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.

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.]

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Da_Vinci_Vitruve_Luc_Viatour

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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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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