“The sky’s the limit, and there’s so damn much of it!” – Williamina Fleming, Silent Sky
Last weekend, Regent University students put on the play Silent Sky, showcasing their talents and bringing a captivating story to life. The production and cast have done an impressive job, and I got the privilege to interview many of them about their heart behind this creation.
Silent Sky takes place in 1901 and follows the true story of Henrietta Leavitt, a Wisconsin native who recently accepted a job at Harvard where she and two other industrious women, known as “computers,” chart the stars. Along the way, Henrietta faces major life decisions concerning love, her career, and truth.
Eric Harrel, the play’s director, brought his expertise to every aspect of production. Harrel noted that, in life, these brilliant women only got a small amount of recognition in the scientific community. However, by putting on this production of Silent Sky, Harrel hopes to spread the word about their many contributions. He’s a big believer in small individual stories having a great universal impact. His 20 years of experience show in the calm, clear, constructive criticism he gives to everyone involved in the play, and all the actors loved how he pushed them to go deeper into their characters.
In Silent Sky, the cast’s abilities are on full display! Henrietta Leavitt was played by Blair Coats, a first-year M.F.A student studying acting at Regent. She did a fantastic job acting out Henrietta’s wide-eyed optimism, hope, and constant drive to seek the truth about our universe. In preparation for the role, Coats thought about how the real-life Henrietta would react to the play. She brought a happy disposition to her character, and in darker moments, she brought a great physicality, which allowed the audience to feel her pain. After watching the show, Coats hopes the audience will consider the idea that “they are a small part in a large universe,” a small fraction of an endless sky. Her protagonist’s drive and joyful disposition make her a character the audience can root for.
Candice Heidelberg, a Regent M.F.A student who is writing her senior thesis on this production, played the down-to-earth Scottish Williamina Fleming. Her grandiose voice, perfect pronunciation, and expressive face revealed her years of experience as an actress and made her a perfect fit for the role. While talking, she shared that her favorite scene is when she unveils a piece of her backstory about how Williamina made it to work at Harvard. To prepare, Heidelberg researched the history of these hard-working women, even making PowerPoints to share with her fellow actors! By the end of the play, she wants the audience to believe in “hope, perseverance, and hard work.”
Virginia Hawley, a Regent second-year acting student, brought the hard-nosed Annie Collins to life. This tall, strict astronomer is a complete believer in anything she puts her mind to. Hawley wanted to get inside the mind of Annie, noting that Annie has “lots of untapped potential” which translates to her extreme zeal for the work at Harvard. Hawley searched for those aspects of Annie’s character that she could relate to, enhancing her performance. Her understanding of the character definitely showed on stage through her intense stares and quick, terse responses. One of the main things Hawley would like the audience to take away from the performance is “that connections with people are the greatest thing in this life.” She also desires for people to “walk away with an appreciation for beauty and wonder, even if we can’t understand it.” She believes that “understanding it is an added privilege.”
Grace Perry, another second-year M.F.A student at Regent, played Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s sister. Perry did an excellent job of playing the sweet, calm homebody who provides a great contrast to the excited character of Henrietta. Perry’s favorite part was when she got to sing “For The Beauty Of The Earth,” a hymn that, to Grace, served as a pivotal moment of reconciliation for the two sisters. Perry points to the verse “friends on earth and friends above” as the line when the two sisters come to understand and forgive each other. To prepare for her role, Perry used the Chubbuck 12-step method, which tasks the actor with understanding what their character wants in life more than anything else.
Peter Shaw, the head astronomer’s apprentice, was played by Vince Harrill, a B.F.A student of acting at Regent. During his preparation for the role, Vince studied the script as a whole, not just his own parts. He thinks understanding the story is key to knowing his character’s quirks. This certainly showed in the small ticks and movements Vince used to expose his character’s nervousness. His main goal was “to find the character” and “organically discover more about Peter.” He found the rehearsal process invaluable as it allowed him time to dive deeper into his character. He wants the audience to understand the value of “persevering, even when things don’t seem worth it, because, in the end, they are.”
It is important to note that a play is not just composed of the actors on stage; many people at work behind the scenes are also vital in making everything come together. Liz Cambell, the stage manager, is one such individual. She was in charge of helping prep the actors, providing blocking and rehearsal notes, and calling cues. Cambell was happy to talk about her role as manager and clearly loves every minute of her job. Brana Vilela, a Regent alumni and Master Electrician, stressed the importance of good lighting in the play’s minimalistic set. Vilela pointed out that good lighting makes scene transitions smooth and easy to follow. Joseph Wright, the sound designer, was also essential to the play. Wright sat by the soundboard in the groundling’s section, surrounded by theatergoers. He planned out and picked specific sound effects for the play and maintained the sound levels. Wright was also in charge of programming the speakers for the full effect of surround sound. Finally, Rebecca Ross, who is in her second year of theater practicum, worked on stitching and sewing for many of the play’s costumes, including Henrietta Leavitt’s main ensemble. She loves “seeing things come together,” and that’s what drives her to work hard.
Silent Sky is filled with many touching moments, but my favorite was when Henrietta finally opened a poetry book her family gave her earlier in the play. Henrietta turned to a random page and read “When I heard the learn’d astronomer” by Walt Whitman:
“When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
It’s clear this poem served as inspiration not only for me but also for renowned playwright Lauren Gunderson, who wrote Silent Sky in 2015. With her play, Gunderson explored Henrietta’s outlook on religion, life, and the meaning of it all. While doing so, she brought up questions that cause the audience to wonder: What happens when you make a big discovery about nature? How does that change your thoughts about the universe? Do you share your brilliance and tell others about this great discovery or sit silently and say nothing? Like Henrietta, we can become laser-focused on our work when we’re passionate, but we must remember to take a step back and ask ourselves, “What are we really here to do?” This shift in perspective is profound and often leaves more questions than answers, because like Williamina said, “The sky’s the limit, and there’s so damn much of it!”