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.

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.

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.

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.]

Why a Play? Are Some Topics Too Hot for Stage?

An invitation arrives in my email to consider writing a new play about  a topic so current that taking it on at all seems  to be almost irreverent, given the anguish that many of the players still feel.  But I am not about to pass up an opportunity to work with the theatre in question, so I sit down to think about the challenge.

 

How do you write about recent tragedies that have shaken a community to its core? The pain is too new for black comedy and seems almost too raw for drama.

 

Dottie Sandusky Couldn't Go There

Dottie just couldn’t go there.

Consider the events that unfolded in State College, Pa., over   the last year. The trial and subsequent conviction of former Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky on child sex abuse charges–and the vindication of his victims in a scathing report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh–are the stuff of TV police procedurals and movie melodramas.

 

What can theatre bring to the cultural conversation about this almost Olympian tragedy that a TV show or a film could not?

 

Why a play at all?

 

 

A torn-from-the headlines treatment might reduce the story to a straight-line mystery in which the open question is not whether the coach  will be caught and convicted, but exactly how he gets his comeuppance. It would wrap up in 90 minutes, and we could be satisfied that the wheels of justice turn quickly and neatly—with conveniently timed commercial breaks so we can tear away from the drama for another trip to the fridge.

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Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Me and Jackie

The wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton has included me in her series on women playwrights in D.C.

My newest best friend

You can check out the interview here.

Thank you Jackie for thinking of me and including me in such illustrious company as  Laura Zam, Karen Zacarias, Renee Calarco, and Jennifer Nelson.

And you can check out Jackie  here.

And do check her out because she is one cool cat. She would be cool even if she didn’t write about me.

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