Pygmalion Productions ends their season on a high note with the semi-biographical play Silent Sky
(April 28 - May 13). The production focuses on Henrietta Leavitt, one of Harvard's woman "computers" from the early 20th century, and the pioneering work she did in astronomy at the university as she struggled to get recognition in a male-dominated field. Today we chat with director Mark Fossen, as well as actresses Brenda Hattingh and Hannah Minshew, about the play and their time working on it before the show opens at the Rose Wagner Center. (All pictures provided courtesy of Pygmalion Productions.
Mark Fossen, Brenda Hattingh & Hannah Minshew
Gavin: First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
I’m a local director and actor, currently finishing up my MFA at the University of Idaho. I’m married to local actress April Fossen, and dad to two wonderful girls.
I have been in Utah for eight years, but just got involved in the theater scene a year ago. My boyfriend and I have two wonderful dogs together. The four of us hike, camp and go on road trips together. I paint pet portraits and am also a musician.
What have each of you been up to in local theatre over the past year?
My first Utah acting role was a year ago performing in Stage Kiss
, also directed by Mark Fossen with Wasatch Theatre Company. Then I went to the San Diego Fringe festival with Morag Shepherd's Poppie's In The Sand
with Sackerson Theatre Company. I also did a reading with Plan-B. I'm really enjoying getting to know this wonderful SLC theatre community! Such a great, inspiring, innovative crowd.
I graduated from Westminster College with a BFA in Theatre Performance last April and I've been working as an actor here in SLC.
I directed Bellwether
by Steve Yockey at Westminster College last fall, and just directed A Streetcar Named Desire
at The Grand last month.
Mark, how did you first come across Silent Sky?
I came across Lauren Gunderson’s I and You
, and was utterly blown away when I read it. (I’m not alone—Lauren is the most-produced living playwright in America this season!) And when I find a playwright like that, I usually binge-read as much as I can. She has a series of plays about women in math and science through history, and Silent Sky
really stood out to me with its clarity and beauty.
What were your initial thoughts on the play and Henrietta Leavitt as a person?
Honestly, I was shocked I’d never heard of her! I enjoy science, astronomy and physics in particular, and have read and watched a lot of history on it. And in all that time, I’d never heard of the woman who discovered the size of the universe. It immediately drove home to me the point of the play: recognizing the contributions women have made historically to science. That combined with the beauty of the play itself really spoke to me.
How did the opportunity come about to direct it for Pygmalion?
As with so many things, it began over lunch with Teresa Sanderson. She’s a board member at Pygmalion, and mentioned they were looking for plays about women in history to pair with Mary & Myra
. The light bulb went off, and I was excited to get her the script. She brought it to the board, and I think they loved it just as much as I did.
What steps did you take to make this play more unique to Pygmalion rather than just doing the standard play?
The script itself is so perfectly in line with Pygmalion’s mission statement, that there’s not much that needs to be done. Not only that, but it’s a perfect play for the space Pygmalion performs in. It’s a play about the sky and the stars and fits perfectly with the high ceilings and open space of the Black Box at the Rose Wagner Center. When a play fits that perfectly, it makes the work a lot easier.
Brenda and Hannah, what did you think of the play on your first read?
Mark emailed me the script and I read it in one sitting. I was crying by the end of it, but also had this feeling of inspiration and hope. It's the type of play that makes you feel like anything is possible and achievable.
I instantly fell in love with this play. The story is so human. Henrietta is passionate, driven, funny and smart. It's hard not to fall in love with her. I believe when I finished the play, I put the script down, sat in silence for a good two minutes and just said "Oh my God!" It effortlessly combines science and art. It's intoxicatingly delightful.
What was it like auditioning for the show and being invited to perform?
The audition was great! When I read with Brenda, I felt a real connection with her. When Mark called and offered the role of Henrietta to me, I was speechless.
I initially read for the part of Annie Cannon, but at the last minute, during callbacks, Mark asked me to read for Margaret. I was completely thrown for a loop, as she is the exact opposite of Annie Cannon! And then I was cast as Margaret. It took me a while to wrap my head around that. I didn't really see myself as a Margaret type of person. But when I read the script again and when we started rehearsing, I found so much beauty, humanity and loveliness and her. And her struggle with being a religious person in a changing world with a sister who looks at the heavens from a different perspective became very interesting to me. She is an incredibly rich character with many layers, and it's an honor to portray her.
What was your experience like in finding these real-life people within yourselves and bringing them out?
It turns out that Henrietta Leavitt didn't actually have a sister named Margaret. It seems Lauren Gunderson took some artistic license in creating this role with the intent of creating a beautiful, very pivotal moment in the play. I love researching the actual people that I play, so it was interesting to find out that she didn't actually exist. But it also gave me a kind of artistic license and forced me to really look at who this person was that Gunderson created. I think she's also creating an interesting dialogue about religion versus science. Margaret could be played as a sort of "villain," fighting the scientific progress her sister is geared towards. But I thought it was much more interesting to approach it from Margaret's viewpoint of love and concern. And instead of focusing on that drama of friction, it creates a very interesting dynamic within the landscape of the play. I think especially in a place like Utah, religion versus science is an interesting aspect of our culture and this storyline of love and support through the lens of opposing views and beliefs, is not new to Utahns. Perhaps it will spark some healing conversations among family members of different beliefs.
Henrietta is a complicated person. She's human, which means she's not perfect. It's really easy to relate to her and her struggles/triumphs because they're universal.
How was it working with each other and the rest of the cast on the show?
The cast and crew for this show are fabulous! Everyone is so kind. There's a lot of love in the room.
I love the cast! I think Hannah and I work a little bit differently as actors and we had to do some work outside of rehearsal, which included dinner and drinks, haha. We just needed to get to know each other a little bit in order to strengthen that bond on stage. It's all part of a process that I love. Watching the rest of the cast and interacting with them on and off stage has also been incredible. I've seen Liz Golden in another show, and I've heard so much about how amazing Teresa Sanderson is as an actress. It was a bit daunting to work with them, but they are the warmest, most welcoming, inspiring and supportive women to share the stage with. I haven't worked with Michael or seen him perform before, but his work has been incredible as well and it's been inspiring watching him develop his character.
I was fortunate to get a really outstanding cast for this show, and it’s been a privilege being in the room with them all. I’ve worked with everyone before in some capacity or another, and it’s been great to bring them all together and play with these characters.
What kind of impact do you hope this show's story and message has on audiences?
First off, I hope that I can bring the same reaction to audiences that I had when I first read the script: “How on earth did I not know about Henrietta Leavitt and all the Harvard Computers? And why?” I’d also hope that I can share my passion for the beauty of the science to the audience. Theater and science shouldn’t be strangers to each other, and discoveries like Henrietta’s speak not only to science but to the wonder of our existence. It’s powerful stuff on a lot of levels, and I hope that comes across.
It's an important story to hear. I had no idea about the work the human computers had done at the HCO. Without them, so much of what we know today wouldn't be known. They deserve to have their story told.
I think even in this day and age, it's still easy for women to take a backseat in society. I think women who choose to be mothers and focus on family are amazing, but that hasn't been my route in life. I just hope that women of any age who come to see this show will be inspired to follow their dreams whatever they may be. And even beyond that, I think this is a show that would inspire anyone who is facing unfavorable odds in what they're trying to achieve in life. But I think it's also interesting that Henrietta Leavitt gave up so much for her goals. It's worth it to think about what you may miss out on in life when your goals start overshadowing your personal life.
How has it been for all of you to work together and bring Silent Sky alive?
It's been a wonderful experience. This cast is so talented and Mark knows how to bring out specific moments that make the show shine. Literally in this case. Everyone including the designers and Jen Pett, our production manager, have just been a joy to work with. There's just so much talent, mutual respect, and dedication.
It’s been a lot of fun. There’s a lot of laughter and love in the room every night, and that’s a joy to be a part of. It’s a special thing as a director to assemble a cast of people you love and respect, then see them all love and respect each other, building a small family over the course of a few weeks.
It's been an absolute delight. Full stop.
What are your thoughts going into opening night and being the last production of this season?
I’m looking forward to seeing it all come together! We have an amazing design team, and we’re just at the stage right now where the talks and drawings will all start to come to life and create a whole world on stage. I can’t wait to see their vision, and how it helps the actors tell the story.
Very excited. I hope the word gets out. I love this story so much and I want to share it with everyone!
Opening night is always a bit daunting for me, but also extremely exciting. I think we'll be more than ready for it and anxious to have an audience to respond to the show. As for being the last show of the season, I love the work that Pygmalion does in the grander scheme of focusing on women in theater and in history. I think this play is a beautiful way to end the season and I hope it will inspire people to look forward to (and attend) the next season!
What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year?
After Silent Sky
, I will be in Pinnacle Acting Company's The Importance of Being Earnest
. Then I'll be moving to London to begin graduate school at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
I'm actually not sure yet. I have a couple things possibly in the works, but nothing is set in stone yet. I just hope to continue to explore this amazing theater community and get more involved in it.
I’ll be performing with Plan-B Theatre in (in)divisible
in June, then in Blackbird
at Utah Rep in July. After that, I have a bit of a break while I wrap up my MFA, followed by directing at Pinnacle Acting Company and The Grand Theatre.