Theatrical production ‘Silent Sky’ coming to the Versant Power Astronomy Center

An Orono-based theatre company’s next show involves reaching for the stars … with a little assistance from some University of Maine expertise.

True North Theatre’s latest production is “Silent Sky,” written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by TNT artistic director Angela Bonacasa. It’s based on the true story of 19th century astronomer Henrietta Leavitt and the many challenges she faced as a woman in the male-dominated world of astronomy. Partnering with TNT on this piece is the Versant Power Astronomy Center and Maynard Jordan Planetarium, where performances will take place.

When Henrietta Leavitt begins work at the Harvard Observatory in the early 1900s, she isn’t allowed to touch a telescope or express an original idea. Instead, she joins a group of women “computers,” charting the stars for a renowned astronomer who calculates projects in “girl hours” and has no time for the women’s probing theories. As Henrietta, in her free time, attempts to measure the light and distance of stars, she must also take measure of her life on Earth, trying to balance her dedication to science with family obligations and the possibility of love.

Performances of “Silent Sky” are scheduled as follows:

Thursdays, March 23 & 30 – 7 PM

Friday, March 24 – 7 PM

Saturday, April 1 – 2 PM & 7 PM

Sundays, March 26 & April 2 – 4 PM

Tickets are $20 and are available online, by calling 207-581-1341 or by visiting the box office prior to the performance.

(Note: There will be a post-performance talkback following the 2 PM performance on April 1. Additionally, there will be a post-show stargazing session following the 7 PM performance on April 1, weather permitting.)

True North Theatre has long had a relationship with the University of Maine’s School of Performing Arts – Bonacasa is an instructor in the Department of Theatre and UMaine’s Cyrus Pavilion Theatre has played host to many of TNT’s productions over the years. The troupe had yet to engage in this level of interdisciplinary collaboration, though the truth is that this particular partnership has been a long time coming.

“We had originally planned to do this show back in 2020, before the pandemic,” said Bonacasa. “Basically, we’ve been waiting for over two years for the time to be right again. And now, finally, it is.”

Bonacasa spoke to the resonance a show like this has in the current moment.

“This is an important story to tell right now,” she said. “It’s a look at an underexplored part of our history – scientific history, women’s history, you name it. It really strikes me how one person bucking a trend can literally change history.

“That’s what Henrietta Leavitt and the other women portrayed in this show did. And really, all they needed was a chance.”

For Shawn Laatsch, Director of the Versant Power Astronomy Center, “Silent Sky” was a chance to revisit a past collaborative success.

“Angela reached out to me about this project in late 2019 as she had heard about ‘Constellations,’ a play we did with UMaine’s Theatre Department back in 2016. It was a great success and we sold out every showing; audiences loved it as our venue’s visualization capabilities really enhanced the performance.”

“Silent Sky” is a different sort of show than “Constellations,” but shares some key elements – a connection to the astronomical, a small cast – that make it a great fit for a partnership such as this one. Productions of “Silent Sky” have been done in other planetariums across the United States and beyond.

The Versant Center’s technological capabilities are a major contributing factor to the viability of the project as well.

“We are using our digital projection system to show the sky as a digital set, putting the actors into a variety of settings and showcasing the work of Henrietta Leavitt,” Laatsch said. “Since the play looks at her contributions to creating the stellar classification system astronomers still use today, the venue is perfect for showing this.”

Laatsch will be running the projections during performances and has spent time with Bonacasa and the cast to help provide some historical background and context on the real-life people that are being portrayed on stage.

It’s a level of involvement for which Bonacasa is extremely grateful.

“Shawn has been very generous with both the space and his own time,” she said. “He brought in the designers for a tour, he reached out to other facilities that had helped produce the show, he went through all of the projections with us. It’s just been a great collaboration.”

The collaborative benefits definitely go both ways, as far as Laatsch is concerned.

“These types of events help us reach new audiences and expand the University of Maine’s community outreach,” he said. “The planetarium is always looking for ways to collaborate with community groups and partner on special events like this one.”

“Silent Sky” is a fascinating story about fascinating figures, while this production also serves as a prime example of the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration. Astronomy and theatre might not be a conventional pairing, but there’s little doubt on the part of the participants that it will prove an effective one.

For more information, visit the Versant Power Astronomy Center website here or the True North Theatre Facebook page here.