Much like the popular 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” Lauren Gunderson’s play “Silent Sky” tells the story of women being overlooked by history.
It’s subject matter that’s particularly compelling to Lydia Nightingale, who plays female astronomer Henrietta Leavitt in the Schenectady Civic Players production of Gunderson’s work from 2011, opening Friday at the Schenectady Civic Playhouse.
“I believe in the power of a live theatrical performance to really teach people about history,” said Nightingale, a 2007 Shenendehowa High School graduate who earlier this year got her master’s in public history at the University at Albany. “History is extremely interesting to me, and this woman, Henrietta Leavitt, was a real person who may be my favorite character ever. She’s a person who has to come to terms with the fact that she’s not going to get the credit she deserves. She’s in the shadows of history.”
While “Hidden Figures” was the story of black women working as “computers,” struggling against the male hierarchy in the U.S. space program in the early 1960s, “Silent Sky” goes back a half-century earlier and looks at the plight of the first female scientists working at the Harvard University Observatory.
“She was in love with the stars and when she finally gets the opportunity to work at one of the top observatories in the country, she finds out pretty quickly that women who work there are expected to do the math,” said Nightingale. “They don’t get to work on their own ideas or projects, and any discoveries they make, the men are going to get the credit. Any good ideas they may have will be taken over by men.”
Jennifer Van Iderstyne is directing the Schenectady Civic production, which also stars Cara Juras, Carol Charniga, Melissa Brown and Thomas Swimm.
Nightingale’s connection to the play began in September when the Museum of Innovation and Science (miSci) in Schenectady held a stage reading.
“I saw a posting for auditions and I thought to myself, this sounds very interesting with some very interesting characters,” remembered Nightingale. “So I sent in my resume and a head shot, and they asked me if I wanted to play the lead. I was thrilled.”
Valerie Rapson, chief astronomer for the Dudley Observatory at miSci, was at the stage reading and hopes to get to the show sometime over the next two weekends.
“The play was inspiring,” said Rapson, who got her Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences and technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Henrietta Leavitt overcomes personal and professional struggles to become one of history’s most famous female astronomers. The actors really bring to life the passion that Leavitt and her colleagues had for astronomy, and the drive Leavitt had to not let anything stand in the way of her being successful as a professional scientist. The show was humorous and entertaining. Great for children and adults alike.”
The reading at miSci went so well that Siena College contacted Nightingale and asked her if she could do it again at Siena this past March. That event was also well-received, and a few days later Nightingale got another call asking her if she would come in and audition for a production being done by the Civic Players this summer.
“People have enjoyed this show so much that we ended up doing it again and again,” said Nightingale, who along with Charniga is the only other cast member to be involved in the Civic production as well as the two stage readings. “It’s very much like ‘Hidden Figures’ and it also reminds me of another play I did at Curtain Call, ‘These Shining Lives,” which was about the “radium girls” who got cancer from the work they did in a watch factory, and how those women were exploited.”
Nightingale was a senior at Shenendehowa when she performed in the New York State Theatre Institute production of the musical “Reunion.” A story about living in the North during the American Civil War, “Reunion” provided Nightingale with the opportunity to act with a mostly professional cast and to show off her fine vocal talents. More recently, she has concentrated on writing, and one of her plays, “Adele in Germany,” was a finalist in the 2015 Riant Theatre’s Strawberry One-Act Festival in New York City.
“I loved doing ‘Reunion’ and I still talk to people about that show,” said Nightingale, who considers Abraham Lincoln one of her favorite Americans and also enjoys researching the lives of German women doing World War II. “I haven’t done much singing lately, except for karaoke, but I’d love to take voice lessons again and do some more singing. But nowadays my passion is writing and the theater, and telling history through the theater.”
While she currently works as an administrator at Albany Medical Center, Nightingale would love to concentrate solely on writing more plays.
“Having my play finish second at the Strawberry Festival in New York was pretty cool, but doing a show in New York convinced me that I wasn’t ready for it yet,” said Nightingale, who before earning her graduate degree at UAlbany majored in theater at SUNY New Paltz. “It was very stressful and overstimulating. Now I think it’s time I got back to a bigger city, where I could work in the museum field and really bring the theater very heavily into any project I do.”
‘Tempest’ at Saratoga
Nightingale’s romantic partner in the 2007 NYSTI production of “Reunion” was Stillwater’s David Girard, who is now serving as associate artistic director for Saratoga Shakespeare. This summer’s opening production, a one-hour adaptation of “The Tempest,” will be performed Friday and Saturday not at Congress Park but on the grounds of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center at the Reflecting Pool.
Union College professor Marcus Dean Fuller directs a cast that includes mostly Equity actors based in New York City as well as members of Saratoga Shakespeare’s Young Theatre Professional Company.
“The Tempest” is Shakespeare’s play from 1610, set on a remote island where the sorcerer, Prospero, lives with his daughter and two servants. Filled with themes of magic, betrayal, revenge and family, “The Tempest” is considered one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote by himself.
The season’s major production will be “King Lear,” beginning Tuesday, July 23, and running through Aug. 3.
WHERE: Schenectady Civic Playhouse, 12 South Church St., Schenectady
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. July 26, 2:30 and 8 p.m. July 27, and 2:30 p.m. July 28
HOW MUCH: $20
MORE INFO: www.civicplayers.org
WHERE: Saratoga Shakespeare, at the Reflecting Pool at SPAC, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 2 and 5 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.saratogashakespeare.com
WHERE: Saratoga Shakespeare, Congress Park, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Aug. 3
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.saratogashakespeare.com