“We measure it all in light”: Hope Theatre prepares Silent Sky

“Silent Sky” is the newest theatre production for Hope College’s 2022 fall semester. The play focuses on Henrietta Leavitt and her work in the field of astronomy. This is the first piece by playwright Lauren Gunderson that the Hope College Department of Theatre will see in this academic year with “The Revolutionists” succeeding it in the spring of 2023.

The play was written by Gunderson in 2011, and it begins in Wisconsin, where main character Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, lived with their father. The action moves to Boston, Massachusetts where Henrietta pursues a career as a “computer” at the Harvard College Observatory. Here, she is both challenged and encouraged by Peter Shaw, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming. Henrietta Leavitt was known for her astronomical discoveries of finding 2,400 variable stars and for being the first person to ever measure the distance of faraway galaxies through her work with Cepheid stars. Although her family wanted her to come home, she often wouldn’t return home as she was focused on her work, and made it her passion. Even after falling ill, Henrietta continued to work on her discoveries. 

Hope’s production of “Silent Sky” involves many people who have been working diligently to allow this show to live up to its full potential. 

“Silent Sky” cast and crew at work at rehearsal. Photo by Ava Bell

Production Insights from the Director of Theatre: a Conversation on Lighting Design

To get a better insight into the behind-the-scenes of the show, I interviewed the Director of Theatre, Eric Van Tassell, who is the lighting designer for “Silent Sky.”

When asked what the most difficult part of working on the production team was, he responded, “We are installing nearly 150 individual pinpoints of starlight, and that is not hard work, but time-consuming work. There are a lot of steps involved in this, even with the work with our fantastic student crew, it still takes a lot of time. There are certain things that have to be done more than once, due to the crew being in the learning period. There is also a brief moment where we are using media designs. While I have experience in this field, it isn’t my primary research area, therefore meaning it takes time and attention.” 

Following up on this, Van Tassell explained, “I love my job, I genuinely love working with the theatre and dance departments. Getting to work with students is a gift. Getting to work on thought-provoking material is a joy. Getting to work with talented colleagues enlightens me.” 

The last question I asked Van Tassell was, what is one thing that you would like people to know about the show? He took a moment to respond before saying “’Silent Sky’ is particularly appropriate for a liberal arts college in the tradition of the historic Christian faith. Hope students are asked to engage with science, art, and faith in many ways during their time at Hope. This show invites conversation and reflection on those same topics, and how they interact either by reflecting with each other or living in attention with each other.”

Conversation with a Cast Member– Freshman Edition

I also was allowed to interview a cast member. Freshman and English major Claudia Hwang is playing Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, in “Silent Sky.” She first explained her character: “I play Margaret Leavitt. Margie is Henrietta’s older sister. She is a devout Christian and is content to live in a traditional manner, unable to understand Henrietta’s desire to step out of the quiet, passive role that women played.” 

Hwang said, “For me, the most difficult part of being in “Silent Sky” is having my night hours taken up. Being a freshman on campus is a new and exhilarating thing, and I want to be able to explore what independence means, as well as hang out with the people I’m befriending. This being said, I would not trade rehearsals for anything. They are what I most look forward to every day.”

Within the cast of “Silent Sky,” Hwang is the only first-year student. Due to this, I was interested to see what her input would be, and how she feels within the department. She responded to this question by saying, “Being the only freshman has been intimidating, but it has allowed me to act alongside and learn from some absolutely brilliant actors. It has been stretching but in a good way. Working with people who have been in the department for a while has been such a blessing. They have shown me the ropes and taught me their craft– it’s truly an honor.”

I also asked Hwang what her favorite part of working within the theatre department was, and she said, “I adore our theatre department. I have been so lucky to be able to be in this show as a freshman, and I feel as though I have already learned so much from this experience. Hope’s theatre is different from other schools, as non-majors and minors are allowed to participate in the shows. At the moment, I do not intend on pursuing a degree in theatre, but the department has still opened its arms wide.” 

The last question I asked was what her favorite part of the production was. “My favorite aspect of ‘Silent Sky’ is the wonder. From the very first scene, Henrietta’s passion about the universe is contagious, and it only grows as the show goes on. Rhett [the director] and the rest of our staff and crew have done an excellent job of bringing our wonder to life.”

Abby Doonan, Bri Tomczak, Katy Smith, and Claudia Hwang in rehearsal. Credit: Annika Dekker.

I myself have been allowed to help create the world of this production through my involvement on the lighting crew and publicity team, and it has been a thrilling experience. Although the process can be slow and exhausting, the crew makes it worth all the trouble and difficulties. Watching the stage go from being bare and empty to seeing the props being built and placed, and watching the progress on the lighting, has been one of the best experiences I’ve had since I’ve been at Hope.

While working in the department of theatre can be a bit of a struggle at times due to low staffing, I love my crew, and I have loved being a part of the production team. Getting to work alongside people like Eric Van Tassell, Kenneth Chamberlain, Erik Alberg, and others has also demonstrated to me what being part of a team really means. It’s been such a thrill to be able to get to watch the show evolve into the end result. When watching productions occur on the stage, I can’t help but be amazed at the final product and how much the space has changed since the beginning of the process. 

Don’t forget to see this amazing production for yourself starting this Friday. “Silent Sky” will be running on Nov. 11, 12, 17, 18, and 19 at 7:30 pm, as well as on Nov. 13 at 2 pm. Tickets are free for students and children under 18, $7 for seniors and faculty, and $10 for adults. You can order general admission tickets here, or go to @hopetheatredept’s Instagram bio. 

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