Chelsea McEwan Millar as Beatrice Hill Tinsley in Bright Star / Plumb Theatre and Auckland Live.
It is suffrage year fellow suffragists and suffragist lovers! One hundred and twenty-five years since women were allowed the vote in New Zealand. You’ve probably heard about some of the various events and exhibitions dedicated to some extraordinary women who defied the odds and dared to damn ‘The Man’. One such amazing woman was New Zealand cosmologist Beatrice Hill Tinsley who, in the 1970s, completely changed the way we saw the whole Universe.
Bright Star is a biographical play by Kiwi playwright Stuart Hoar and stars Chelsea McEwan Millar as Beatrice. Chelsea also happens to be a good friend of mine, so we sat at our favourite local and over a few
glasses bottles of wine we discussed Beatrice, her struggles, her legacy and the implausibility of ‘having it all’.
What’s the first thing you noticed about Beatrice?
The Hill in her name is really important, as it’s her maiden name. When she started to gain notoriety, she was still married to Brian Tinsley so kept it as she was known for that name. She really wanted to go back to Hill, but was told it was too late. As someone who feels strongly about keeping her own name, I love that.
Me too! Taking on a husband’s name is very much a Western thing that goes back centuries to when women were seen as property. I like that now women have a choice about it. What made Beatrice revolutionary?
She worked out that the universe was forever expanding. The accepted theory at the time was that the Universe started with the Big Bang and so it would end in a similar way – by contracting back onto itself and starting again. Instead, Beatrice found that the Universe keeps evolving and so goes on and on forever until the stars burn all their fuel and everything dies out.
(I should note that many dogs are being walked past us at this point. We both try to stay on topic).
That’s pretty badass of her.
Beatrice was so tenacious and confident especially for a woman in that era. She was so aware of her own power and intelligence that she knew she had to do this. Those aren’t always qualities we attribute to women and even Kiwis in general – we often apologize for our own existence. She was fucking crazy intelligent. She was also an amazing violinist and spoke several languages and could have done any of these things but she decided it had to be mathematics and physics.
I always wanted to do astronomy and once even sent a letter to NASA. I got a letter back that brilliantly started with “Dear Friend of Space”. I then realised you had to know maths and right there and then my dreams were crushed.
My brain is actively scared of maths! In that era, Beatrice’s choices were limited to staying at home and looking after her kids. She did that AND got her PhD AND published her paper from her kitchen table. I think it’s a really interesting play to be doing right now as we have a Prime Minister who just had a baby and it’s her male partner staying at home. We’ve come such a long way but at the same time, that’s still world news. I think Beatrice’s main struggle was that she was a woman. She achieved so much yet she couldn’t handle the limitations anymore, and so she made a huge sacrifice of her family for her career.
Chelsea is now very distracted by a cute sausage dog.
He was a very happy dog.
I think you scared its owners.
That one was wearing a jersey….
I think we are still grappling with this ideology that being a woman automatically means being maternal. Like, any woman who isn’t is deemed ‘unnatural’, which sounds like some nonsense President Trump would tweet from his loo at 3am.
Beatrice actually wanted to fit that mould of being the perfect wife and mother. She had this idea of a happily ever after - but the post-script to the happily ever after, is every day after that.
This reminds me of Naomi Wolf's ‘The Beauty Myth’ where she criticises the idea that now women need to have it all – career, partner, motherhood, plus the burdens of housework and living up to beauty standards. It’s just not realistic.
Yeah it’s the crazy idea that we should be everything: maternal, sexualized and really good at careers. I spent a lot of my 20s thinking I could get my power through similar ideologies, such as the way I looked and needing approval from men.
I still feel like those insecurities seep back in every now and then.
Absolutely. It’s still around and it’s just like, ‘fuck think of how much time I wasted! Imagine how good at maths I could’ve been!’
What do you hope audiences will get out of the play?
The play is about relationships: her marriage; her relationship to misogyny in that era; her relationship to religion; and what’s expected of her versus what she knew she was capable of. I think it’ll divide people. Audiences don’t have to agree with her but I want them to understand why she did the things she did. What I love is that she unapologetically knew what she was capable of and went for it. She’s a fucking hero.
Bright Star runs from September 4th- 16th (Tue 6.30pm, Wed – Sat 8pm , Sun 4pm) at the Herald Theatre in Auckland. Tickets are available here.Support Villainesse