Stella reaches for the stars at Chichester


Women get short shrift in the annuls of history. We can all rattle off dozens of famous men, responsible for new inventions and innovations. But women?

The compelling but little-known story of a woman who helped to lay the foundations of modern astronomy is being brought to life in a production at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester next month.

Take the Space in association with Greenwich Theatre and TOM – The Old Market – are presenting Stella: A Story of Women, Their Men and Astronomy is by Sussex playwright Siobhán Nicholas, whose earlier work, Hanging Hooke, was performed at Chichester in 2010.

William Herschel discovered Uranus. So what did his sister do?

Science has historically been a man’s domain but look closely at the archive and a silent army of intelligent, dedicated women can be found, researching and discovering.

Though little-known, Caroline Herschel (1750 to 1848) discovered eight comets and received the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal.

Stella is a story of Time, Space, Curiosity and passion. It focusses on Caroline Herschel and her fictional counterpart, astronomer Jessica Bell from the 21st century.

The two women look up at the same night sky and find themselves colliding in their search for understanding. Each woman can precisely map her position in the universe yet struggles to find her place in the real world.

Playwright Siobhán Nicholas, who also stars, says: “I became interested in astronomy when I stumbled across a quote from an astrophysicist called Jocelyn Bell Burnell: ‘We are all made of star stuff’.

“Those beautiful simple words inspired me to find out more. Jocelyn discovered the Pulsar Star, an achievement that should have earned her the Nobel Prize. An amazing woman!

“Following this slight, instead of wallowing in bitterness, she has spent her life nurturing young astrophysicists and encouraging women into science.

“I began thinking about the modern female astronomer with so much technology at her fingertips, witnessing the wonders of the universe expanding before her eyes – and all the while sustaining a very earth-based juggling act of loved ones and work.

“Is she in a better position now than her past counterparts? Do brilliant female minds have to renounce “love” in order to discover the wonders of the universe?

“Even Marie Curie, perhaps the most famous female scientist from the past, said: ‘I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy’.”

Cast: Chris Barnes (stage credits -Les Miserables, Frankenstein, Amazing Grace and Much Ado About Nothing. TV -Hornblower, Endeavour and The Musketeers); Sian Webber (EastEnders, Bliss, Trial and Retribution, Above Suspicion and Silent Witness) and Siobhán Nicholas (Film Little Dorrit and Neverland. TV credits – Shadow of the Noose, Casualty and Prime Cracker).

Stella: A Story of Women, Their Men and Astronomy is at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester on February 19.

Tour dates:

February 13-14, Theatre Royal, Bath
February 19, Minerva Theatre, Chichester
February 25-26, Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
March 6, Derby Theatre, Derby
April 24, Unity Theatre, Liverpool.

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