Florida School of the Arts presents “Silent Sky”
Do you know which female scientist set the standard for measuring the universe?
The play “Silent Sky,” by Lauren Gunderson, tells the story of this scientist, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose research significantly impacted measurements of the universe. “All of the work that came later was built off Swan Leavitt’s findings,” said play director Patricia Crotty. “She is relatively unknown in the world of female scientists outside of astronomy, but the space program and all the things that came after really could not have developed the way they did without the pioneering work of this one woman.”
Student Logen Cheatham is playing the tour-de-force role of Swan Leavitt. “She is on stage nonstop, from beginning to end,” said Crotty. “It's a very challenging role for a young aspiring actress, and Logen is doing a beautiful job.”
“This show is truly the most beautiful project I’ve been a part of,” said Cheatham. “I remember the first time I read the script, I just cried when I got to the final page. It’s so inspiring and heartbreaking and powerful all at once. Being able to play Henrietta Swan Leavitt has been truly amazing. To get to tell the story of this real life woman, who has quite literally set the standard for measuring the universe, is beyond an honor.”
Other female astronomers in “Silent Sky” include Margaret Leavitt, played by Sara Tye; Williamina Fleming, played by Karilyn Jakobs; and Anne Jump Cannon, played by Dana Cox. “It’s so strange that most people, even those in the astronomical community, have never heard of these women, and yet their work is essential,” said Cheatham. “We still use it all the time today. So I think there’s a certain responsibility in playing these women. We’re able to be the voice they didn’t have during the time in which they lived.”
Crotty added, “These women were kind of in a box, but they did not let the limitations that society imposed on them stop them from doing the work that they wanted to do. They carved out their own place in history."
“Silent Sky” takes place between 1900 and 1921, when Swan Leavitt worked at the Harvard College Observatory. Crotty explained that while the male astronomers operating the telescope had discovered how to take pictures using primitive telemetry, Observatory director Edward Charles Pickering became upset with their sloppy calculations.
“So the owner got really angry one day and said that his housekeeper could do a better job, so he fired them and hired Williamina Fleming,” Crotty explained. “She did a better job.” Then, “for some 30 years, the Harvard Observatory only hired female computers and paid them 25 cents per hour. They never got to look though the telescope, because they only dealt with the glass plates that were the pictures. Swan Leavitt was one of these computers, and she got to make 30 cents an hour because she had a degree from Radcliff College.”
“These women were very essential in the development of astronomy,” Crotty continued. “They were not considered astronomers, even though they made these major breakthroughs in astronomy. And all of the work they published was always published under the name of Pikering, although he did give them credit, so that's how we know about it.”
Scenic and costume design
Crotty explained that the play’s outer space scenic design is quite simple and abstract, and evocative of the time period and the issues in the play. "We're going to ground the audience in the reality of the time period and give it a universal feel by including the stars,” she said. And because the play is about light, the lighting is an extraordinarily important feature. Crotty credits FloArts new faculty members Tim Castell (scene design) and Victoria Sanders (lighting design) for doing a great job with the lighting.
Student costume designer Marissa Mendez will place the audience in the time period via her detailed costume designs. However, the significant shift of the look of women’s clothing from 1900 to 1921 created a design challenge for Mendez, said Crotty. “Trying to make those transitions as we move through time has been a real challenge for her, but she solved the problem beautifully for this profoundly beautiful story.”
View the night sky
SJR State astronomy professor Jill Leggett has been working with the cast, helping them understand the astronomical developments of this time period. "We've been going to astronomy classes once a week,” said Crotty. “Professor Leggett explained all of these developments to us and has been helping us learn how to think about things the way astronomers do. That has been a very satisfying relationship.”
Leggett also brought a telescope to FloArts for the students to look at the planets. After the Friday and Saturday night showings of “Silent Sky,” a telescope will be set up in FloArts’ parking lot for the audience to take a peek at the planets, if the sky is clear.
Feel good about being a human
Crotty described the flow of the play as “very fluid - almost like a movie, which goes from Swan Leavitt’s home in Wisconsin to Harvard to the telescope and onto a steam ship in the middle of the ocean. It’s a very worthy and uplifting story, and it just makes you feel good about being a human being. It reminds you of the larger issues of the universe, and how small we are inside of it,” she said.
“Silent Sky” will take place at the Florida School of the Arts, located at the Palatka campus of St. Johns River State College. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, October 3 through Saturday, October 5 and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 6. There will be one intermission between acts. Admission is $5.
The cast, in order of appearance, includes: Cheatham as Swan Leavitt; Sara Tye as Margaret Leavitt; Jacob Dinkle as Peter Shaw; Karilyn Jakobs as Williamina Fleming; Dana Cox as Annie Jump Cannon; Noah Mastoridis as Astronomer 1 and Fermin Llosa as Astronomer 2.
Understudies: Isabelle Asma, Madeline Gamel, Suzannah Gaston, Emma Gazdecki and Mastoridis.
Production Staff: Technical Director Castell; Music Direction and Sound Design, Kandie Smith; Company Astronomer Leggett; Stage Manager Kati Blankenship; Costume Design Faculty Supervisor Emily Schafer; Costume Shop Manager Tiffany Jordan; Dance Consultant Jessica Mayhew; Assistant Director Kaylee Dowd; Assistant Stage Manager Melissa Moore; Assistant Lighting Designer Andrew Stevens; Sound Engineer Savanna Flathmann; Props Artisans: Nicole Barnes and Marcus Roberts; Production Assistants: Chance Baker and Kira Heuring; Light Board Operator Barnes; Sound Board Operator Roberts; Dressers Asma and Gaston; Costume Construction Crew: Emma Cash, Austin Kelley, Llosa, Moore and Nicholas Ramsey. Scenic and Lighting Crew: Barnes, Liam Carroll, Viktoria Fancsali, Flathmann, Allison Gelis, Anna Guzman, Dante Jones Soto, Peyton Kalaczynski, Elijah Richardson-Grant and Roberts; Stitchers: Blankenship, Gamel, Mendez and Vincent Ward; House Manager Gazdecki.
Florida School of the Arts, which serves the entire state of Florida, is part of the academic and administrative structure of SJR State and awards associate degrees. For more information, call 386-312-4300 or visit online at floarts.org.
Florida School of the Arts student Logen Cheatham prepares for “Silent Sky,” an inspiring play that tells the story of the groundbreaking work of American Astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt. “Silent Sky” takes place at the Florida School of the Arts, located at the Palatka campus of St. Johns River State College at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 3 through Saturday, October 5 and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, October 6. Admission is $5.
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