Category Archives: theater

Taproot tells the story of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt

Henrietta Leavitt blew up the universe. It’s amazing that so few people know about her. The numbers of the informed grow with each performance of Silent Sky, a play by San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Gunderson running through this weekend at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.

Leavitt is the early 20th century Harvard Observatory astronomer who, while examining and cataloging photographic plates of stars, discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. This breakthrough enabled astronomers to calculate the distances to these stars, some of which turned out to be at vast distances from Earth. What were then called spiral nebulae were actually other galaxies and not part of our own Milky Way. The universe suddenly became a far, far bigger place.

The play, directed by Karen Lund at Taproot, explores Leavitt’s life as she moves away from home to work at Harvard, examines the struggles she and her colleagues faced as women in astronomy, and delves into the ways in which art and faith influenced her life and work. There’s also a sad tale of love.

Hana Lass as Henrietta Leavitt in Taproot Theatre's Silent Sky, running through Feb. 27. Taproot photo.

Hana Lass as Henrietta Leavitt in Taproot Theatre’s Silent Sky, running through Feb. 27. Taproot photo.

The show features five actors, and all did a marvelous job. Hana Lass played Henrietta. Kim Morris played Willamina Fleming, who was actually the housekeeper for Harvard Observatory director Edward Pickering until he hired her, at a pittance of a wage, as a human computer to measure and catalog the brightness of stars on the observatory’s photographic plates. Nikki Visel played Annie Cannon, another computer who developed the stellar classification system still in use today. Candace Vance played Margaret Leavitt, Henrietta’s sister. Calder Jameson Shilling portrayed Peter Shaw, an assistant to Pickering and a faculty member at Harvard.

Toiling in obscurity

Even many people close to astronomy did not know of Leavitt.

Lund and Wyard

Director Karen Lund and Adrian Wyard of the Counterbalance Foundation drew a large and engaged crowd to Taproot Theatre on a recent Tuesday for a discussion about Silent Sky and the interplay between science and faith. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I am a historian of science and had never heard of any of these people,” said Adrian Wyard, director of the Counterbalance Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit educational organization working to promote the public understanding of science and how the sciences relate to wider society. We did a story about our interview with Wyard earlier this month, in which we discussed the interplay between art, science, and faith. Taproot held a conversation at the theater last week for discussion of similar topics as they relate to Silent Sky. Wyard gave the play a nod of approval, noting that it was highly entertaining and that the science was right on.

“It’s so rare to see great art where the science is represented faithfully,” he said. “Henrietta Leavitt played a major role in an important discovery in the 1900s. It’s fair to say that she blew up the universe.”

Telling the story of Silent Sky

Lund, the director, said that the actors did extensive research about the people they were to portray, and turned up some facts that were not depicted in the play. For example, both Henrietta Leavitt and Cannon were hearing impaired, but only Leavitt was depicted as such for Silent Sky. Lund pointed out that the playwright Gunderson really captured the personalities and the times.

“It’s beautiful, in a composite way, how accurate she is,” Lund said, adding that their own research helped a great deal. “We use the information that we gather as a way of supporting the characters that we build and create.”

The set pieces of the work stations the computers used are faithful reproductions of the gear the women used at Harvard more than a century ago. Lund also brought in an astronomer from the University of Washington to talk the cast through the science of the play, which Lund said was a rewarding day of rehearsal.

“We wanted to be able to speak with authority as those characters,” she said.

Science, faith, and art

Faith came into the story because Leavitt was the daughter of a Congregational minister, and art entered because Henrietta was inspired to recognize the patterns of the Cepheids in part because there were similar tonal relationships in her sister’s piano playing. Art informed and nurtured the scientific mind.

Wyard pointed out that there are some pretty bright lines around what science is supposed to do.

“The job is to understand the natural world that we can measure, and to establish mathematical theories which could be falsifiable,” he said, adding that science must tackle some pretty narrow questions. “Purpose and meaning and value are things we need to eject from science if science is going to do a good job.”

Silent Sky is excellent theater, and one need not be interested in astronomy to enjoy the story. The performances and the staging are grand. Sadly, this is its last weekend, with the final performance on Saturday. We also enjoyed another Gunderson play about women in science, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, which was produced at ArtsWest in West Seattle in 2011. Emilie was a major force in early 18th century math and physics.

Check out Silent Sky if you can.

Read Lauren Gunderson’s plays


Science and art meet in Silent Sky at Taproot Theatre

We love it when science and art meet, and its going to happen this month when Lauren Gunderson’s play Silent Sky, directed by Karen Lund, has its Northwest premiere from Jan. 27 through Feb. 27 at Taproot Theatre in Greenwood.

FB_Silent_Sky_banner_lowline_700x259Silent Sky is the true story of Henrietta Leavitt, the American astronomer who discovered the relationship between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. Her work at Harvard College Observatory received little attention during her lifetime, which spanned 1868–1921, but her discovery was the key to our ability to accurately determine the distances to faraway galaxies. Silent Sky plays out against a landscape of fierce sisterly love, early feminism, universe-revealing science, and a time when humans were called “computers.”

Lauren Gunderson

Lauren Gunderson

Gunderson is a marvelous playwright who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. We have seen several of her other plays, including Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, the fascinating tale of Émilie Du Châtelet, the 18th-Century French physicist who not only translated Newton’s Principia Mathematica but also made profound contributions in fine-tuning Newtonian mechanics. Émilie usually bested Voltaire, one of her lovers, in battles of wits. We reviewed the 2011 production at ArtsWest in West Seattle and enjoyed it immensely. Silent Sky promises to be entertaining and enlightening as well. The cast includes Hana Lass, an outstanding local actor, in the title role.

Tickets to Silent Sky are available online.


Tessering around the universe with A Wrinkle in Time at OSF

It is a bonus when our interests in theater and astronomy intersect, and that is happening this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with its production of A Wrinkle in Time, based on the 1962 novel of the same title by Madeleine L’Engle. The OSF play is a world premiere adapted and directed by Tracy Young.


Alejandra Escalante as Meg Murry in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of A Wrinkle in Time.

In A Wrinkle in Time math whiz Meg Murry (Alejandra Escalante), her über-genius little brother Charles Wallace Murry (Sara Bruner), and pal Calvin O’Keefe (Joe Wegner) zip around the universe in search of missing papa Murry (Dan Donohue). They accomplish their travel by bending time and space in a tesseract, or “tessering,” as explained by the helpful science fair project by Science Girl (Jada Rae Perry).

Kids traversing the universe make for some imaginative and wonderfully silly stage effects and costumes, and we think especially of the multi-tentacled Aunt Beast (Daniel T. Parker), for whose costume a good half-dozen vacuum cleaners must have given their lives, or at least their hoses.

The performances are top-notch. We single out Escalante and Bruner especially, as well as Judith-Marie Bergan, who was much fun as Mrs. Whatsit, something of an intergalactic tour guide for the adventurers. Bergan, we think, can play anything, from the comic to the manic (as we note my Sweetie, the official scorer’s, recent review of last year’s production of The Tenth Muse.)

For all of its goofiness, the play takes on some serious themes about the mysteries of the universe, the nature of time and space, the dangers and advantages of technology, and of the strength and importance of family ties and love. The science isn’t so heavy that you need to be a cosmologist or physicist or a math geek like Meg to get it, though a bit of sci-fi familiarity with the concept is helpful.

According to the program notes the book took criticism from all sides when it came out, some charging it with being too religious and others saying it is too secular. That feels like it hit the right spot! The book also has some Cold War undertones about how things would look under a totalitarian society.

We’ve not read the book but plan to pick it up when we return home from Ashland. The play runs at the Angus Bowmer Theatre through November 1. It’s great fun; check it out!


This review is republished from the West Seattle Weisenheimer.


Apollo 13 rumbles into Tacoma

Several dozen of us journeyed back to 1970 Thursday evening and helped bring Apollo 13 safely back to Earth after one of its oxygen tanks exploded en route to the Moon. Our time machine was the set of Apollo 13: Mission Control, an interactive theater event running at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall through Dec. 30.

Mission Control

The audience at Apollo 13: Mission Control sits at realistic, working, retro consoles at Mission Control.

Producers of the show have created a believable replica of Mission Control in the hall, and audience members sit at consoles and become members of the NASA “White Team” led by flight director Gene Kranz (played by actor Jason Whyte.) The retro realism of the control center, complete with video monitors, communication devices, and myriad warning lights, gives the audience role-playing a certain unexpected urgency. The plight of the flight is especially urgent for one audience member, pressed into service as the third astronaut on the mission–a nod to a late crew change made before the real Apollo 13 mission.

We mission controllers were not in the same room as the astronauts. Instead, the crew was off in a back room, on sets depicting the command and lunar modules of the mission, and we watched them on video from space and communicated by radio. Similarly, mission control often tapped in to Walter Cronkite (played by Gareth Williams) and his news reports about the mission and efforts to bring the astronauts home.

Your author informs "flight" of the figures for the proper engine burn time for the perfect return flight.

Your author informs “flight” of the figures for the proper engine burn time for the perfect return flight.

The audience participation was real; we solved math problems to determine the proper engine “burn time” for an accurate course correction for the return to Earth, combed through flight procedures trying to find a way to scrub excess carbon dioxide from the spacecraft, and had various other tasks and puzzles throughout the evening. And the rumbling of the Saturn V engines as the mission blasted off from Florida was felt all the way in Houston!

A cast of six professional actors portrayed the key figures of the mission, and also helped give us rookie controllers the tools we needed to play our parts. There was no real pressure to this audience participation; though shy participants had the option to sit in the press section and just observe. Nobody took them up on that option on preview night Thursday.

Kids at the performance seemed to especially enjoy playing mission control, but the adults I was with had a marvelous time as well, and many folks stayed after splashdown to have their photos taken with the astronauts.

Apollo 13: Mission Control was created and is directed by Kip Chapman and Brad Knewstubb; it was first produced for the BATS Theatre in New Zealand, and has enjoyed critical success there and in Australia. The show runs in Tacoma through Dec. 30, then plays at the Spokane Convention Center from Jan. 9-20. If you’re a space nut, or enjoyed the Tom Hanks/Ron Howard film about the mission, you should check it out; it makes for a fun evening. Ticket info is available through the mission website, and tickets also are available on Ticketmaster.


Apollo 13: Can you bring them home?

Apollo 13: Mission ControlIf you’re a space geek like yours truly you may be interested in an interactive theater event that’s coming soon to Tacoma and Spokane.  Apollo 13: Mission Control will put you at the console in Houston as part of the team trying to bring the ill-fated Moon mission home safely.

The show was created by a pair of New Zealanders, Kip Chapman and Brad Knewstubb, who were somehow inspired with the idea for the production while on a U.S. roadtrip in 2007. They’ve lined up with Bruce MacTaggart, who created and produced the wildly popular Walking With Dinosaurs arena shows based on the BBC television series. The show has won rave reviews in New Zealand and Australia, and we’re lucky enough to be the first to see it in the U.S.

They create a replica Mission Control, complete with retro phone and computer consoles, in the performance space. A cast of six portrays the lead figures of the Apollo 13 mission, but audience members with premium tickets will be part of the action. Other audience members can sit in the press section and watch as the everyone tries to bring the crew home alive.

If you still get all weepy when the chutes open and Tom Hanks and crew land safely in the 1995 Ron Howard movie, this just might be the ticket for a fun afternoon or evening of entertainment.

Apollo 13: Mission Control plays at the Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall Dec. 21-30 and at the Spokane Convention Center Jan. 9-20. Tickets are available through the show’s website, at the Tacoma Dome Box Office, and through Ticketmaster.

Here’s the show’s trailer:


Dispatch from Chicago: ALCon, day one

Happy Independence Day, and greetings from Chicago, where we’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of amateur astronomy in the United States and the first day of the annual convention of the Astronomical League.

It’s pretty likely that people who do not have Ph.D. degrees in astronomy have been participating in the hobby for more than 150 years. But the Chicago Astronomical Society, a co-host of this event, was founded in 1862 and is still going strong as the oldest such organization in the Western Hemisphere.

Michael E. Bakich, a senior editor of Astronomy magazine, opened the day’s talks with a retrospective of the last century and a half in amateur astronomy. Bakich touched on a number of milestones of that time, notably the birth of John Dobson in 1915, and his creation, in 1967, of the Newtonian reflector mount that bears his name.

“Amateur astronomy really hasn’t been the same since,” Bakich said of the invention of the Dobsonian mount, a telescope that’s easy to use and easy for an amateur to build.

Three key developments occurred in 1980: The release of the Coulter Odyssey I telescope, a 13.1-inch Dobsonian scope that sold for just $400 (a 17.5-inch went for $600), and that Bakich said was the first commercially available Dob; the debut of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television series on PBS; and the first sales of the TeleVue 13mm Nagler, which Bakich called “the eyepiece that changed observing.” It offers both sharp images and a large apparent field of view.

Bakich noted that four transits of Venus happened during this time, though the one last month will be the last until 2117.

“The last 150 years have been a blast,” he said. “Here’s to the next 150!”

Mike Simmons, president of Astronomers Without Borders, also spoke in the morning session. The motto of the organization is “One People, One Sky” and Simmons explained the efforts to get past geopolitical differences and find common ground through astronomy.

“We’re all looking at the same thing everywhere,” Simmons said, making frequent references to trips to what he feels is a most misunderstood country: Iran.

“Iran is the most pro-American country I’ve ever been to, and I travel a lot,” Simmons said. “Whatever ideas you get from the news… you can’t trust the sound bites.”

He added that the people of Iran are typically delighted to be in contact with Americans.

“They love everything about America except what goes on between our governments,” he said.

Jan van Muijlwijk and Daniela De Paulis talked about their artistic endeavor, Moonbounce. It’s an interesting concept in which images are converted to sound, which is broadcast and bounced off the Moon. The return signal is caught on the rebound and then converted back into an image using the same software. The distortion of the image, resulting from the imperfect return of the data, is sort of the Moon’s take on the original.

Dr. Hasan Padamsee, a playwright and physicist from Cornell, closed out the morning’s lecture sessions with a talk about Edwin Hubble and various others involved in the physics of 100 years ago. We’re fortunate to be headed out Thursday to see Padamsee’s play about Hubble and Einstein, “Creation’s Birthday,” out at Fermilab. I expect we’ll also get some first-hand dope on the Higgs boson.

Adler planetarium

Astronomical League conventioneers mull about outside the Adler Planetarium in Chicago during a field trip July 4. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Our afternoon consisted of a fabulous roadtrip to the Chicago lakeshore to visit a pair of great institutions: The Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium.

At Field we had special presentations from Adler’s Mark Hammergren about asteroids and meteorites and from Field’s Philipp Heck about cosmic dust. Seattle Astronomy asked Hammergren about Seattle-area company Planetary Resources and its plan to mine asteroids for natural resources. Hammergren gave a mixed opinion. He called the notion of getting precious metals from asteroids a “red herring.”

“They’re not present in meteorites in high enough concentrations that would make it economically viable.” he said. “In the present day you’d be far better off looking at recycling materials. Concentrations of precious metals are much higher in today’s dumps.”

Hammergren did allow that space miners could find water and turn it into rocket fuel and other resources needed for future space exploration, but even with that was somewhat dubious.

“We don’t have enough infrastructure in space to justify that kind of investment,” he said. “The only thing that makes any kind of sense, economically speaking, is that if we move, in the next few decades, toward the mass colonization of space. Maybe that’s what they’re going for. You’ve got some eccentric billionaires who are trying to live the childhood dream. This is one way to jump start the colonization of our solar system.”

Also at Adler we were treated to the work of Jeff Talman, who has converted acoustic resonances of stars into musical compositions that are fascinating. It was great to see the spectacular imagery in Adler’s Grainger Sky Theater; the auditorium was closed for renovations when I last visited the Adler in 2010.

Friday’s agenda includes a trip to Fermilab for a tour and the “Creation’s Birthday” play, and then a tall ship sail on Lake Michigan for a cruise and a look at navigation by starlight.

Until then, I sign off from the Windy City.


Astronomy, theatre, baseball, and the blues

In addition to gazing at stars, Seattle Astronomy loves theatre, baseball, and the blues. So when I found out today that this year’s Astronomical League convention in Chicago includes visits to the Yerkes Observatory and Adler Planetarium, a play, and a gig by the rockin’ Astronomy Magazine Blues Band, I started making plans to visit the Windy City on the Fourth of July.

Astronomy Magazine Blues Band

The Astronomy Magazine Blues Band will play a couple of sets on the final day of this year's Astronomical League Convention in Chicago. The band, L-R, is Mike Soliday, Jeff Felbab, Keith Bauer, and Astronomy editor Dave Eicher. Photo: Astronomy Magazine Blues Band.

I have to admit that AlCon 2012 wasn’t even on my radar until this item turned up in my newsreader this morning. The notion that Astronomy magazine staffers have a blues band covering the likes of Hendrix, Cream, The Band, Koko Taylor, Muddy Waters, and more was just so mind-bogglingly cool that I immediately started investigating the event. It turns  out that there is a lot of fun stuff to do in connection with the convention. I love a good astronomy lecture more than most guys, but the real fun is in the extracurricular activities.

July 4 features a field trip to the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum of Natural History. We paid a visit to Adler in November 2010 during a Chicago layover on a cross-country train trip, and I wrote about it on It’s chock full of great stuff, including lots of Apollo 13 memorabilia from Jim Lovell, who is a trustee of Adler and now runs a steak house in the Chicago area. The planetarium itself was closed for renovations during our last visit, so I’m looking forward to a longer stay, to seeing a planetarium show, and to tacking the Field Museum onto the itinerary.

The next day features a road trip to Batavia and Fermilab, where conventioneers will learn about particle physics and dark matter, and then see the play Creation’s Birthday, which is all about understanding the science and philosophies of 100 years ago. Characters include Edwin Hubble, Henrietta Leavitt, Father Georges Lemaitre, and Albert Einstein. The convention materials describe presenter Hassam Padamsee as a “playwright and CERN scientist”, a description that puts me in mind of today’s drive to educate scientists and engineers at the expense of education in the arts. As noted above we love science and arts, and don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.

July 6 is the day for the field trip to Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, and a look at the famed Alvin Clark 40-inch refractor. About eight years ago I attended a business meeting in Lake Geneva, just a hop and a skip away. Unfortunately, Yerkes was closed during my entire time there. The observatory is only open for public tours on Saturdays, so we’re lucky to get a look on a Friday with the AL group.

Finally on Saturday the Astronomical League holds its awards banquet and the Astronomy Magazine Blues Band plays a couple of sets. It all happens July 4-7 at the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort in the North Chicago suburbs. Registration materials are online here. If you can’t make it, Seattle Astronomy will likely be on hand and will post dispatches (if there’s time amid all the fun!)

Oh, yes, and there is baseball. The Cubs are on the road during this week, but the White Sox are at home. I expect I’ll sneak away for a ballgame.

Seattle Astronomy may well be a dork, but this sounds like a heavenly trip. And Astronomical League, take note: the sale was made by a blues band!