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

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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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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From STEM to STEAM: Putting the ‘Art’ Back in Science Education

On Saturday Feb. 23 I crossed something off my bucket list–and was a keynote speaker at the 2013 Theatre in Our Schools Mini-Conference in Richmond, a project of the Virginia membership of the American Alliance for Theatre & Education. Organizer Steven Barker invited me to speak on the topic of incorporating the arts into other core education courses. Here’s what I had to say:

 

Steven asked me to join you today to think through a most intriguing question: How can we transform STEM to STEAM? Or more to the point how can  that missing “A” can be incorporated into—and actually enhance—the teaching of  other core subjects?

 

STEM as we know is an initiative to emphasize SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, and MATH in the classroom.

 

For lovers and teachers of the arts—all manner of art—-the fact that music, painting, dance, theatre—even literature—is missing from this initiative is not just an unfortunate oversight, it is troubling evidence of an attitude that pervades our culture, which is that the arts are secondary—extraneous, fluff, unimportant—while science and technology are essentials.

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour

 

To believe that is to be blind to the role of the arts not just in education but in our very lives. As theatre artists, we know that the arts and humanities are vital to helping young people develop essential skills— not the least of which is the exercise of the imagination. Without the ability to envision, the scientific mind would never think past the world as it exists now in the present.

 

 

In a recent essay, Princeton University Professor Danielle Allen reminds us:

 

 

“That you can’t do well in math and engineering if you can’t read proficiently, and … reading is the province of courses in literature, language and writing. Nor can you do well in science and technology if you can’t interpret images and develop effective visualizations — skills that are strengthened by courses in art and art history.” And, I would argue—by classes in drama.

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Breaking the Block Part 6: Cooking With Commies

I confess to a panic attack the other day when I realized that not only  am I behind on the promised scene, I cannot tamp down my anxiety to write it. The excuses are piling up—production, yadda, hurricane, yadda, production, yadda, nostalgia tour, yadda, yadda, yadda—and now the latest: a nasty flu, which I soothed with multiple toddies  (yes, there was whisky involved, sue me) and homemade soup (leek and potato, recipe to follow. I do try to please.)

 

Chopping leeks had me thinking about what my characters might be having for supper on a Sunday night, and it occurred to me that I ought to scout out a Russian cookbook somewhere, circa 1930 (but in English please!) to get a sense of what Alexei’s mother might put on the table. Then again—a 1930s cookbook would have to be approved by The Party, I imagine, and would a bowl of Communist borscht taste different from the pre-war Tsarist variety? Alexei’s mother in 1930 would be at least 50 and presumably have learned to cook sometime before the turn of the century and very likely, with no assistance from formal recipes at all, so I imagine what she put on the table would be in no way influenced by Party approval but certainly by any going food shortages at the time.

 

All this ruminating takes me back to my basic problem: To write a scene of any authenticity I have to know a little bit of something about the characters and their physical world, and for this play especially, I feel a deep need to immerse myself in the culture and currents of the era. For book research, I have turned to the brilliant Orlando Figes and his phenomenal account of ordinary life in the Soviet era: The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. (Even as I write these words I realize I need even more than that. A book alone will not do it—I need a tangible experience, but a visit to Red Square in not yet in the cards.)

 

Forty pages in, the takeaway from Figes’ work is the extreme intrusion of the Soviet state into the private lives of its people, the widely accepted understanding that privacy and personal happiness are luxuries that the people can no longer afford; their focus must be to build the ideal (Communist) state, and to do so, they must cast aside any notion of a personal life. It is heartbreaking in its idealism, realizing the number of lives shattered by the grinding machinery of Stalin’s police state. Even those of the truest believers.

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The Importance of Multiple Productions

Having seen the second production of  Salvation Road—third if you count the original one-act at the Philly Fringe in 2009—I have now received the kind of vindication every playwright craves: I know my script stands up.

 

 

With two different casts in two radically different incarnations—David Montgomery’s production at New York University featured original music, a rich sound design and a modular set, while Alec Volz’s production at Walden Theatre in Louisville was performed in the round with minimal sound and only four barstools as set pieces—the story of a young man in search of a lost sister is the same from one production to another.  Now having worked the play through several readings and workshops, I already knew that the script was fairly well constructed and I had a lot of confidence in it. But seeing it in a second incarnation showed me that the play was really there.  It lived on stage in a different way, but the fundamentals were the same.

 

 

Nan Elpers, Courtney Doyle, and Elese Whiting in Walden Theatre’s production of Salvation Road. Photo by Harlan Taylor.

 

Most playwrights, though, don’t get to this discovery, for the simple reason that most plays never get past the initial production, if they are produced at all. As we know, theatre in the United States has been peculiarly obsessed with world premieres—and this obsession works to the detriment of the form. Not only is it frustrating to labor so over a play that will never see more than a single production, it precludes a playwright from experiencing the essential next step in a play’s development. Because it is only the second production that will make clear to us exactly how well—or how poorly–constructed our play really is.  Simply put, if if what we deem essential to our play falls out of it when a different director and cast takes over—then we know that there are problems with the script.

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Salvation Road Opens Tonight

Salvation Road opens tonight with a cast of thousands ….

 

It has been a long process developing this play, a comic drama about a boy searching for a sister who has disappeared into a fundamentalist cult.

 

Originally a one-act for three actors (hated that version) the play underwent a massive rewrite in the summer/fall of 2008. I got up my nerve to stage the retooled one-act version, but on advice of a high school drama director — the fabulous Jennie Eisenhower — I developed it into this version, a full-length for 15 actors.  Jennie did not think the subject matter would intimidate a lot of schools, but the cast size–five to eight actors–would discourage a lot of high schools. A cast of 15 to 16 would be a much easier sell. With that in mind, I revised the play into a large-cast version. It subsequently received a developmental workshop at The Utah University Youth Theatre in 2011 as part of the American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s Playwrights in Our Schools Program.  This year the play was accepted for development during NYU’s New Plays for Young Audiences workshop at Provincetown Playhouse this summer. Ironically, the Provincetown project focused a full-length with a small cast (six actors doubling into nine parts).  This is the first time I’ve written a play with two versions–one aimed at professional production, and the other aimed at the youth theatre market.

 

 

The  Theatre Department of the Steinhardt School at New York University trains drama teachers — and there could be no better match for this play than a premiere of the full-length youthversion in a departmental production. It is a challenging topic for young actors and for their audiences, but I strongly believe young people have more going on inside than many of their teachers, and sometimes parents, appreciate.  My hope is that schools across the country will not be put off by the subject matter, but will embrace this play as an excellent opportunity for their students to explore issues of faith, spirituality, conformity, and control through the story of two boys caught up in the cult phenomenon.

 

The next stop for Salvation Road is a production at Walden Theatre in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 8-18. I’ll be going out there for a post-show discussion.

 

 

 

 

 

The Trickster in Your Play

One of the pleasures of stealing away to a theatre conference such as  the American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s (AATE) gathering in Lexington, Ky., last week is meeting theatre artists with a distinctly different view of process.

 

Such an artist is Steven Barker, who currently teaches at Camp LeJeune High School in North Carolina. Steven outright rejects the Stanislavskiian “get in touch with your emotions” approach to acting in favor of an analysis based in archetype and inspired by the writings of Frankie Armstrong and Janet Rodgers, co-authors of Acting and Singing with the Archetypes.

 

Reynard the Fox, a classic Trickster

The archetypal figure of the Trickster, or Fool, comes to us not just as  the Joker in a card deck, but in the guise of myriad  characters whose dominant trait is to embrace joy and shake off restraints imposed by society.  Huckleberry Finn comes to mind immediately, as does Pippi Longstocking, and The Cat in the Hat. (Coming off a conference dedicated to theatre for children, I can’t help thinking in terms of childhood literary icons.) And of course we see the Trickster in the cartoon characters of Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and Bart Simpson, as well as in Shakespeare’s Puck and Petruchio.

 

In his workshop at AATE, Steven invited us to get in touch with our inner Trickster—for some that impulse is not buried all the deeply, but for others, the task of awakening him is not so easy. Over the years I’ve grown less inhibited, but not so uninhibited that I don’t balk at kicking off my shoes and strutting around a hotel ballroom clucking like a chicken.

 

The objective to the exercise is to expose drama teachers to the idea that there is a way to assist young actors in analyzing character that does not require them to dig into deeply personal emotional experiences in search of a sense memory that might apply to a key moment in a play. In Steven’s mind that kind of approach can border on exploitation when you are working with impressionable and often vulnerable young people.

 

To me the workshop in archetypes presents fascinating possibilities for exploration of character in the creation of plays.  How refreshing to break free of the psychological mire that informs so much of American storytelling and focus instead on the outline of character that must be filled in by its opposite. For every archetype has its shadow after all. The hero is plagued with bouts of cowardice. The Ruler veers toward the Tyrant. The Innocent Child has a bit of a Brat within. And the Caregiver Mother can devolve into an Obsessive Parent.

 

In charting out the psycho-biographies of new characters I find myself falling into the usual preoccupation with childhood traumas, trivial biographical details and hints of emotional upheavals that must surely inform the present action. How much more interesting might it be to chart character based on the qualities of the archetype. The Magician, for example, is on a quest to transform, but his fear is that he will be transformed in the process. Let us transplant the Magician to a cocktail party in the D.C. suburbs and see how this woman works on the Trickster next to her, whose quest is to enjoy life for its own sake but who fears that he might not really be living at all. What kind of fireworks will fly?

 

Steven informs me that Frankie and Darien will conduct a teacher training workshop next summer on Cape Cod that will incorporate voice, body, and imagination, to explore archetypal journeys and, in their words, “apply the work to text.” Interested parties should contact Janet Rodgers at jrodgers@vcu.edu.

 

 

Steven, a trained chef, will be doing the cooking. Perhaps I’ll see you there?

The Alchemy of Collaboration

Working on a new play is always a challenge in isolation. After successive drafts, you reach a point where you lose the path forward—or worse, where the path splits into a dozen different trails and there is no clear indication which one is the right one to follow. That is the point, for me, when I need to hear the script aloud. A fascinating alchemy occurs when an actor takes my words and breathes life into them.

 

Sometimes the result is a great leap forward in the development of the script.

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