Friday, July 20, 2018

"Where there is space, there is wonder." Summit Performance: Silent Sky

Space Equals Wonder

We counted our lucky stars last Saturday night that we were able to reserve tickets for the play “Silent Sky” written by Lauren Gunderson and directed by Lori Wolter Hudson, the inaugural production of an exciting new theater group: Summit Performance.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the play from the Summit website:
“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.”

Summit was founded by local actor and director Lauren Briggeman to serve as a place for women to showcase their theater talents. The shows not only feature women, but they feature women’s stories, as opposed to featuring women who support men’s stories. As much as possible, the scripts, direction, and design will be women-focused as well.

I attended an informational meeting about this new group back in March, and although the intent is to give women a chance in an arena in which they are mostly in the fringes, it is not anti-man, or anti-male. Consider the following statistics, posted under the section “Why a Women-Focused Theatre Company?”

Gender parity is a major problem in the professional theatre arts across the United States. According to the results of a study conducted by The League of Professional Theatre Women spanning five theatrical seasons (2010-2015), women make up a minority of:

Produced/employed playwrights (30%)

Directors (33%)

Set designers (less than 33%)

Lighting designers (ranging between 8% and 16% over the five seasons)

Sound designers (ranging between 14% and 22%).

This is not only a problem in the United States, but overseas as well.  A study conducted by The Guardian surveyed the top ten subsidized theatres in England over the 2011-2012 season and found similar numbers. They found that women make up a minority of:

Directors (24%)

Actors (38%)

All ‘Creative Crew’ positions (23%)   (all directors, lighting, sound, and set designers, and composers)

Interestingly however, in both countries women make up the majority (over 60%) of theatre-goers/ticket buyers.

If it has to be explained to you why the need for such opportunities exist, and you get offended by the word “feminism,” I invite you to revisit the statistics above, particularly the last one. I have heard a bit of whining about IndyFringe’s Diva Fest and Onyx Fest--play writing festivals for women and African Americans, respectively. What I haven’t seen is any men or white people being sidelined in theater or elsewhere for that matter because such opportunities exist for marginalized groups.

This play is getting outstanding feedback from patrons. It is exquisitely written, tightly paced, and full of emotion, punctuated by a minimalist set and poignant sound and light design.

I had a chat with Carrie Ann Schlatter, who portrayed Henrietta Leavitt, earlier this week. Schlatter has been in probably a hundred  plays, and she has said that this was her favorite and the most important of all the plays she's done. Having known her for more than a decade, I have never heard her speak with such urgency:

“It is important for us to do this right now, today, because of the political environment we’re in. We need to improve the way we approach women’s stories. This play would be powerful at any time, but right now, on the heels of the Me Too movement and with the current administration, it means that much more.

“I understand the play might not be considered far-reaching, that it’s not the kind of play that will draw out people who don’t normally attend theater, but the people who are attending are feeling a sense of connectedness.

“I’ve been approached by so many people following our performances--women with teenage daughters who want to show them what passion and determination look like;  women who had similar experiences with families who would not offer moral support when they were shunned for going against societal norms and daring to use their minds. One woman brought her elderly mother who cried through the whole production because it was as if she were watching her own story. Men are connecting with it too, perhaps identifying with a woman they love through the eyes of Henrietta’s experience.

“There is an incredible amount of wonder in the story--we have succeeded in showing that space equals wonder, a fantasy of space. Our production shows that--it collides fantasy with realism. Real feelings, real connections.

“Summit is proud of what we do--allowing women to express their power, highlighting their experience, not just giving opportunity to women, but highlighting women.

All around been it has been magical.”

While she was speaking of space as in astronomy, given the mission of the theater group, she could have just as well been speaking of space as a platform. Summit is giving women space--space to excel without fear, and with that space comes wonder. A wonder it has taken so long to get to the starting line and a wonder what other great things women can do when they take the reins, even when that means inviting scrutiny from those who prefer to see them in the margins.

I have just learned that the final weekend of this play is sold out. I am sorry for your loss if you don’t get to see it, but not to worry, Summit has another production planned for later this year.

Summit Performance
Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center
705 N Illinois St., Indy

Photos courtesy Summit Performance Facebook Page

Molly Garner, Devian Mathias, Carrie Ann Schlatter, Gigi Jennewein

Adam Tran, Carrie Ann Schlatter

Stage Manager: Danielle Buckel
Scenic Designer: Abigail Copeland
Costume Designer: Brittany Kugler
Lighting Designer: Laura Glover
Set Construction: Troy Trinkle
Set Construction/Props: Krista Layfield
Dialect Coach: Chelsea Anderson
Producer: Lauren Briggeman

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