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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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 Redux

Salvation Road‘s run at the Steinhardt School of New York University ended abruptly with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 29. Compared to the loss of life, injury, damage to property, chaos and disruption visited upon the good people of Manhattan–one friend I know of is still without heat two weeks later–curtailing the run of a play on a college campus is really no loss at all.  Disappointed as I am not to have a full run, I feel worse for the students who worked so hard to bring the play to life; they threw themselves into the project with such enthusiasm, I know they must have been deeply disappointed that they could not restage the play at a later time. But alas, the Pless Black Box was booked with the next show coming in, and there was simply no space to perform.

 

Salvation Road at Walden Theatre, directed by Alec Volz

For me, the play moves on now to another production, this time at Walden Theatre in Louisville, Ky., where a cast of younger actors tackles the story of two guys in search of a girl who does not want to be separated from her guru. The production is Walden’s entry into Louisville’s Slant Culture Theatre Festival, described as “a laboratory for uncommon works” and hosted by Walden. Salvation Road will run in rep with The Debate Over Courtney O’Connell by Mat Smart, produced by Theatre [502] of Louisville; The Man With the Flower in His Mouth, by Luigi Pirandello, produced by Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company, and 5 Things, a devised piece by Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, among other works.

 

Like NYU, the Walden Theatre is producing a large-cast version of the play. But this time, instead of college students playing high school age characters, the actors are area high school students who study in Walden’s conservatory program. This is a terrific opportunity for me to see how the play works as a youth theatre piece—and how well it is received by audiences of that age.

 

When I first wrote the play, I thought the biggest barrier to production by schools would be the subject matter–religion. But I was advised by a  high school drama teacher that cast size, more than subject matter, would be the bigger concern. Thus, I expanded what I had intended as a five-actor piece to a 90-minute play for 12 to 16 performers. However, the five-actor — actually now a six-actor — version still lives. During a workshop at NYU in the spring, I worked on that smaller cast version–simultaneously developing it with the 16-actor play, though we ultimately presented the six-actor version in public staged readings in June.

 

The differences? The larger piece creates a stronger sense of place; the atmosphere is richer. But the smaller cast play, requiring the cast to double into nine speaking parts, is a spare, stark telling of the story that for me, draws the focus more sharply. These are two different experiences of the story, and for schools that are interested in the issues raised by the play, involving more students in the telling makes a great deal of sense. But I still believe Salvation Road can find an audience in mainstream theatres and for that reason, I look forward to the production of the small cast version at Seton Hill University in April.

 

Salvation Road at NYU

Salvation Road opens at New York University’s Black Box Theatre on Oct. 26. Tickets are now on sale and can be obtained online at www.nyu.edu/ticketcentral/calendar, or by calling 212-352-3101. Admission is $15 for general admission and $5 for students and seniors.

The show runs from Oct. 26 through the following weekend with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.

 

More details can be found here.

Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Adam & Me

The prolific Adam Szymkowicz is famously prolific in another way—interviewing other playwrights for his blog–and today he honors me as writer No. 484 on a venerable list that includes, among others–yes I’m bragging, yes I am, so what?–Liz Duffy Adams, Lonnie Carter, Kia Corthron, Julia Jordan, Rajiv Joseph, and of course my lovely and wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton who always greets me with a hug.

 

My new best friend

Yes I am ecstatic to make Adam’s list of people worth talking to. Wouldn’t you be if you’d been slogging away at this as long as I have?

 

So while I’m braggin’ on it, here’s a taste of my own wisdom. Don’t I sound fine?

 

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

 

A:  This advice is borrowed from Ira Glass. Be prepared to suck. Learning to write well requires a long, long apprenticeship. Mastering the form takes literally years and it takes a long time to find your voice and your style.

No. 484, circa 1896

As for me, I would say the earlier you start, the better, but no matter when you start, give yourself five years before you write anything worth showing to a theatre. Don’t try to get your stuff produced right away. Join a group or hire a tutor and write crappy plays. Write a lot of them, keep a journal, develop a keen eye for human foibles and a keen ear for natural language. Don’t underestimate the power of your own story, but don’t make playwriting your avenue for revenge or personal therapy. Nobody gives a s**it what happened to you as a kid. Your job is to write plays so stunning that when I come to see them, I can’t get them out of my head; so make me stop and take a deep breath and think twice about something I never doubted before. Whether I laugh or cry, make me pay attention and never, never let me off the hook. You are not writing to make me feel good, you are writing to reveal the world to me in a way I never saw it before. You can’t do that unless you are willing to go there yourself and bleed along with your characters.

 

Not that I follow my advice, mind you.

 

For the full interview, now that I know you’re fascinated, click here.

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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