With Peter Shaw (Jay Clift), Henrietta Leavitt (Emma Slipp) unfurls the exciting discoveries of an unsung heroine in her field. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

Actress Emma Slipp excited to celebrate achievements of unsung female scientist

At the turn of the 20th century, Harvard’s female ‘computers’ are a close-knit, unappreciated group.

Emma Slipp, who stars as scientist Henrietta Leavitt, is excited to bring a special person to life in the Chemainus Theatre’s production of Silent Sky from Oct. 13 to Nov. 4.

“She’s an extraordinary woman who did not get the recognition she deserved in her lifetime. It’s so exciting to be a part of giving that to her now.”

Henrietta isn’t old when the story starts, but the play encompasses many years of her life.

“It starts off about at the age that I’m at now and then transitions. And she was only in her 50s when she died.”

Those were different days.

“They all worked so hard, those women. They were all losing their sight because the work was so specific and detailed, the hours were long, they were in quite a lot of pain because they were sitting in corsets all day, sitting up straight and writing these tiny, tiny little notes with cramped hands. We don’t have any idea nowadays.”

Women had few options in the workplace.

“That’s what the justification was: women were particularly good at this work and they were only allowed to do this work.”

The idea that they could have a thought in their heads was a different thing altogether.

“They made pretty amazing discoveries which helped open up so many things. It is kind of neat that they were doing it subversively, making these discoveries.”

Luckily, the women had each other, she said.

“For some of them it was a very active choice. For some it was out of necessity because they had to work to support themselves. One of the characters in the show plays a woman whose husband abandoned her when she was pregnant and she gets a job as a housekeeper and from there gets hired to do this work. So, she had a lot on her shoulders.

“Other characters, like myself, were lucky enough to be educated and passionate about the work, and had to make an active choice not to have a family, not to have things like you would expect from a normal life. She’d have faced a lot of judgment.

“But they were very lucky, too, because there was this group of women, the Harvard Computers, and they were all alike, the same tribe. They were able to form really strong friendships and professional connections. That was a gift, because a generation earlier that wasn’t even an option. A lot was happening in this time period. Rules were being broken and things were being busted wide open. These women were a part of that.”

History aside, Slipp is working with Anita Wittenberg, long a favourite with Chemainus audiences.

“I have not worked with Anita before and I have wanted to for years. It’s really special to be here with her on her return to Chemainus. She’s in heaven. She’s just soaking up every moment of it. She plays a great character, too. She’s going to be so much fun.”

There have been a few difficulties in getting ready for Silent Sky.

Top of that list for the actor is the scientific lingo.

“The amount of scientific terminology, physics theory, and math! I am an actor, and definitely an artsy kind of person. I was not good at science in school and it has been a very long time since I have paid much attention in detail to this sort of thing. So to be someone who not only knows these things but is so passionate and committed and really, really needs to know and discover.”

Slipp has had help.

“I’ve been so blessed. I’ve had volunteers in the community, who I am grateful to. We put a call out saying I needed help with my lines because I barely leave the stage and some of the things I am saying are quite complex and they have to come out easily.”

She found, however, that there were similarities between Henrietta and herself.

“Being an actor is not an easy life choice in any time period and I have had to make similar choices to her to focus my life around my work. That brings me so much joy and it does for her as well. I’ve definitely tapped in that way.”

Slipp said she also had a strong mentor, her Aunt Shirley, who was an academic.

“She made the choice to not have a family and focus on work. She was very driven and passionate and so I had her as a role model. I’m channeling her a bit. I’ve been lucky to have strong female archetypes in my life and to be able to honour them. Also, doing the historical research on these women, I’ve also been able to connect with them. Definitely I come from fiery stock.”

Audiences are going to find all kinds of interesting nuggets in this play.

“It is a little difficult to describe but I think audiences will learn something, but there is also talk about different kinds of faith and there’s a little bit of romance, which is always fun. But the story itself is about what these women achieved.

“It’s quite witty, too, very smart. The set, and the lighting design and the projection design and the original composition, the period costumes, the beautiful poetic language, is really going to make quite a stunning piece of art. I wish I could see it when I’m in it.”

Call the box office at 1-800-565-7738 or at www.chemainustheatrefestival.ca


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Although romance is not a main aspect of the story, Peter and Henrietta do have a warm relationship in the play. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

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