Playwright Lauren Gunderson Discusses "Silent Sky" at Ford's Theatre

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From January 24 to February 23, 2020, Ford’s Theatre presents the inspiring drama Silent Sky, by Lauren Gunderson. The play is a work of historical fiction, based on the life and career of Henrietta Leavitt and her fellow female scientists at the Harvard Observatory during the 1910s. We recently spoke with playwright Lauren Gunderson to find out more.

How did you discover Henrietta’s history? What initially inspired you to dramatize her life for the stage?

Lauren Gunderson: I discovered Henrietta in a book called Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe, by George Johnson. I love stories of women in science and immediately was shocked that I didn’t know who this woman was. What really made me want to write a play about Henrietta however is that her story was not only about one brilliant woman but an entire cohort of women who [were] Harvard “computers.” This was a story about a sisterhood. In this play we also get to know Annie Jump Cannon and Williamina Fleming, [and] other astronomers that worked with Henrietta.

How would you characterize the play Silent Sky?

GundersonThis play is about the glory and hard work of science. It is a story of family, both the ones we are born with and the ones we choose. It’s the story of sisterhood and, yes, a little bit of old-fashioned boy meets girl as well. The other incredibly exciting feature of this play for me is music. Henrietta’s sister Margaret is a pianist and her love of music transforms into a critical way that Henrietta understands stars and the patterns in the sky. Music and math are one in the same!

Three actresses wearing Victorian blouses and high-waisted skirts stand together. The woman in the middle holds a glass plate with a photograph of the night sky and has an expression of discovery on her face. The woman on the left holds a magnifying glass and smiles as she looks at the woman in the middle. The woman on the right stares at the details on the glass plate.
Holly Twyford, Laura C. Harris and Nora Achrati for “Silent Sky” at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Henrietta’s diligence, talent and curiosity lead to discovery, which ultimately solidifies her legacy in science and our understanding of the stars. As a writer with a few works about space, what fuels your own curiosity about the universe?

GundersonAstronomy, cosmology and other fields of exoplanetary science bring up so many existential questions about humanity. The scale is so big and so vast it almost puts poetry out of business because, to me, space itself is so profound and beautiful. So, what fuels me is what fueled Henrietta: wonder, awe and the insatiable drive to know what’s out there. 

A woman in early 20th-century dress stares up to the sky with hope and wonder. She has a telescope and is standing in front of a star-studded background.
Laura C. Harris for “Silent Sky” at Ford’s Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

But what makes good Theatre is not always what makes good philosophy. So, what I truly love about putting science on stage is that, as grand as it is, science is also human-sized. We get to be in the room when discoveries are made, when eureka moments happen, when paradigms are broken and remade. I think that is a truly theatrical thrill to watch.

How have the lives of Henrietta, and Annie Jump Canon and Williamina Fleming inspired you?

Gunderson: In so many ways. In some ways it is the profundity of working hard on something you truly believe in and doing so without immediate credit. They all changed the course of astronomy but weren’t well recognized in their time. It made me weep when, in President Obama‘s last term, he released a short video all about Henrietta and her science! He labeled her one of the great American scientists, and it made me so happy!

American Theatre Magazine recently recognized you as the most-produced American playwright. This is a title you’ve earned before. Why do you think your plays resonate with American audiences?

Gunderson: I do hope that people come to my plays ready to be engaged in the heart as well as mind. I truly love big feelings in the theatre (that are all earned, of course). I think that’s what Theatre is all about: exploring the depths and height of the human experience.

What do you hope audiences will learn or better understand after seeing Silent Sky?

Gunderson: They’ll certainly walk away knowing some new science. But I also hope they come away with an appreciation of the untold stories of heroic women and men who changed the world but are still not household names.

How might seeing this play at Ford’s Theatre add to the experience for audiences?

Gunderson: Ford’s Theatre is such a hallowed space for American plays. It’s truly the honor of a lifetime to have this play in that historic and beautiful setting. I can’t wait to be an audience member myself!

A version of this interview appeared in the 2019 Ford's Theatre A Christmas Carol playbill.

Lauren Beyea is Associate Director of Communications and Marketing at Ford’s Theatre, where she oversees media relations. She is editor of the Ford’s Theatre Blog. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenBeyea.