Life and Afterlife of a Play, Part 2

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Radium Girls, Seton Hall University Theater Department

Radium Girls, Seton Hall University Theater Department

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Untold Stories

“Murderer!”

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Jackie and the protesters - photo by Lloyd Wolf

Jackie and the protesters – photo by Lloyd Wolf

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A little compassion might go a long way.

 

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

 

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

 

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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Salvation Road at PTNJ

 

On March 15, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey will feature a reading of Salvation Road as part of its ‘Forum Soundings’ series, focused on youth-centered theatre. This is the latest step in an ongoing development process for the play, which originated as a one-act at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in 2009, was workshopped at New York University and the Utah University Youth Theatre, produced at NYU in October and at Walden Theatre in November and is due for another production at Seton Hill University in April.

I sat down with  Jennifer DeWitt of PTNJ for a brief interview. The interview and more details about the series  can be found at PTNJ’s blog.

 

1.       What inspired you to write “Salvation Road?”

Originally a friend of mine who was active in what was then known as the Cult Awareness Network commissioned a play about the cult experience. I agreed to write the play, which I had intended as an “issue” play for theatres that tour to schools. But I didn’t really like the results; it was didactic and a bit predictable. So I tossed it in a drawer and did other things. Then in 2008 the successor organization to CAN–now called the International Cultic Studies Association–was holding a conference in Philadelphia and my friend wanted to present the play there. I went into a panic because I just did not like the script, but by then I had decided to take a different attack on the subject matter–which was to write about the people who are left behind, trying to make sense of what is going on. I had some experience with that–my sister was involved briefly in the Unification Church a number of years ago–and so I drew on a few details that I remembered from that time. So for me the play is really about the brother who is confused by his sister’s rejection of the family and trying to make sense of her need for an organization like the Disciples.

 

2.       You write in a variety of styles and genres. Do you let the subject matter dictate this or do you wake-up and say “today I plan to write a historical drama therefore I must find a subject?”

Plays for me are about wrestling with a question or an observation. The inspiration comes from all sorts of places–something I read in a newspaper or online, a book I’m reading, a photograph or an anecdote–even a painting or sketch I see in a gallery. I come across something that triggers a question. With Radium Girls, the immediate trigger was a chapter in a book on mass media that I came across online. I read the story of the New Jersey case and thought “How could this happen? Why does it keep on happening?” And I developed an obsession with the story. I knew starting out that the play was going to deal with the uses of denial in some way. But then I set out to do my research and in the process realized that I also wanted to tell the story from two points of view—the women in the factory and the men who owned the company.  It was a long struggle to come to a structure that worked, because it was an early play and I was not really confident in myself to do the story justice. But really I borrowed from Brecht, working in presentational scenes with more naturalistic scenes—and advancing the action in an almost cinematic way. So Radium Girls is really Epic Theatre.

 

Most of the other plays I’ve written are historical in nature–period pieces–though I am starting to write contemporary stories. And while in many cases the exchanges between characters are naturalistic—the structure usually isn’t; there is usually some element to the construction of the play that departs from 20th Century Realism. One artistic director described me as an “impressionist.” And I think that is largely true–certainly was true of The Good Daughter. There, the idea was to approach the scenes like photographs in a family album–that as you flip through the pages and through the years–a story emerges–and there are great leaps in time between the photographs, but you ultimately get a sense of an arc and a resolution.

 

I am drawn to period pieces because, like Shakespeare, I think audiences needs to look backward in order to look at themselves. You put some distance between the experience of contemporary audiences and the story you are telling them—and they can receive it better, especially if you are delivering a fairly harsh critique wrapped in the form of entertainment.

 

But I’m also interested in finding a shape or an approach that suits the material—and how this comes about is a bit of mystery. I sit with the idea or the characters for a while sometimes before the answer comes. Salvation Road is essentially a buddy movie on stage–two guys hit the road looking for a girl. And the structure is cinematic because the audience I am aiming at is used to receiving information in short bits; they are used to film and video and online entertainment and gaming–and that informs the way the play is put together. The newest piece I am working on now is a mash-up between a social satire and a murder mystery–with no solution to the mystery, which I am sure will really infuriate the audience. So it starts out as a comedy and gets darker as it goes. More and more I guess I am interested in bending forms—taking very familiar forms and working in that framework to force the audience to adopt a point of view it might not otherwise adopt. So I think the work is subtle in that respect—and I like to think it’s subversive. That’s what I tell myself.

 

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Breaking the Block Part 4: The Worst Case Scenario

Some years ago I came across a funny yet utterly serious book called “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook” by Joshua Piven—a guidebook on how to survive a series of unlikely disasters—from an avalanche to a shark attack to the crash of a jumbo jet. So I immediately bought a copy for  an artistic director who has suffered through enough near misses over 25 years of running a not-for-profit theatre to write a guidebook of his own. John is also a risk-taker dedicated to new work and has a keen eye  and a lot of good advice for writers.  Early on, his advice to me was that I needed to “raise the stakes” for my characters, another way of saying I needed to put more pressure on them—because it is only under pressure that character is revealed.

 

It is true in life and true in drama that the way we deal with mess says a great deal about who we really are. The same fire that melts the fat hardens the iron—to borrow a borrowed phrase from some advice columnist I used to read religiously like a fool  (she gave a lot of bad advice). But it is also a no brainer to say that any character in desperate pursuit of something is always more interesting than someone who can wait another week or so and won’t suffer for the delay. What audiences want—savages that we are—is to watch someone suffer–intensely. The more agony for the character, the better for the story and the more interested are we in the outcome.

 

James Stewart’s manically lovesick detective in Vertigo comes to mind—it is part of what makes that improbable (and creaky) ghost story so watchable 60 years later. Nobody suffers better than James Stewart, but most of us are not going to get a Jimmy Stewart to play our leading man, so what we lack in spectacular acting talent we have to make up in a riveting script.  (Not that Vertigo isn’t riveting, but you have to admit it does defy logic. Why, for example, would anyone cook up such a convoluted murder plot that hangs on such an unpredictable element—the detective’s inability to overcome his fear of heights? Scotty conveniently falters on the bell tower stairs, but he could just as easily have closed his eyes and charged ahead, at which point the whole plot would unravel. And then there is the murderer’s great good luck in escaping the bell tower undetected—apparently because no one without vertigo bothered to go up the tower steps to investigate what actually caused the victim to fall.)

 

But plot weaknesses aside, Vertigo is a terrific example of a character under extreme pressure. The woman Scotty thinks he adores is actually someone else, hired to use him as a pawn in a plot to fake a suicide as a cover for murder.  And once the real Madelyn dies, clueless Scotty is skinned alive during the inquest that follows, as an investigator coldly concludes that his cowardice was a greater cause of Madelyn’s demise than the mysterious emotional upset that sent her up the tower. Who wouldn’t end up catatonic in a nursing home after that?

 

We have to admit—when it comes to scenarios for losing your sweetheart, this has to be one of the worst case scenarios of all time—as well as one of the more original.

 

This, then is a useful question to keep in mind when sketching out the scenario for your play. Aside from the obvious–have we ever seen this before?–we need to ask ourselves how we can crank up the pressure on our characters.

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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.

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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The Long Shadow, Part Two

My mother and her brother in 1937

The death of his mother as a complication of his own birth meant that Jack Collins would be raised by relatives, not all of them vitally interested in his welfare. In his infancy, his care was left largely to his father’s much younger sister, Margaret, then a winsome and cheerful 16-year-old; as he grew older,  he spent more and more time with his mother’s mother, Ida Finch,  and it was to Ida that he fled when his stepmother’s rages became too much to bear.

 

Jack was 15 months younger than my mother, and she described him sometimes as a “pesky little brother” who stole her roller skates and used the wheels to make a skateboard. Her tone of voice betrayed affection, though; I could see that she had loved him.  Generally, she said little of Jack, and we had only a few snapshots to anchor him in our imaginations: Jack at age six, blond and sweet, squinting into the sun as he grasps a croquet mallet; Jack at 14, gazing whimsically at the camera, as if daring the photographer not to laugh; Jack at 17, standing stiffly on a cold Easter morning, his best blue suit not quite fitting as it used to, his hair slicked back in the fashion of the day, his expression no longer so eager nor sweet. The boy who once put on such a good front was by now already grappling with the demons that would eventually destroy him. His attitude seems grim, resigned.

 

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Doors & Windows

Let us consider a simple mystery.

 

A man at a party lights a cigarette; from ten feet away, at the end of a narrow hallway, a woman observes him. The next room buzzes with talk and laughter, the rattle of glasses over a Patsy Cline record in full croon. But she sees only him.  For months he has been the focus of her fascination, moving at the edge of her circle of friends, chatty and charming, always clever, usually evasive, never alone.

 

And now there he is: by himself, striking a match with one determinedly casual stroke, a movement so sleek that she wonders if he had practiced it before a mirror. She smiles at this idea, and as she does, she catches his eye. This time, she holds his gaze. Continue reading

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