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.

 

 

 

 

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.

So Produce a Different Play Already!

In the annals of theatrical chutzpah, this latest missive has to rank fairly high.

 

A theatre that shall remain nameless booked several performances of Radium Girls for the coming fall. Okay, cool. I’m excited, because this one looks to be a professional company, even though it’s only a single weekend run. Then comes this request, sent to me via my publisher: Would I approve some cuts to the script? Attached is a file containing a heart-stopping number of red scratch-outs.

 

Now, I’m accustomed to approving cuttings for competition. Radium Girls has been presented in a truncated form multiple times and won awards for the schools involved. I don’t mind; it’s clear in the context that the students are presenting excerpts from a larger work, and that’s fine. In fact, a lot of those competitions have generated subsequent full productions by other schools.

 

In this case, though, the theatre would be presenting a radically pared down version of my play for paying audiences. When I asked for the reasoning behind these cuts, what I got back was a doozy:

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The Subject of Study

“The strength of Gregory’s characterization of Judy is that she does not allow disability to become an all-encompassing character trait that merely paints Judy as either bitter or heroic. …  In short, by using disability as a dramaturgical device rather than a metaphor, a stereotype, or an all-encompassing world-view, Gregory has made the play and Judy’s disability more accessible and approachable to a mainstream audience without diminishing the reality of disabled life for Judy.

— Bradley Stephenson, Ph.D. candidate in theatre, the University of Columbia, Mo.

 

 

It is an odd sensation to find oneself the subject of study—and even stranger to discover that the examination will be shared at an academic conference. But let me wish Bradley Stephenson the best with his paper “Reclaiming Wholeness: The Dramaturgy of Disability in D.W. Gregory’s Dirty Pictures,” which he will present at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) Conference in Washington, D.C., Aug. 2-4. This is a project he’s been working on for several months—a final paper for a course he was taking at Mizzou on Women’s Dramatic Traditions—and I imagine it’s a pretty high stakes event for him, to present his work to his peers and superiors in this way. Most of the people in the audience are sitting where he aspires to, being university professors of theatre.

 

Staged reading of the play in NYC, funded in part by Montgomery County, Md. Arts and Humanities Council.

Speaking as someone who spent years making a living by writing about other people, I find it frankly kind of weird to read about my work through someone else’s eyes. But I’ve read the paper and I think Bradley has nailed it. I’m especially flattered by his conclusion that Dirty Pictures is “subversive.” That’s a word that applies very well to a play that presents a story in the familiar frame of sex comedy but goes on to upend the audience’s expectations of the characters. One actress who worked on an early reading said the play “explodes stereotypes.” I certainly hope so. So Bradley, I embrace your assessment of Dirty Pictures and I plan to use “subversive” in my elevator speech from now on.

 

Now, if nothing else, this episode  reveals to me how critical it is to embrace serendipity in our work and lives, because Brad’s enthusiasm for my plays dates back several years, to when he was a high school teacher/director in search of projects for his students. He originally had pitched Radium Girls as play for his school, and while it was not selected, he was enough of a fan to use the play as a basis for a class project once he got to Mizzou—and to talk it up with his professors, along with some of my other work.

 

Our conversations about his current project began with this email in February:

 

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Unexpected Impacts

Trolling through Google with coffee in hand is a favored Saturday morning time-waster, but this morning I came across a stunning discovery — Google images, more than 100, of various productions of Radium Girls.

To wit:

Radium Girls, Boston University

This visually arresting production, directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue at Boston University, was one I had the privilege to see.

But there are many others, some obviously more successful in the design and execution. The play has not made a big impression in professional theatre — but in universities, high schools, and now community productions, the story is told and retold. Fascinating to see how different and yet how consistent the interpretations seem to be.

 

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I Get Letters

Tempting as it is to believe my labors are all for naught, I am occasionally confronted with a different reality. This time it is a note card from the exhausted but grateful and excited cast and crew of RADIUM GIRLS at The Shea Theater in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Director  Robert Freedman kindly forwarded  a review from the local press (quite positive), a copy of the program, a DVD of production photos, and a card full of love. Witness:

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