All guests will be required to wear masks, show proof of vaccination unless ineligible due to age
KINGSTON – The University of Rhode Island’s (URI) Theatre Department is shooting for the stars in its first production since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Silent Sky,” a play by Lauren Gunderson that centers on a group of female astronomers at Harvard University responsible for mapping the stars at the start of the 20th Century, debuted last week at URI’s Kingston Campus. As per the University’s policy requiring all students and faculty to be fully vaccinated, audience members must be masked and show proof of vaccination status before entering the theater, unless ineligible due to age.
“Silent Sky” represents the URI Theatre Department’s first trip back to the stage since the production of Richard III closed in the early months of 2020, nearly two years ago.
“Two years is the longest stretch with no theater production in my life,” said “Silent Sky” director and URI Theatre Professor Tracy Liz Miller . “I didn’t even take that much time off when I had my daughter. It was very strange [to be away from theatre for so long]. Also, I think not knowing when we could return was a factor of despair. It feels tremendous to be back.”
The return to live shows has brought an energy to the players and crew members of “Silent Sky’s” production, the director reported, noting the students’ eagerness to perform for an audience once again.
“I was so pleased just to be having a preproduction meeting with my stage manager and a preproduction meeting with my designer back in August,” Miller said. “That just felt so good, to be talking about the ideas of a play again. This is what we live for, and the students absolutely recognized with every part of their soul that this was a unique time for theater and for everyone. We’re really full of gratitude and I think that’s really infusing the experience with extra value.”
“Silent Sky” tells the story of Henrietta Swan, an astronomer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who measured and catalogued stars and their corresponding brightness, research and information that would eventually be used to standardize light measurements and inform scientific conclusions, such as Edwin Hubble’s law that the universe is expanding.
One of the key components of “Silent Sky” is the lack of credit bestowed upon Swan and her team for her discoveries, with many attributing the work to Swan’s male overseers. According to the play, women were not allowed access to Harvard’s telescope in the early 1900s, so photos of the instrument’s views were taken on plates and then passed to Swan for study. This kind of work had not been previously attempted, and Swan and her team spent years studying thousands of images of deep space in order to gain a better understanding of the stars above.
“It was incredibly tedious, detailed, finite work, where they’re literally sitting at a desk looking at pictures of the sky for hours upon hours and years upon years,” said Miller. “If we didn’t have this ridiculously repetitious, ‘boring’ procedure, many of the discoveries that telescope was allowing them would have never happened.”
Miller, who identifies as a big fan of Gunderson, notes the playwright’s ability to not only faithfully portray premises and stories based in science and technology, but also ground the work in human drama. In this way, Miller states, “Silent Sky” is all at once the story of the discovery of the vastness of the universe and a personal journey for Swan as she leads that effort.
“It creates a remarkably fascinating and engaging story that will interest everybody,” said Miller of “Silent Sky.” “If you’re interested in astronomy, you’re going to love it. If you’re not, you will find that the human story and challenges that go along with it are so beautiful and relatable.”
A big concern for URI’s Theatre Department was ensuring a safe and comfortable experience for guests when live productions began again. Immersion is required for an ideal viewing experience in theatrical production, and the department, combined with the University’s existing vaccine mandates, made it possible for guests to relax and feel safe with the decision to require masks and proof of vaccination for attendees.
“We want our audience to know we’re doing everything possible to make them feel safe enough to come in and enjoy this experience,” said Miller. “If they’re coming in terrified and worried, that does not benefit anyone. We wanted to make sure we were doing everything we could.”
In addition to the policies in place for the audience, Miller’s production also utilized prevention methods such as social distancing, frequent use of hand sanitizer and taking temperatures before rehearsals.
“We’re learning how to create again together,” said Miller. “It’s going to look different, and it should look different.”
Miller concluded by thanking the cast and crew of URI’s production of “Silent Sky,” noting the show would not be possible without the commitment to a safe and quality performance. Over 100 URI students took part in the production.
“Theater was one of the first things to close down and one of the last things to open back up,” said Miller. “We just waited and I just want to relate to the audience that if you come, it’s totally worth it. This is part of our community that is worthy of supporting and coming back into our lives. If you come experience this, you’ll remember. You’ll remember the wonder of storytelling.”
“Silent Sky” runs Oct. 14-16 at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 17 and 24 at 2 p.m. at URI’s Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road in Kingston. Please call the URI Theatre Box Office at (401) 874-5843 for tickets.