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Silent sky explores ambition in space exploration

by Corinne bellot


Portraying the advancements of women through the struggles of a group of American astronomers, the fall play “Silent Sky” will premiere on Oct. 12 at 4 p.m., with two more shows on Oct. 13 and 14 at 7 p.m.

As the actors prepare, a different atmosphere surrounds rehearsals as it is director Brent Shaphren’s last show before retiring at the end of this year. What makes Shaphren remarkable is that “he knows how to interact with his students: he’s friendly and supportive and almost always has a smile on his face. What makes him such an inspirational director is that his constructive criticism helps you not only develop your role but grow as an actor or student director,” stage manager senior Anna Blackburn said. Shaphren has taught for 21 years and began directing at West in 1998, starting with Neil Simon’s comedy “Rumors.” Since then, he has directed 20 student plays, and he notes that today “the students are more involved and take a bigger hand in the productions.”

Shaphren’s choice to allow more student decision-making hasn’t gone unappreciated. “I really enjoyed student directing and managing his last two plays because unlike other teachers, he gives me the power to input my own creative choices into the show. He asks for my opinion and really considers it before making a decision and that means a lot to me because he cares what I think,” Blackburn said.

This year’s play is about a group of female scientists from the 1900’s who are working on discoveries in space and researching the stars and nebulae. The focus is on Henrietta Leavitt and her life.

Most recent plays here “have either been modern or fantasy. This show is historical fiction, and is based off a true story, so it’s nice to have a new theme and perspective to work with,” Blackburn said.

While it has fun scenes, ultimately, “it is an empowering show about a woman who overcomes societal standards in such a crucial time for the development of the role of women in society,” Blackburn said.    

In a production that is inspired by real life events, the cast aims to put together a performance that is as accurate as possible, including in the casting itself. “What makes this play really different is that the majority of the cast are females with only one male character. A lot of emphasis is then placed on the discoveries these women made,” the only male actor in this production, senior Lucas Banks, said.  

Due to the small size of the cast, “it is very tight-knit and everyone knows they trust one another and that is very good in an environment where it you need to put yourself out there to see what works and what doesn’t,” Banks said. Along with being able to take risks, “it’s a really good casting because we’re all in one way or another experienced (with performing), which helps,” junior Monroe Torkelson, who plays the lead of Henrietta Leavitt, said.

While the actors are preparing for their time in the spotlight, a lot of work is done behind the scenes by tech crew for opening night. For the set, “there are three giant set pieces that are constantly moving around and turning into different shapes,” senior Garrett Morrison said. “We meet every day after school, and we have a lot of people, approximately 30, here to help us with lighting, sound, props, sets, everything.”

During the show, the crew works in concert with the student director. “As stage manager, I run around making sure the set is in the right place for scene one, I make sure the actors are downstairs for places and then I run up into the ceiling and call crew over the headsets so that everyone is ready for when the lights come up,” Blackburn said.

To connect the audience to the performance, “there’s a black box theatre set-up, so everyone’s going to actually be on the stage sitting there, so you’ll be right in the middle of the action,” Morrison said.

With the audience mere feet from the action and surrounding the performers on three sides, it requires a different kind of acting. “It is in a very small space up on the stage so every emotion is plainly seen, everything can be seen,” Banks said.



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