Auteur director Rebecca Holderness is no stranger to Burning Coal Theatre audiences. Her landmark original production of Einstein’s Dreams and later takes on Tom Stoppard’s Travesties and James Joyce’s The Dead have unpacked and led audiences through truly challenging texts to deeper understandings of the human condition and the universe in which it occurs. That’s true as well for Silent Sky, Lauren Gunderson’s biographical drama about pioneer astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.
Though she wasn’t even permitted to touch the telescopes at Harvard at first as a woman in 1895—even with a summa cum laude degree from Radcliffe—Leavitt’s discoveries dimensionalized the night sky and taught us how to measure the distance between the stars and to know our own place among them. We spoke with Holderness twice last week; highlights from both, edited for clarity and length, are here.
INDY Week: Silent Sky was originally slated for production in 2020. The world’s changed since then. Has the play changed as well?
Rebecca Holderness: I have a vastly different idea about the play than I did pre-pandemic, about its community of study, its commitment to fact, its commitment to science, and that passion for fact and science. All of those things are in danger of eroding, and going back maybe into a version of a post-technology dark age where facts are mutable, study is irrelevant or inaccessible, and science is debatable.
You’ve taken on scientific texts before. What’s the greatest challenge?
For me, the challenge is to create a visual and choreographic understanding of the process of research, the process of stargazing, and the internal process of thinking, really thinking through. It’s actually developing imagery from them, and the relationship to time and activity that research requires in order to be fruitful.
The arcane astrophysics in Silent Sky can seem so impenetrable.
One of the things that theater can do is it can put magic around a thing that might seem quite pedantic but is actually quite magical to the people who do it. Theater can make it magical for people who don’t do it and maybe attract people to it or let them support it with more enthusiasm.
I thought it was an opportunity to give an audience a close-up, personal—and hopefully, beautiful—experience of that process of needing to know what the truth is: where we are, what does it mean, with as much rigor as possible. I hope that people leave the theater wanting to go out into the countryside and look up at the sky in a way that maybe they haven’t seen it before. And, be reassured in the community of science reasserting its humanity and its presence in our life for good.
That’s really what I hope happens. It’s actually thinking about our feelings and feeling about our thinking that might help us bridge some of these horribly painful divides that are crisscrossing our society. Many of them are necessary reckonings—it’s not that they’re unnecessary or that we want to avoid them. But it is thinking and feeling, feeling and thinking both, that’s going to allow us maybe to grow past them, or for our children to grow past them.
Music’s important in this production; Henrietta’s sister plays a live piano, and its evocative soundscape includes composers from John Cage to Caroline Shaw.
Elizabethans thought the world was held together by music; the stars were actually calling to each other, and the only reason we couldn’t hear it was because we’re clothed in what Shakespeare calls “the muddy vesture of decay.” The music’s all around us; we just can’t hear it.
We’ve come to acknowledge that we understand things at a fundamental level before we know them at a measurable level. I’m interested in the audience having a non-intellectual, psychophysical understanding of what it is to contemplate the stars, to be able to even try to understand something that we can’t touch or is already gone before we’ve even seen it. That’s where the music comes in; I think it can allow you to move with the central characters in their study, and their discoveries, of themselves as well as astronomy.
There’s no shortage of poetry or romance in stargazing. But a work like this also has to convey what it takes to analyze thousands of photographic plates over years, to be able to make the breakthroughs that give us new knowledge of the cosmos. That’s not poetry; that’s discipline.
I’d say discipline is poetry. Or there’s poetry in discipline—that would be the way to look at it.
I’d associate patience and precision with the work Henrietta and the other women did. But the other thing that underpins their work is math. And math is the great leveler.
Over and over again, women who were good at math were able to enter into environments where men were dominant because of their math skills. Dr. Edward Pickering (who headed the astronomy program in Cambridge) thought his Scottish immigrant housekeeper, Williamina Fleming, could outdo his young men from Harvard. And indeed she did better; she created a standard that bears her name to this day.
There is a wicked, delicious sense of interplay among the women in the play.
Williamina, who is really the sharp tongue in the group, says, “We’re cleaning up the universe for the men. And making fun of them behind their backs. It’s worked for centuries.”
I think to see their life as being trapped upstairs doing the math is wrong. They were having a good time, too, or else they wouldn’t have stayed that long. They actually did a version of H.M.S. Pinafore that Williamina wrote in the lab; that exists, somewhere.
I always think of them as important women who had moxie. And it had to be more fun than being trapped in a 19th-century kitchen.
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