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An Extraordinary Star

Astronomy, the achievements of women of science, and our place in the universe are all explored in an ATC production that features a gifted, Tucson-based performer.

Scott Barker

“There’s so much that’s relatable for me,” observes Veronika Duerr about the character she portrays in Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Silent Sky. “In the very opening moments of the play, Henrietta is onstage by herself looking up at the sky, and she admits to always searching for something extraordinary. That she’s never been able to be satisfied with just enough. And I have always felt like that; I have a desire to live an extraordinary life. To do something extra special.”

Image of Veronika Duerr
Veronika Duerr Photo by Vanie Poyey

Duerr’s life has, indeed, been a series of exceptional accomplishments, and she can add Silent Sky in bold characters to that list. Lauren Gunderson’s play, based on real-life Harvard College Observatory astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, takes audiences both on the scientific search for where we are in the universe, as well as where each of us fits into the glittering expanse of humanity.

It is a perfect fit for Duerr, who — having just recently moved to Tucson with her husband Sean and their baby — is navigating a new world. And she has long been an explorer, both of the cities in which she’s lived, but also the craft of the theater.

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, she discovered her calling when she was barely out of diapers. “My parents took me to the theater, and I remember the first play I saw being a touring musical production of Peter Pan when I was in kindergarten,” she reflects. “The next day in school all I would do is draw pictures of the different scenes and tell everybody what had happened, and about the sets and costumes. I was just enamored of it.”

It wasn’t long before she was watching mainstage productions at Atlanta’s prestigious Alliance Theatre, and dreaming of the day when she would be in the footlights. Showing her talents in school productions was a big step in her development. “I would say that I was a drama kid through and through,” she says of her formative years. “I didn’t miss out on any high school experiences, but I was so super-focused that I was doing community theater, as well as theater programs downtown, drama camps, productions at school, drama club and all that.”

She enrolled at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she prepared to lead a far-from-ordinary life of telling truths through the art of professional make-believe. After graduating, she took a big leap of faith. “I started a theatre company called The Weird Sisters Theatre Project,” she notes, “which is committed to putting women into the power positions of director, playwright and producer. That came about because when I was living in Atlanta in my 20s and trying to get directing and producing jobs, fairly often I would be passed over for an untested male. I was like, ‘Let’s just build something where we can create a body of work to represent ourselves, and then maybe we’ll start getting the work that we want.’”

Named for characters in Macbeth, the theater company has given a huge boost to the careers of the women who produced and directed its productions. “Everybody involved has really benefited from it, and it’s been awesome,” says Duerr.

Her journey to the Old Pueblo encompassed numerous trips back and forth across the country for job opportunities. “I went from Atlanta to New York, back to Atlanta, then LA, Atlanta, then Lowell, Massachusetts, and finally Arizona. I always went back to Atlanta to save up some money before the next adventure!” she says with a laugh.

The adventures show no signs of letting up. Though ATC audiences will watch her portray a scientist from 100 years ago, theatergoers in Scotland recently saw her in a very different role. “It’s really out there,” she says of her one-woman show. “It’s called GLOCKENSPIELSEXPARTYBAVARIA GOODBYE. It’s a fast, funny, sexy comedy about an agoraphobic phone sex dominatrix who goes on a whirlwind journey through Bavaria, as well as deep within herself, to rescue a friend in need from the claws of a mythical beast.”

Duerr wrote the piece with her New York-based friend Johnny Drago, and despite the nontraditional subject matter, she says she can identify with key components. “I have a social anxiety disorder that can manifest itself in agoraphobia, and I’ve worked on that my entire life,” she reveals. “My parents came over from Germany in the 1970s, and all my family still lives there in a small town. I knew that I wanted to touch on the ideas of agoraphobia, but also someone who is capable of being an extrovert, and to be whoever other people need her to be, but can’t always do it for herself.”

Though Silent Sky wasn’t written specifically for her, it easily could have been. Playwright Lauren Gunderson, a longtime friend of Duerr and her husband, explains, “Since I first wrote the play, I have always wanted Veronika to do this role.”

Photo of Playwright Lauren Gunderson
Playwright Lauren Gunderson Photo by Kirsten Lara Getchall

Gunderson is very comfortable writing about science, and the roles that women have had in discoveries, and this play gives her the opportunity to explore things from several sides. “One reason I wanted to write it is that oftentimes we see stories of women — even celebrated, strong characters — but they are alone,” she elaborates. “They are in a man’s world, or they are only in the world of their family. What’s interesting about this story is Henrietta is one of several incredibly brilliant female scientists who worked at the Harvard Observatory at the same time. So we have the characters of Willamina Fleming and Annie Cannon, both true, historical characters, as well as Henrietta. And then we added Henrietta’s sister Margaret, who held a more traditional female role, kind of wife/ mother/domestic. So we have this quartet of women who tell us the story, which makes it the story of not just one woman, but of four different, amazing ones.”

In the early part of the 20th century, Leavitt was a “computer” at the observatory, doing calculations to arrive at a method of determining the distance from earth to other galaxies. “The question of this play is ‘where are we?’” Gunderson comments. “That’s kind of a general question, but it can mean a lot of things the more you dig. For the scientists in the play, it means, ‘where are we in the universe … how big is it?’ We can’t know where we are until we know how big the thing is. That is part of the science that Henrietta was able to crack into for the first time in human history. And it’s a deeper question about where we are in terms of the relationship between men and women, and human, social and political progress.”

Lest anyone think that this will be an egghead play, chockfull of baffling scientific theories, Gunderson interjects, “I have written about science for the majority of my career, so I have an instinct of how to do it, what are too many details, what’s too much math.”

She also notes that there are unexpected elements to the play, including very strong visual and musical components. “There is a theatricality to Henrietta’s science. It’s based in almost a musicality because the astronomy that she was able to uncover is about patterns and amplitude. She is looking at those patterns in terms of light, but in the theater we can use it for light as well as sound. It’s a really cool exploration for any theater because of what it asks in terms of lighting, scenic and sound designers … it brings out the best of theater.”

And if that’s not enough to entice people, she adds that there also is an unconventional romance in the piece. “There’s a love story, but it’s not one that you might anticipate. Neither of the lovers expect, or even want, to be in love. It’s a bit of an accidental, ‘Wait a minute … what’s happening here?’ sort of thing. It’s fun and refreshing.”

And while the characters in the play explore their places in the vastness of existence, and the niches they fit into in the lives of others, the playwright and the lead actress will both be exploring life in a city that has been called an “astronomy capital.” Gunderson says that she has never been to Tucson, and is looking forward to the chance to see it during the run of her play. Duerr has lived in the city a short while, but is rapidly acclimating to it. She loves the opportunity to hike around the state, ski when the weather accommodates, and indulge in one of the key features at her home. “I love swimming in my pool. That’s a new thing, to have a swimming pool. It feels so luxurious!” she exclaims.

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