“Miss Mitchell’s Comet” one of three finalists in Orlando

I am one of three finalists in an annual competition run by a major theatre in Orlando. My full-length script MISS MITCHELL’S COMET will have a staged reading sometime in December; based on the feedback there, one of those three plays will then get a full production in April 2018 by the Playwrights’ Round Table at the Orlando Shakespeare Center. Sharp-eyed fans will notice that April 2018 is also when I have another full-length play making an international debut in Melbourne, Australia. MISS MITCHELL’S COMET is based on the true story of Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer — and the first American of any gender to discover a comet. Her discovery in the 1840s sparked an international controversy. At the time, there was a competition sponsored by the King of Denmark that would give a prize to the first astronomer to discover a comet with a telescope — as opposed to the naked eye. All the big observatories of Europe were keen to claim the honor. No one envisioned that instead it would be an American — and not just any American, but an amateur at that who wasn’t affiliated with any observatory. And a woman! This was news that some in Europe simply could not believe.

The 29-year-old Mitchell was the daughter of a Nantucket Island merchant who grew up in a sailing and whaling community where keeping an eye on the stars was part of business. In time, the unknown Mitchell was awarded the prize . . . and went on to become a major figure in American astronomy and the women’s rights movement. This play is set many years later, when she’s in her 50s and 60s and is teaching at Vassar College. I am indebted to Todd William Ristau of Hollins University. Some years ago, he gave me advice on how to write a one-person script. At the time, I had two sprawling, multi-character scripts about science figures. I took RED MOON RISING IN THE EAST, about the father of the Soviet space program, and re-wrote it into a one-man play. It’s gone on to become my most-frequently produced full-length script — produced in Virginia, Wisconsin and Minnesota (and might be produced again in May 2018, awaiting details). I took MISS MITCHELL’S COMET and re-wrote it as a two-person script, although the Mitchell character has 95 percent of the lines, so I think of it as a one-woman play with some incidental parts for a man. It’s come close several things before in other competitions, but now will at least get a stage reading an a 1-in-3 chance of a full production.

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