Radium Girls Jr. in Print

One of the CoverRadiumGirlsCompetitionRD2ideas I had for starting this blog was having a place to provide updates about my work.   As it often happens there’s a long lull of not much to report followed by a burst of new developments.

 

Burst number one — the long-awaited one-act version of Radium Girls is now available here  from Dramatic Publishing.  Cover photo courtesy of Andover High School Drama Guild, which performed it so  well the students walked off with acting, design, and technical awards.

 

As I wrote in this post, I finally caved to pressure (encouragement) from a director friend to write a short version for his students to perform in competition. This came after many years of requests from high school drama teachers to do cuttings for competition. The publisher and I agreed that it made sense for me to write my own version — so here it is at last.

 

It’s actually a 60-minute version cuttable to just under 40 minutes, and even before it was published, there were 10 productions lined up, continuing to win recognition for the students.

 

I’ve written before about the surprising trajectory of this work. Radium Girls has been produced in full around the country–65 productions last year alone–and occasionally outside of the U.S., with multiple productions in Canada this year.  I had never envisioned that kind of afterlife for the play—and I’ve been wondering for a long time how I can duplicate that success with another script.

 

I fully admit that I came to writing for young people reluctantly — Radium Girls not a script I ever imagined was suitable for high schools, and it was not my intention to market it to schools. But given the subject matter, the number of strong parts for women, and the fact that you can cast it with a lot more than the original nine actors, it is actually a great fit for schools.  And over the years I’ve come to see that I’ve got a manifesto–if I’m going to write plays for young actors, then I’m  not going to underestimate their intelligence or engagement in the world.

 

And that’s what is part of what drove me to write another play of mine–Salvation Road–which will be staged this summer at the Capital Fringe Festival in D.C. (link here).  It was the winner of Walden Theatre Co.’s Slant Culture Festival competition and performed amazingly there by the young actors in the theatre’s conservatory. It has been produced at New York University and Seton Hill University, and I’ve gotten some interest from several other schools this spring. So I’m hopeful of more productions later in the year.

 

 

That’s the second burst! More on that play soon.

Life and Afterlife of a Play, Part 2

Some amazing news came to me through Google Alerts a little while ago.

 

I’d set up a weekly tracker to follow productions of a few published scripts. Most of the time it highlights calendar listings and occasional features about productions I was already aware of, but it’s a nice way to catalogue press coverage. Once in a while you get a quotable gem, but not too many surprises.

 

radithorExcept for the alert I received the day after Christmas. I knew that Seton Hall University had a production going in the fall. But I didn’t know that Seton Hall had selected RADIUM GIRLS as its summer reading assignment for  its incoming freshman class last year. (It’s true–looky HERE.) That’s 1700 students, roughly, who were required to read the play and discuss it in freshman seminar as well as in other courses. A whole lot of buzz.

 

This news came to me when Google Alerts swept up an announcement by the university about two of its student winning an essay contest inspired by the play. (Announcement here.)

 

According to the announcement, student Gabrielle Hunt wrote about “modern day ‘slut-shaming,’ or the act of making a person, especially a woman, feel guilty or inferior for certain behaviors or circumstances that deviate from traditional gender expectations. She suggested that the radium girls exemplify what it means to be confident in who you are and stand up for yourself.” And student Patricia Boccard focused on the theme of corporate responsibility by relating the radium girls’ story to the current domestic debate surrounding hydraulic fracking.

 

Seton Hall is located in South Orange. N.J.—very near where the play is set–so the story of the Radium Girls is a home-town tragedy with many echoes into the present day. The factory where it took place was an EPA Superfund site that only recently has been dismantled.

 

Radium Girls, Seton Hall University Theater Department

Radium Girls, Seton Hall University Theater Department

All of which is to say – 15 years and more than 300 productions after its world premiere, RADIUM GIRLS is still going strong in ways I never began to anticipate when I was struggling through the early drafts. It is gratifying to see how the play has generated so much reflection and connection over the years. Even though the story focuses on women who lived and died nearly 100 years ago, it is still relevant and still compelling. And I still get email and Facebook friends requests from actors who’ve worked on productions and say it was one of the most rewarding experiences in their young careers.

 

As I wrote before, I finally succumbed to pressure from my publisher to write a one-act version for school competition – something I’ve been thinking about and dragging my feet about for a long time. It wasn’t until my friend, high school drama teacher Steven Barker leaned on me to do it – with the promise of a workshop with his students at Camp LeJeune High School—that I finally got off the dime and went to work.  Steven and his students performed the play in competition in the fall of 2013 and in the early winter of 2014, Susan Choquette, director of theatre arts at Andover High School in Andover, Mass. staged the competition version in the 2014 Massachusetts Educational Theatre Guild Drama Festival. It was one of fourteen plays out of 117 initial entries to advance to the final round and netted a number of awards in acting, design, and technical excellence for her students.

 

For a long time I had simply felt overwhelmed by the prospect of whittling my script from 2 hours and 10 minutes to 40 – but with Steven’s help, I found a way in—a tighter frame for that sprawling story. I ended up with a 60-minute version that you can pare to 40 by removing selected scenes. The one-act version is coming soon from Dramatic Publishing and promises to do well. So far, even before the script is out, we’ve got nine schools lined up to perform the competition piece this spring.

 

On days like today, when my head is still swimming from a back-to-back rejection letters, I think about the projects I’ve undertaken that have had the greatest impact. You never know who you will reach or how. It may take many years, but there are unexpected payoffs. That’s why, when it comes to the arts,  faith is the most important virtue. Faith and perseverence. I have a hard time remembering it, but every now and then the universe sends a warm reminder.

 

 

 

 

Untold Stories

“Murderer!”

 

A week ago I stood outside Studio Theatre on 14th Street in Washington, D.C., with my friend Jacqueline Lawton and endured that accusation—that we were killers of innocents.

 

Our crimes? Writing four-minute vignettes based on the true stories of women who had abortions. In my case, my scene was inspired by a young woman who braved a line of anti-abortion protesters—very like the line outside the theatre that night—and went ahead with her decision to end an unwanted pregnancy.

The protesters were vehement in their conviction—55 million innocents dead, blood on your hands, how dare you?

 

My answer: Why don’t you come inside and see the play? And then we can talk.

 

Jackie and the protesters - photo by Lloyd Wolf

Jackie and the protesters – photo by Lloyd Wolf

I was one of nine other D.C. playwrights whom Jackie had invited to participate in Out of Silence: Abortion Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign. A project of Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit with a mission to help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health, Out of Silence consists of 13 scenes intended to give voice to women whose stories are seldom heard—stories of women who had undergone abortions for all sorts of reasons, all deeply personal and individual, and who (mostly) had no regrets about it.

 

It’s not a story you hear very often, and it doesn’t fit with the usual narrative of a troubled woman struggling to decide to end a pregnancy, then spending years in recrimination and sorrow over the choice. Certainly some women do have deep regrets—but a lot of the stories collected by Advocates for Youth in their 1 in 3 Campaign reflect a different reality. The campaign is so named because 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in their lifetimes, and so far, they’ve gathered about 700 testimonials.  And for many of these women, having an abortion was a liberation.

 

I will confess that when Jackie first contacted me about the project my initial thought was to say no. I’m neither an advocate for abortion rights nor an advocate against them.  I’m ambivalent. Had I ever been so lucky as to conceive, I  don’t think I would have let circumstances persuade me to end the pregnancy. I’m childless by default; not for lack of trying, but because nature and opportunity did not coincide to allow me the family life I had wanted for so long. And I feel very sad about that.

 

But I also know that for many women, an unexpected pregnancy is not good news. For some, it’s an agonizing discovery. Young, scared, unemployed, battered or abandoned, victims of rape or other violence, chronically ill or for other reasons poorly equipped to bear and raise a child, they sort through their options and decide that abortion is the only thing that makes sense. And I don’t believe it’s for me or anyone else to decide for them that they must go through with the pregnancy if they have decided they can’t.

 

So after thinking it over, I agreed to sign on and write a scene from the point of view of a character that I can’t relate to very well—someone who decides she is going to do this—and try to tell her story without judgment. For the protesters outside the theatre, this makes me complicit in murder—a line of reasoning, if you call it reasoning, that I also cannot connect to very well.

 

And not one of them accepted our offer to come in and see the play.

A scene from "The Line" in Out of Silence.

Shayna Blass and Tuyet Thi Pham in “The Line.” Out of Silence: Abortion Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign (Advocates for Youth) Photo by Lloyd Wolf.

 

Which I thought said a great deal about what their true agenda is. Because it seems to me that if you are truly pro-life, as you claim to be, then you have every reason to see this play. Why not see it? Why not see the lives of individuals who are making a choice you find abhorrent? Why not hear their stories and try to understand why they feel driven to this choice? And if you want them to make a different choice,  understanding their stories might enable you to offer them an alternative that works.

 

One major reason a lot of women choose abortions is economic; a number of the vignettes in the evening illustrate that harsh reality. Abortion is a choice, but for some impoverished women, it really isn’t a choice, it’s the only option they have because they are backed into a desperate corner.

 

Seems to me if you want to prevent abortions, you might want to understand that reality. You might then decide to work to ensure that birth control is available to anyone who wants it, regardless of income. You might see the value of public health initiatives and sex education efforts. You might advocate for social programs to support single mothers, or for public funding to underwrite child care or to sustain organizations that try to connect pregnant women with adoptive families—so that instead of screaming bloody murder at a stranger in crisis, you are working to offer her a solution.

 

A little compassion might go a long way.

 

But that’s not what this movement is really about. It was clear to me, standing outside the theatre last week, looking at those outraged faces screaming at me and Jackie, condemning us to hell and worse—without knowing a thing about us—I realized these particular protesters had no interest in understanding any point of view but their own. And they aren’t there to persuade. Their purpose is to harass and intimate. Their real agenda is punishment—to condemn women for their sexuality, to berate them for their audacity in refusing to accept the consequences of their “sins.”

 

One thing I know: Nothing they said that night persuaded me to back away from this project. If anything it made me more determined to expand my scene into a full-length play. It emboldened me to tell the rest of the untold story – and by doing that, find my way inside the experience of someone completely unlike myself, who makes choices I don’t think I would make, and to write her character with authenticity, compassion and–dare I say it?–respect.

 

Open Carry Meets Stand Your Ground

I’ve cribbed this photo below from the blog PQED—it depicts a demonstration of Open Carry activists in Texas, claiming their second amendment rights to scare the crap of any thinking person nearby. They’ve made a cause of toting their assault rifles into such dangerous zones as fast food restaurants and discount department stores, all in the name of freedom—or what passes for it in this country. I don’t know about you, but if I ever see a parade like that coming in my direction, I’m getting the hell out of there,  which is, effectively, what PQED advises. The best way to respond to Open Carry is to leave the place at once, and don’t bother to pay before you go. Let the gun activists pick up your tab.

 

opencarry

As I was writing this post today, another news item popped up on Facebook illustrating the obvious hazard from too many people wandering around with guns. Late-night partying in Indianapolis ends in tragedy when one guy bumps into another on a crowded street—and both are armed.

 

This raises the question of what happens when Open Carry meets Stand Your Ground. Guessing the answer will be–more of what happened in Indianpolis last night.  It’s only a matter of time before someone mistakes one of those Open Carry demonstrations for a crime in process and decides to make a pre-emptive strike.

 

If nothing else, this latest round of madness illustrates just how far around the bend we’ve gone in this country. After so much senseless slaughter committed by crazy people with assault rifles, this is where we’ve come—celebrating the right to own and carry the mass killer’s weapon of choice by marching them into commercial enterprises.

 

Open Carry sees itself as the protector of gun rights under assault—the threat coming, I presume, from wild-eyed liberals like me who’ve read the rest of the Constitution and know something about punctuation. (We can have that argument in another post, but suffice it to say there are two clauses to the Second Amendment, not just the one the National Rifle Association likes to quote.) The right of peaceable assembly is also in the Constitution, and I think a good argument is to be made that Open Carry demonstrations infringe on that right for shoppers and diners who find the display of armament so unsettling that it prompts them to disperse. These kinds of demonstrations, I suppose, are also meant to show that those fine Texas Patriots™  just ain’t scared of us wimpy members of the literate set, though they sure don’t mind terrifying anyone with the common sense to be concerned that maybe, just possibly, that thing they are carrying could go off by accident. Whether they intend it or not, let’s hope their own foot is the only casualty.

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Bad Manners and Bullets

A debate, not entirely civil, has erupted on my Facebook page over a heart-wrenching incident in Florida. If you’re a regular reader of CNN online you already know about an argument in a movie theatre that left one man dead, his wife wounded, and a retired police officer in jail without bond for pulling the trigger on a man who had refused to stop texting during a movie.

 

According to published reports, Chad Oulson, 43, met up with his wife for a Monday lunch date and a matinee in Wesley Chapel, Fla. Previews were rolling when he began to send a text—to his three-year-old daughter’s babysitter.  Behind him was Curtis Reeves, 71, and his wife. Reeves apparently asked Oulson to stop—how he asked is not clear, but the encounter escalated into an argument and Reeves left to find a manager. When he returned, CNN reports:

 

The man who had been texting, Chad Oulson, got up and turned to Reeves to ask him if he had gone to tell on him for his texting. Oulson reportedly said, in effect: I was just sending a message to my young daughter. Voices were raised. Popcorn was thrown. And then came something unimaginable — except maybe in a movie. A gun shot.

 

Oulson died at the scene. The following day, Reeves was arraigned and denied bail. According to the Tampa Tribune, Judge Lynn Tepper found no basis to believe his claim that he was in fear of attack when he shot Oulson—a potential “stand-your-ground” defense under Florida law:

 

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reported, though, that while Reeves claimed Oulson struck him with an “unknown object,” no such object was found and witnesses did not observe any punches being thrown. Oulson did throw a bag of popcorn at Reeves, the sheriff’s office reported.

 

The central question this tragedy has raised among my circle is the degree to which the victim contributed to the altercation—and to his own demise—by texting in the theatre and getting into an argument when asked to stop. To me, the bigger question is what this horrible incident says about the lies being peddled by the gun lobby, which pushes all guns, all the time—that an armed society is a polite society, that more guns means we are all safer, that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  This kind of escalation is not rare, but it seldom involves a respected former member of law enforcement.

 

I’ll address the etiquette question first, however, because among some theatre people I know, the use of cellphones during performances inspires an almost atomic level of rage—to the point that it almost becomes  a public safety issue in itself. This incident has inflamed some of those passions. Online I’ve seen cruel jokes about Chad Oulson’s death, and in recent discussions, I’ve been startled to discover how much anger has been reserved for the victim.

 

The argument I’ve heard goes like this: Both men were wrong. And even if Reeves’ reaction was over-the-top, that doesn’t make Oulson’s behavior right. My initial response to that statement was astonishment. And it was hard to offer reasoned reaction. But having thought about it, I have this to say:  “Wrong” is not a uniform concept when it comes to degree or gravity.  Yes, we can agree that texting during a show is wrong. We can agree that shooting a guy in the chest is wrong. Both of these things are wrong, but they are wrong in utterly different ways and in different spheres. One is a breach of etiquette; the other is a criminal act. So they aren’t even in the same universe of wrong, and to demand that we recognize Oulson’s wrong behavior and consider it a provocation for Reeves’ wrong behavior reveals a strangely twisted sense of proportion and causality. Even if you argue that Oulson’s share of the blame is relatively small, it still ignores the fact that etiquette and public safety are two completely different arenas of life, governed by completely different considerations.  They intersect only at the point where bad manners become so extreme that they cross over into criminal behavior. Which is pretty much what happened here—except that it was Reeves, not Oulson, who crossed that line.

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Tone-Deaf and Life-Stupid at Metro

The annals of stupid are long and deep, but some of the worst offenses, I think we must agree, occur in the course of trying to sell something—particularly when that something is very transparently a load of bull.

 

Keep in mind I grew up on Virginia Slims commercials, back in the dark ages of analog TV, when Madison Avenue decided to grab hold of (that is, exploit) the nascent women’s movement of the late 70s and turn it into a pitch for cancer in a stick. I for one was thrilled to learn that my sex had earned the right to choke to death right along with the guys. Enjoli perfume wasn’t far behind when it came to offensive advertising. If you don’t know what that was—consider yourself fortunate to have been born after 1980. 

 

But apparently the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority–which we folks in D.C. fondly refer to as “Metro” or, in some quarters, “the ride from hell”– didn’t get the memo. So they don’t seem to realize that we women have come a long way, baby, and therefore have other things on our minds besides a new pair of shoes or frying up the bacon in the pan (And yes, after 10 hours on the job, I will let you forget you’re a man—unless you plan to cook dinner, honey. But I digress).

 

Photo by Lucy Westcott

Photo by Lucy Westcott, on Twitter @lvzwestcott

Check this out—it’s the latest in Metro’s series of ads aimed at informing us of the fantastic progress being made in improving the transit system, which is notorious for performance issues and equipment failures—not to mention fatal collisions. The foot-crushing capacity of Metro’s ineptly designed escalators was once the worst danger facing an inattentive commuter, but since the 2009 wreck on the Red Line, things have taken an ugly turn. As it has been well-reported, Metro’s problems stem from its long-standing policy to save money by putting off fixing things until they fell apart. Needless to say this short-sighted approach to maintenance has caught up with Metro, and now that the agency has embarked on a multi-year effort to finally set it right, the agency has also embarked on an ad campaign (god knows how much that cost) to let us know just how great things are going.

 

The ad in question has caused quite a stir for its blatant sexism ( DCist  here, and Buzzfeed, here, had a few choice things to say). Ho hum who wants to hear about Metro’s improved performance when we can talk about shoes? After all, we are really only interested in shopping, aren’t we, girls? Shopping and fingernails, I guess. Woman as bimbo is a tired old trope, and the fact that the two women in question are women of color only adds to the insult. But this is garden variety sexism—the advancement of stereotype in the guise of humor.

 

For my money, the offensiveness of the ad goes even deeper—because it reflects a peculiar kind of narcissism unbecoming to a public transit agency whose mission is, well, to serve the public. Considering that this poster is supposed to impress the cynical commuter, I don’t think Metro has much to brag about. I mean, I don’t know, maybe going 8,200 miles between breakdowns is good for a bus, but really who gives a sh*t? I’ve driven my VW 50,000 miles without it ever breaking down—so I kind of agree with the woman on the right. That doesn’t sound like much to talk about, so why don’t we talk about shoes?

 

It gets worse, though, when you look at another ad in the same series—two dudes chatting each other up about—I am not lying—rail fasteners. Because Metro has replaced 30,000 of them and we all need to know that and be very very impressed! But, sorry, Metro, I am not particularly impressed with the number of rail fasteners  you’ve replaced. You are, in fact, operating a railroad, so it seems to me that putting down rails and rail fasteners ought to be something you do pretty routinely. Yes, 30,000 is a big number but that only speaks to the fact that you spent a lot of years not doing the work that you should have been doing all along, so no, I am not especially impressed.

 

Guys don't talk about shoes.

Guys don’t talk about shoes.

I will tell you what will impress me:

 

I will be impressed when I notice that my trip is actually smoother and faster, and I get to work on time.  When breakdowns and delays become a rare occurrence—instead of an almost daily routine—then I will be impressed, thank you.

 

All of this points to the essential self-absorption of the campaign itself, because these figures are internal metrics–the kinds of numbers that excite bean-counters and engineers, bragging rights for the system’s managers to take to the board of directors. For somebody waiting in the rain 40 minutes for the next bus, or jammed into a Red Line car that is stalled on the tracks because of a signal problem, these kinds of details don’t add up to jack. And there is no reason why they should.

 

The commuter is the customer—on the receiving end of the service, which is to get from place to place on schedule. A railroad bragging about how many rail fasteners it put down is like Dell  trying to sell computers on the basis of how many screws it uses to attach the motherboard. Glad it’s in there, guys, but all I care about is when I hit that power button the thing fires up and loads my applications.

 

When it comes to Metro there are only two statistics that matter to me: 1. Exactly how many minutes late are you going to make me today? and 2. What is the probability that you don’t kill me before I get there?

 

Anything else is just noise.

 

UPDATE: Looks like Metro is not just sexist but racist too.

Life and Afterlife of a Play

Sometimes you hear The Call and are compelled to your destiny.

 

And sometimes you hear The Call and hang up on it —because the message sounds garbled and the Voice of Destiny bears a strange resemblance to Phyllis Diller the morning after she went through all the cheap champagne alone.

 

That’s pretty much the way I felt about requests from high school drama teachers to chop my magnum opus RADIUM GIRLS to smithereens for the sake of some obscure forensics competition in Texas. Please. Can’t you recognize my genius? You want to cut my play to 40 minutes? Not only that you want me to read your cutting and approve it? Why don’t you just pick up a pencil and stab me in the eye? Haven’t I suffered enough? But in a moment of weakness – or maybe after a glass of champagne, I don’t remember – (might have been chardonnay, come to think of it)  I told high school drama teacher Steven Barker (yes that one, the evil one)  that I would adapt the play for high school drama competition. Forty—okay, forty-three-and-a-half—minutes of pure gold, just for you Steve. And because I never could say no to a cute guy, I also found myself high-tailing it to Camp LeJeune for a long weekend in late September and working with his students for two days to run through and tighten the script.

An expression of appreciation from Camp Lejeune

An expression of appreciation from Camp Lejeune

 

While I was there I also conducted a playwriting workshop for a number of the students. (This actually was more fun that writing the adaptation). For my trouble I was rewarded with this coin (see the photo) by the headmaster of the school—in appreciation of my service–and well-fed by parents and friends who turned out to see the full run-through on Saturday afternoon. And it was a blast! The kids were terrific—driven and dedicated– and by Steven’s report gob-smacked hysterically excited to have the writer actually show up and watch them work. And because I was able – at Steven’s suggestion — to find an angle on which to hang the shorter version, the adaptation came fast and sure.

 

Radium Girls is the story of the dialpainters who were poisoned while painting watch dials with radium-laced paint in the 1920s. The original is a big, sprawling, epic story replete with Brechtian devices and comic interludes to provide some relief amid the pathos. It is written for ten actors to double into nearly 40 parts—which explains why the play had a short life in professional theatre but has a long run on amateur stages, with nearly 300 productions in high schools, universities, and community theaters throughout the United States and abroad.  When Steven first approached me about the adaptation, I thought it would be impossible to condense the entire scope of the action—which covers 10 years in the original— into 40 minutes. I found out differently ….

 

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Bring Me the Head of Steven Barker

Let’s just get this straight from the top: I have nothing against Steven Barker. From everything I’ve seen he is a perfectly nice person, teaching drama to kids at Camp Lejeune and generally staying out of trouble. Except that he caused me untold misery over the past 10 days by suggesting that if I wrote a competition version of Radium Girls, he and his students would produce it this fall.  I don’t know any playwright who can resist those three precious words “I will produce,” so I set to it—and I am in pain.

The Evil One

The Evil One

 

Setting to it means I’ve had to exhume the bones of a play I wrote 15 years ago and try to find a way to cut a two-hour-and-twenty minute epic that spans 10 years, involves 38 characters and relies on a clever lighting designer into a 40-minute one-act suitable for high school drama performance in a festival setting.

 

Steven is not the first to suggest that I do this, but he is the first director to promise a tangible result if I did. And having dived into the wreck, I recall now that there is a reason why I’ve ignored this suggestion for years. Because it’s a damn miserable thing to go over a play you thought of as finished and realize—-uh, no.. Understand that when you set out to write a full-length play you flatter yourself that you’ll create an uncuttable script– so airtight, so carefully crafted, so beautifully rendered that you can’t cut a word without sacrificing something essential. Understand that you are deluded. Radium Girls is a pretty good piece, but it isn’t flawless and sifting through it I see plenty of places to cut. But rendering it into a 40-minute version goes beyond cutting – that’ involves a rethinking.

 

Steven called me in June, a couple of weeks (all right, months) after I had promised my publisher the same thing. I’d been peppered with so many requests from high school drama teachers to approve this cutting or that cutting, that my editor thought it would make plenty of sense for me to do my own cutting, particularly since I’d suggested a blanket order that anyone who wanted to perform the play for competition could either do complete, selected scenes, or not do it at all. I had no interest in slogging through the chop jobs offered me by various drama teachers – and each one would have required my specific approval, which meant sitting down and reading what they thought could go. No. So I said to hell with it, but something happened this year to make me change my mind.

 

A community theatre troupe in Massachusetts recently scored a big hit with a cutting I had agreed to more than a year before–either in a moment of weakness or inspiration, I am not sure which. In part, I thought the director had a pretty good handle on it and in part I thought it could mean more exposure in a frankly more lucrative market. (Turns out I was right about that.) Let’s face it, community theatre runs of three to four weeks are routine. Most high schools do two or three performances at the most—and the difference in royalties is ten-fold.

 

So, yes, I made a crassly commercial calculation, but there’s an artistic impulse behind my decision to do my own one-act version of the play—I get to shape the results, and nothing stops me from writing new material.  And nothing says that the one-act version has to cover the same ground as the full-length. But I asked Steven what it was about the play that he found so compelling—and he told me that he liked the character of the company president, a man who makes terrible moral compromises but also suffers from it. He liked the aspect of regret.

 

And he suggested that the one-act begin where the full-length ends, with the character of Arthur Roeder wandering through the graveyard in Orange, struggling to justify his misdeeds to his daughter. This gave me an immediate frame—but instead of opening in the cemetery, the one act opens in the condemned factory, with Roeder going back for one last look before the building is to be torn down. Now this of course messes with the chronology even more than I did in the original, because the building was still standing in 1999 when I wrote the play – but it serves my purpose dramatically.

 

This frame also positions the corporate man as the story-teller, and the story is his effort to rationalize his immoral choices to his adult daughter. He fails to do so to his own satisfaction, even though she ultimately dismisses his sins—it is also clear she never fully understands the magnitude of them and like so many of us, prefers to brush it all off rather than confront her own culpability—the way we are all culpable as consumers of ill-gotten goods.

 

Steven and his students will sit down with the script in September. I’m eager to hear what he thinks.

Unexpected Impacts, Part II

The Burlington Players of Burlington, Mass., took a trip to the State House in Boston July 26  as guests of the Massachusetts Legislature. The occasion: The community theatre troupe had walked off with the highest prize in its field a month before—Best Show Award at the 2013 American Association for Community Theatre (AACT) annual festival on June 23.  The play was RADIUM GIRLS, and the accomplishment was singular in a number of ways.

 

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Team Radium at the Massachusetts State House

Director Celia Couture tells me this event marked the first time in 20 years that any Eastern Massachusetts company had won the top award at AACT. Not only that, to get to the competition in Carmel, Indiana, the all volunteer cast and crew of  27 had to raise $44,0000 to cover the costs of travel, housing, and  conference fees, as well as shipping sets, costumes, and props required to perform their 60 minute cutting of my play. That figure, she notes, is a number of times greater than the actual production budget for the full-length play in 2011, which Burlington had produced to wide acclaim.  The success of that production prompted the company to take the play to state and regional competitions.

 

The day the competition production won the  nationals, my in-box on Facebook was aflutter with excited messages from cast members who’d friended me months earlier, to let me know of their triumph and thank me again for the script.

 

By the various accounts I’ve heard, competition at AACT was fierce—Radium Girls received more nominations than any other production—out of 12 shows in the festival—-including best actor and best director— and placed in none, until the final moment, when the award for best show was announced at the Saturday night ceremony that concluded the week.

 

Burlington Players production of Radium Girls

Michael Govang and Craig Howard in Burlington Players production of Radium Girls

The company’s triumph offers a lot to reflect on, considering my initial reluctance to approve a cut-down version for competition. I’m accustomed to these requests, but invariably they come from high schools and the understanding usually is that what is presented is a selection of scenes. But for some reason I agreed to the cuts Celia proposed, and the result has been to create an opportunity for another troupe of artists to carry on with a play they had fallen in love with. And it is not an easy script. I still believe the play requires a smart, firm director to move it and keep it on point – if I could do it over, I think I’d reshape the first act—but even the weakest productions I’ve seen over the years have managed to convey the strength of the story itself.  It says something that Radium Girls is approaching 300 productions since its premiere at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey more than a decade ago. And I’m continually amazed at the fierce devotion it seems to inspire in the actors and directors who’ve undertaken the challenge.

 

 

 

One of the most eloquent testimonials to the play was posted by Burlington cast member Nick Bennett-Zendzian. The night of the big win he wrote this on his Facebook page:

 

All of my theatre friends (which would be most of you) know that feeling of finality that comes with the closing performance of a show you’ve been working on. There’s the realization that each moment you are having on stage that night is the last time you will ever experience that particular moment. You think of the months you spent working on that scene, and then once it’s over, that scene is done, and you’re not going to be visiting it again. It’s a very bittersweet feeling. … It’s come to the point where I literally cannot imagine my life without any of these people. From the moment we were all cast, we clicked. We celebrated each other’s triumphs, and worked together to overcome the difficulties we faced on the journey. … It was a shining example of what theatre is supposed to be, and has become the standard I will use to measure the success of all the shows I do in the future. … This show has changed me for the better, and I will always, *always* be grateful for that experience.

 

In playwriting, we often measure our successes in the number and status of productions, thinking that if we aren’t produced at big LORT theatres, if we can’t get an agent, don’t see our work celebrated in American Theatre, can’t get the lit manager of the small storefront company to call us back—then our work has no value. We forget how very individual responses are to the plays we write. The fact is, the work is out there, and when any company takes it up and embraces it the way this company embraced Radium Girls, the result is transformative—not just for the audiences that see the play, but for the actors and other artists that work on it.

 

I never met any of the folks involved in the Burlington show – but they have reached out to me, and I’m grateful that they thought to bring me into the loop to share their progress, frustrations, and ultimate triumph with the play. I’m many years removed from the struggle of writing it, but these kinds of experiences restore my sense of balance. Success is not always measured in the ways we think it ought to be, but we are not always in control of our theatrical fortunes. I don’t know why professional theatre never embraced the play — well I do know why, it’s the cast size — but the fact that Radium Girls has had a long life in the amateur market is an amazing thing to me. I’ve written before of the psychic rewards of hearing from excited actors who worked on a successful production. But it’s good to be reminded again of what that all means.

 

Radium Girls took three years of my life; it was the result of a long-time obsession, and I think the fact that I poured my heart and soul into it is reflected in its pages. That the play has been a vehicle for the artistic triumphs and personal growth of other artists around the country is a gratifying realization. It shows that when we sit down to write, we can never know what impact our efforts will have  in the end, but above all else, it is important to have faith in ourselves and soldier on; if we believe strongly in the work, and if we are brave enough to invest our hearts in it, then  it will find its place in the world somehow and its meaning will be deeply felt.

 

Thanks for the Burlington crew for allowing me to learn this lesson once again.

The Other 9 Percent

Locally Grown Festival Image (2)Theatre J hosted a town hall meeting for playwrights on Tuesday night (June 25) and the room was bursting with amazing stories of a D.C. theatre scene that is about to break out as a worthy rival to Chicago, Minneapolis and even—yes, they said it—New York.

 

Among the most interesting reports from the field – to borrow a term from Theatre J Artistic Director Ari Roth – was a preview by Gwydion Suilebhan of his annual analysis of the D.C. season, in which he logs the number of new works going up, the percentage of plays by D.C. playwrights, the percentage by women and writers of color and so forth. He’ll have a lot more to say about it when he blogs about it next week—but here are two numbers to chew on until then: 31 and  9.

 

The first is the percentage of productions slotted for the 2013-14  season that can be considered  new plays—that is, experiencing a first, second, or third production.

 

The second is the percentage of plays by local writers, and according to Gwydion, it’s significantly less than the current season – in fact, nearly half. This year the figure was 16 percent. And these numbers, by the way, don’t include that crazy, hazy, mazy zone of self production known as the Capital Fringe.

 

What happened? I imagine Gwydion will have some things to say about that—he described it as a discouraging development, as it would have to be for anyone who has dedicated himself as tirelessly as he has to the cause of promoting local writers to local theatres. It remains to be seen whether that’s a statistical blip or the beginning of a trend—I suspect the former–but that 9 percent is a good number to keep in our heads because it gives us a strong sense of where the landscape is currently. Maybe it’s the dark Irish in my genes,  but sometimes I find a discouraging word weirdly motivating: we have work to do and one single statistic makes the case more clearly than anything else.

 

For any theatre community to make its mark outside its own small circle of  fans and friends requires that it dedicate itself to new plays. Otherwise it has nothing to offer to a new generation of theatergoers—and such theatre ultimately ensures its own demise. If you have nothing new to say, then eventually you have nothing at all to say, and no one has any reason to listen.

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The Troublesome 9.7 Percent and the Break-Through Play

Caridad Svich invited me to participate in the Artistic Innovation blog salon that she is curating for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas). The post below is cross-posted from the salon and can be found at the TCG Circle here.

 

Playwright Caridad Svich asks how a path can be made for innovative theatre artists.

 

That’s a question for the ages—because every age has redefined the form and function of theatre. But in our age and in this culture–so driven by commercial considerations that most playwrights cannot rely on their craft for a living—the question is particularly acute.  We all know that the American theatre faces a crisis of poverty—but it is not just a poverty of resources. It is also a poverty of ideas and confidence. And this poverty forces even the non-profit theatre to obsess with finding the next big hit, the next hot writer, and to find refuge in the next Big Name New Play—that one with all the buzz.

 

 

The reason for this can be summed up in a single statistic: 9.7 percent.

 

 

That is the percentage of the U.S. population that attended a live performance by a not-for-profit professional theatre company in 2010, according to the National Arts Index 2012, a survey of arts attendance in 81 markets. Based on TCG estimates, that figure represents some 31 million Americans who attended professional theatre outside of New York City. That’s down from a peak of 34 million in 2003—and for the record, does not include attendance at Broadway tours. Recent figures from the National Endowment for the Arts tell a similar story—that attendance at live professional theatre has eroded in troubling ways. But of course we do not need a survey to tell us what we have witnessed with our own eyes.

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Is There Room for an Introvert in Theatre?

Consider this an open letter to any writer who ever struggled with the concept of “self-promotion,” a term many of us find distasteful on its face.

 

I have been thinking about this for a long time, because for me, putting myself front and center has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do—so hard that there have been times when I’ve thought about giving up on theatre altogether, because I did not believe that there was a place in it for someone like me—a naturally shy individual for whom social events are frequently the occasion of anxiety, rather than celebration. For years I went into a crowded room with a pounding heart, panicked over my awkwardness, marking myself unworthy of anyone’s interest. It took many years and studied practice to overcome that attitude, but even now, given the choice—and I recently was given the choice—of attending say, the White House Correspondents Dinner, or hanging out with my spouse in my own dining room, I took the beer and pretzels option.

Lone_female

Among writers, shyness and self-doubt are fairly common traits, and among women writers, even more so, because we have been socialized—at least, my generation has been socialized—to defer to the men in our lives, to defer to the men in authority, and to discount our own perceptions. (That is, in fact, the topic of my most produced play, RADIUM GIRLS.) And when we find ourselves in a position of challenging a man in authority, it is a deeply uncomfortable place, even now, for many women, well into the 21stcentury.

 

But lately I found myself exactly in that position and it has given me an opportunity to reflect on this concept of self-promotion and why it is so hard for women to get past the guilt that goes along with making an honest effort to put themselves forward. This is more than an academic question for me. I recently got into a confrontation with the moderator of a Facebook group intended as an open forum for D.C. Playwrights. And I am told this forum is “not for self-promotion” and therefore, member writers cannot talk about their own productions or readings; we cannot announce our triumphs—if we win a grant, place in a competition, land a fellowship, make it or nearly make into the O’Neill or PlayPenn or Seven Devils—this is all forbidden, by the rules of the group. Although, apparently it is all right if someone else announces these developments for you, then that is not self-promotion.

 

Set aside for a moment how easily that loophole can be exploited by an enterprising writer with a lot of friends. And set aside the inconsistency with which the rule is enforced—apparently self promotion is forbidden in a post, but forgiveable in a comments thread? For someone who has been a longtime member of the Playwrights Center, the Dramatist’s Guild, the Philadelphia Dramatists, the International Centre for Women Playwrights (and a former member of the D.C. Playwrights Forum and Chicago Dramatists), I want to say that this is one of the most bizarre restrictions I have ever come across in any organization that presents itself as existing for the benefit of playwrights. Every one of these organizations provides some opportunity for members to announce their activities. I don’t know of a single playwrights’ service organization that penalizes its members for seeking to promote a reading or a production; many seek to encourage it, offering a blog or a newsletter or some other means for members to announce their productions and other events. Since this DC group communicates primarily through Facebook, it seems perfectly reasonable that posting an invitation to a reading or production on the front page itself ought to be encouraged, rather than penalized.

 

But my opinion counts for naught, and this strange restriction persists.

 

It occurs to me, however, that such a restriction is far more punitive for many women than it is for men. Not that there are no shy or deferential men out there; they surely exist. But it’s my observation that many men are far more comfortable and adept at muscling their way into the center of the room, and the center of attention, than many women are, and I think it has a great deal to do with differences in gender socialization in this culture. For men, attention and favor is a birthright, for women it is perceived as a privilege—that is, a reward that is earned on the basis of merit—and that is no minor distinction.

 

I know several young women of considerable talent who confide that they recoil from blatant self-promotion on the grounds that they don’t quite deserve the attention. “I know my work isn’t all that good,” one tells me. For the record, I disagree. But such is her perception, and as admirable as that humility is—it won’t get her very far.

 

And yet I am a bit hard-pressed to tell her that muscling her way into the room is really the answer either, because I am not entirely convinced that the rules that apply to ambitious young men also apply to the women. I sense—though I have little concrete evidence to support it—that even now, a young woman who attempts to promote herself as forthrightly as any young man will somehow be seen the lesser for it. I fear she will be punished for it.

 

Which is why this strange prohibition against self-promotion among the D.C. playwrights galls me so. Because it plays right into the worst stereotypes we all share of self-promotion—that it is somehow distasteful and vulgar and inappropriate for any of us—particularly the women among us—to brag on ourselves. Surely the merits of our work should rise to the top like so much cream and be scooped up by the makers of theatre around us, who will see the beauty of our efforts and reward us, both for our modesty and our artistry.

 

How lovely if the world were so just.

 

The bitter truth we all have to face—and figure out how to overcome—is that when it comes to plays, the work is not selected on merit alone. Very often it is not aesthetics, but economics, that drives the choices. As well as convenience. Let’s face it. This is an exhausting undertaking, to produce a new play. And sometimes you simply cave to the choice that is close at hand. So if an enterprising writer can put himself on the radar screen of an overworked artistic director, so much better are his chances that his play will receive consideration.

 

We all know this. So why should we hesitate when it comes to self-promotion? Why should we feel any sense of shame that we do what we can to put ourselves forward?

 

Do you think that Katori Hall hesitates to put herself forward? Does Mike Daisey choke up shyly and decline to work every angle he can think to get his name across? Did a young David Mamet come to fame by modestly decrying his worth to anyone close enough to hear? You already know the answer.

 

Rather than a prohibition against self-promotion, what we really need is an invitation to do it more—and do it better. Rather than forbid us from talking about our work, demonstrate to us exactly how we should talk about that work. How can we advance ourselves without making ourselves an object of disdain? How do we put ourselves forward without also irritating the very people whose interest we seek to attract? If you want to be a service organization for playwrights, think about providing that service.

 

For the fact is, for many women, the question is not whether we have the right to talk about ourselves, but whether we can overcome decades of conditioning to become comfortable doing it. Many of us need encouragement and help in learning how to navigate these unfamiliar waters. What we don’t need are more roadblocks to our own advancement, put in our way by a group whose stated purpose is to celebrate and develop D.C. writers. Why refuse us a forum to talk about our work? What we need is to celebrate the triumphs, large and small, that propel us to keep on working.

If you want to be of service to us, then make that happen.

 

[UPDATE: Yes, I know that the page provides a Word doc file where writers can post their events–but that’s the equivalent of putting up a concert poster on the back wall of a shop, rather than the front window. You have to know it is there, and you have to remember to look at it, so its usefulness is dubious on its face.]

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