URI Theatre opens season with true story of pioneering women astronomers in ‘Silent Sky’

KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 8, 2021 – Audiences will get a history lesson – along with a look at the science of astronomy – as the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department opens the season Thursday, Oct. 14, with Lauren Gunderson’s “Silent Sky.”

Written in 2015, “Silent Sky” tells the true story of 19th-century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt and her fellow female researchers – or “computers” – in the Harvard University observatory who set the standard still used today for measuring distances in space while discovering thousands of stars. Twenty years before women’s suffrage, the “computers” pursue their passion for astronomy in a society that limits women’s roles while credit for their discoveries are dismissed or claimed by male astronomers. 

“Silent Sky” also returns URI Theatre to live audiences for the first time since March 2020 when theaters everywhere were shuttered because of the pandemic. To attend “Silent Sky,” audience members must be vaccinated and wear a mask while inside the Fine Arts Center. Onstage, actors will be unmasked, but will remain at least 3 feet apart from each other and the audience. (Please view URI Theatre’s COVID-19 policy.)

“There’s nothing like live theater,” says director Tracy Liz Miller, who joined the Theatre Department as a lecturer this semester. “Doing things on Zoom without the interaction and relationship with the audience, it’s not the same. It’s just gratifying to be back in a rehearsal hall and talking in detail about a play and working with collaborators and designers. Similar to Henrietta Leavitt, we’re all grateful to be obsessed with a project.”

Carleigh Boyle ’22, who plays Henrietta Leavitt, will be performing in her first play before an audience since her sophomore year. Despite the safety mandates, she says she’s slightly nervous, but very excited.

“The entire cast and crew have been so excited to do theater,” says Boyle, a theater and animal science major from Hillsdale, New Jersey. “But we’ve also continued all the fun traditions we do in URI Theatre, such as pre-show warmups, senior gifts, listening to music in the dressing rooms, pajama day. We haven’t gotten to do all this in a while, and it’s like a breath of fresh air to do it again.”

Audrey Visscher ’22, a theater and film major from Piscataway, New Jersey, is also excited to get back to live theater. Last year, Visscher worked the light board for “Miss Nelson is Missing!,” a full-stage production that was recorded and shown online.

“Rehearsals have been very upbeat, but also very cautious,” says Visscher, the play’s assistant director and lighting designer, who helped oversee safety precautions during rehearsals. “We want to be as safe as we can to ensure we can open the theater to live audience members.”

In “Silent Sky,” Leavitt and her fellow “computers” – a person who is hired to perform complex calculations in their head or with pencil and paper – had to have absolute passion for astronomy and doggedly pursue it to earn an opportunity to work in the Harvard observatory, Miller says.

Still, Leavitt and her fellow female researchers, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, worked for ridiculously low wages compared to the male astronomers. They also weren’t allowed to touch the observatory’s great refractor telescope and had to use photographic glass plates to map the stars.

“The work was super precise and ridiculously repetitive,” Miller says. “It’s ironic. That repetitiveness allowed them to become extremely intimate with the sky and to figure out a system in which we map and measure the distance of the stars. They created a standard that now is so absolutely necessary.”

Along with a history lesson, “Silent Sky” explores the strength of relationships among the found family of “computers” and the passion and pull of work and relationships.

“There weren’t a lot of choices for women back then,” says Miller. “To work often meant you were choosing that over marriage and the home. There weren’t a lot of men who were like, ‘You want to be a scientist and be my wife – fabulous.’ That just wasn’t done in upper-middle-class society.”

For Boyle, playing Henrietta, who died 100 years ago this year, has a special meaning. “Silent Sky” has become one of her favorite plays since reading it her sophomore year, and Henrietta is a role model and a dream role.

“In the play, Henrietta is a fun, wacky, passionate, smart as a whip character,” says Boyle. “All of the scenes in this play are so dynamic, beautiful and inspiring. It is amazing to see how every character and relationship grow throughout the show.”

To help create an accurate portrait of the early 1900s, students have worked with David Howard, Theatre chair and costume designer for the show, to learn how to move in period clothing, while also learning proper everyday etiquette of the time and an understanding of the vast scientific changes and the astronomical instruments that were used.

In a play about stars, lighting also plays a large role.

“Lighting is almost a sixth character in this play,” says Visscher, in her first role as lighting designer. “All of the stars help tell a story that would be incomplete without them. Lighting also helps with transitions and tells the audience where we are and when we are. And it aids with the location of characters, if they are in the same room or miles apart.”

Miller wanted the actors to fully grasp the world their characters lived in so they would understand the importance of Henrietta’s accomplishments.

“It’s not like this is a play about a day in the life of an astronomer,” says Miller. “No, this is about a groundbreaking, amazing human being who, against many odds, did what she did.”

“Silent Sky” runs Oct. 14-16 and Oct. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 17 and 24 at 2 p.m. in J Studio at the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston Campus. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for senior citizens and URI students, faculty and staff. Tickets can be purchased at the URI Theatre box office in the Fine Arts Center or by calling (401) 874-5843.

Main cast
Role, actor, hometown

Henrietta Leavitt, Carleigh Boyle, Hillsdale, New Jersey
Margaret Leavitt, Jenna Wentworth, Tewksbury, Massachusetts
Peter Shaw, Ben Pereira, Danbury, Connecticut
Annie Cannon, Alana Parrott, Webster, Massachusetts
Williamina Fleming, Sarah Taylor, Providence

Understudy cast

Henrietta Leavitt, Zoe Pepin, Maynard, Massachusetts
Margaret Leavitt, Olivia Humulock, Narragansett
Peter Shaw, Manny Maldonado, Newport
Annie Cannon, Kayla Ribeiro, Pawtucket
Williamina Fleming, Naomi Tyler, Warwick