planning process you stay in touch with the writer and give feedback. You ask questions about what he wants to say with scene two, and why he chose the setting for scene eight. You praise the awesome job he did with the main character’s journey and encourage further exploration of the secondary characters.
And then you have a reading. And the audience comes and they listen and respond and they ask questions and talk about character development and plot points. And you sit in the back eating a cookie and you think: wow – this is a work of art that has never before been seen. And my community is creating it together to tell the world what we think, right here and right now. Pretty neat.
Each August, the families of FTC get together for an afternoon of delicious summer-inspired foods (not to mention Sam White's famous grilled meats) before the work of the regular season begins. It's always a wonderful end-of-summer celebration, and this year was no different. And no picinic is complete without a BABY!