Juliet Bowler on Harvard's Own 'Hidden Figures'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday March 8, 2017

It's an all-too-common story, though not as familiar as it ought to be: Women in science who make significant contributions despite pervasive sexism in the field, and whose accomplishments are then claimed by male scientists, attributed to their male colleagues, or else simply forgotten.

A major Hollywood production recently brought one such sorry to the mainstream public consciousness with the Oscar-nominated feature "Hidden Figures," about a group of African-American women who, in the 1960s, did the grinding work of manually calculating complex equations to get and machines off the surface of the Earth and into space.

But such stories don't begin, or end, there; in the 1890s, a similar cadre of mathematically talented women did the hard mathematical work at the Harvard College Observatory. Among them were Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose groundbreaking discoveries laid the groundwork for subsequent -- and far more widely known -- achievements by astronomer Edwin Hubble. You have to wonder: When will a space-borne telescope named after Leavitt -- or any of her colleagues, of that matter -- be launched into orbit to peer deep into the heavens?

That day may never come, but theater has stepped into the breach. Playwright Lauren Gunderson, author of 19 full-length stage works, many of them about scientific figures, tackled the subject of Harvard's women "computers," as they were called at the time, in a play titled "Silent Sky." That play -- which has productions dating back to at least 2011 -- now arrives at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, with a production from Flat Earth Theatre.

EDGE had the chance recently to chat with "Silent Sky" star Juliet Bowler.

EDGE: What great timing for this play, given the attention that the Oscar-nominated movie 'Hidden Figures' has generated for stories about the overlooked contributions of women to science and high technology. Did you have any idea that this film was on the horizon when you undertook to appear in 'Silent Sky?'

Juliet Bowler: Not, not at all... I'm playing Williamina Fleming, one of the real life women who were called 'computers' at Harvard's Astronomical Laboratory. And I'm directing [our next production] 'Fat Pit,' so I'm doing double duty at the moment!

As a company member, as we were looking at our season, I liked this play. I thought it was phenomenal. So I passed it on to be considered. Everyone knew it was just great -- we knew we had something special, but we had no idea 'Hidden Figures'; we had no idea about [other overlooked women in science] like Millie Dresselhaus, who [has] just died -- the 'Queen of Carbon,' [who is] all of a sudden such a figure in our zeitgeist. We didn't know that we'd get caught up in the moment that really turns out to be beneficial for out show. People want to talk about this [subject of] women in science, and the overlooked contributions that have gone on for literally hundreds of years.

EDGE: If not thousands of years... I remember Carl Sagan on the original 'Cosmos,' talking about a woman in ancient Greece named Hypatia, who was a mathematician and astronomer. Speaking of which, I think I saw something about this same story, about the women at Harvard, on the new version of 'Cosmos' that was on last year.

Juliet Bowler: It was. We have three characters that appear [in this play] -- Annie Jump Cannon, played by Cassandra Meyer; Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who the story sort of revolves around -- she's played by Erin Eva Butcher; and me, playing Williamina Fleming. Annie Jump Cannon is the one featured on 'Cosmos.' She's the one who invented the star classification system we still use now, where we assign all different stars a letter based on their color: O, B, A, F, G, K, and M. I have no idea what O, B, A, F, G, K, M means, other than the acronym that she came up with: 'Oh, Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me.' But I now I learned it at some point in school.

EDGE: You know, I can't believe they wouldn't even let the women working on astronomy at Harvard touch the telescopes. That makes no sense to me.

Juliet Bowler: It comes up several times in the play. One thing that we did was we had a photo shoot with myself, Cassandra, and Erin, where we got to go to the great refractor. I became incredibly emotional, realizing I was starting at this telescope, closer to it than Williamina Fleming ever got in her lifetime. And yet... she discovered the Horsehead Nebula.

EDGE: Given the many contributions of women in science that men often get all the credit for -- such as the story of Rosalind Franklin --

Juliet Bowler: She was one of the first ones who just came into my mind!

EDGE Right, her research was crucial to Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA, and it was decades until she got any recognition. Do we need to start rewriting our history books?

Juliet Bowler: I think we absolutely do. A lot of the progress we've made in the past -- say, 6,000 years; that sounds like a fair period of time -- has been made by men standing on women's shoulders. Maybe these aren't the sexiest discoveries and inventions from the times [they were made], but they're the ones that propel forward people like Hubble, to actually be able to measure the size of the universe.

Prior to Henrietta Leavitt's discovery that we could start tracking the distances between stars, using their relative brightness and Cepheid stars, we didn't actually know how to calculate distance [between the Earth and the stars] other than putting two people on opposite sides of the planet at the exact same time and having them calculate the distance [based on the parallax, or slight difference in a star's position as visible at each of the two locations on Earth] from the Earth to a [specific] star. So there was no way to go from that first star to the second to the third, and so forth. Once Henrietta Leavitt discovered that, the universe literally opened wide for us.

EDGE: Do you have a science background, or an interest in astronomy and other sciences?

Juliet Bowler: I love science. I would be lying if I said, as an actor, that I was a scientist in any fashion -- I mean, I studied drama. But I do fall asleep listening to things like 'Cosmos,' or to PBS specials on the universe and the Hubble telescope. This sounds crazy, but I hope some day in my lifetime we find proof that somewhere other than Earth there is life -- even if it's just a single-cell organism. I always say if I find that out before I die, I can die happy. I don't like the idea of being alone [in the universe] and it's so vast! So yes, you could say I do have a great interest in this and I think it's fair to say everyone involved in this process, at least on some level, is fascinated by astronomy.

EDGE: So it must have been fairly easy for you to being that sense of enthusiasm to the interpretation of this role.

Juliet Bowler: Certainly. We're always sharing with each other stories about different scientists, different discoveries -- like those seven planets that are similar to Earth. [The news reports] went through our Facebook group like crazy. We're always bringing in books -- like the one about the women who should be modern day princesses. Annie Jump Cannon's in that. We do a little show and tell every rehearsal where we say, 'This is the new thing that I found. This is a new piece of information.' It's wonderful. It's been a great experience.

EDGE: Women are also often overlooked in theater --

Juliet Bowler: [Exasperated laughter]

EDGE: Women don't often get such interesting roles, don't have a chance to star in or direct or produce plays as often as men, or even see or tell stories about women with the same frequency as stories about male figures. But this production, which is quite well staffed by female artists and designers, seems to be making up for that to some extent.

Juliet Bowler: At times we feel bad for Marcus [Hunter], who plays Peter [Shaw, assistant to Edward Pickering, the Harvard Observatory's director at the time of the play's setting] because he is truly the only man in the room! But he's wonderful, so he's allowed. We let him in.


It's great to have an largely female staff, and Flat Earth has a lot of women who are participants in the company itself. And our male allies are great, too! I think we're trying slowly to right some of those wrongs. It's hard when there's not a ton of plays out there that give you the opportunity for women to be seen and heard, but one thing I like about Flat Earth is they are very good about finding those plays where women have interesting stories to tell, and they aren't just related to 'girlfriend / wife / mother.' In this play there's a romance, but it's definitely on the side of less important, versus the relationship between Henrietta and her sister, and Henrietta and Annie and Williamina in the actual Harvard Astronomical Lab.

EDGE: You mentioned earlier that you will be directing Flat Earth's next production -- a stage version of Neil LaBute's 'Fat Pig.' From uncovering the hidden work of brilliant women to diving into the work of one of our most controversial male writers... what a switch!

Juliet Bowler: I think in a way it works because one of the things we wanted to do with the season was 'the underside exposed; the stories that you didn't hear.' Very few people, up until recently, were familiar with the stories of these women scientists who have made such great contributions to astronomy. But we also don't see, for example, a lot of representation of body diversity on stage, good, bad or otherwise. As an actress who is also plus-size, I find I have to be careful when I audition for roles because I know there are some things I'll just never be considered for, regardless of whether or not weight would even be an issue. In choosing 'Fat Pig' we wanted to pick a play that was tough and brutal, and -- I think the word that I like best -- unflinching. It shows something that you just don't see on stage every day. Lindsay Eagle, who is also a company member, will be starring in the piece as Helen, the overweight woman, and I'm proud of her because I think it's a brave step. It's not an easy part, and it's not an easy play -- but I think it's something that we need to see represented on stage. Representation matters.

EDGE: Offhand, I can't think of many plays about women scientists being portrayed as scientists, as doing the actual work of science... Central Square Theater does some work along these lines, and they've had productions of 'Arcadia' and 'Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight,' also written by Lauren Gunderson...

Juliet Bowler: We were lucky. We hit a few this year when we were considering out season that were 'women in science' based. I know that [Flat Earth company member] Amy Lehrmitt and myself both liked those plays a lot. One play we thought was great as 'Delicate Particle Logic,' which was about these two women, one of them [painter Edith Junghands] married to [famed chemist Otto Hahn] and one, [the physicist Lise Meitner], working with [Hahn], and how their lives wove together around him. There's also 'Photograph 51,' about [Rosalind Franklin, a chemist], which is a great play. It was in London a few years ago with Nicole Kidman in the leading role -- it's also an extraordinary piece about a woman who makes these amazing discoveries, and then not only doesn't get credit for [her work] but, again, as happens with a lot of these female scientists, dies very young, before even the Nobel Prize come her way or there's any recognition.

EDGE: Right,. That's right, 'Photograph 51' was also at the Central Square Theater a few seasons back.

Juliet Bowler: It's a great, great piece.

"Silent Sky" will run from March 10 - 25 at The Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.flatearththeatre.com


Related Story

Silent Sky

Read More »
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.