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 ….


By setting up the one act version as the company president attempting to justify his actions to his grown daughter, the play has a clear frame that allows me to jump time radically. It also retains the central device of two main characters (Grace, the lead dial-painter, and Roeder, the CEO) and it preserves one of the strengths of the original, which was to depict the company owner as an ordinary man entrapped by his own denial.


Out of the process came a rediscovery of all the reasons why the play does so well on the high school circuit—because it offers some really meaty roles to young actors – particularly strong roles for girls, whose stories are seldom the focal point of drama. While it is written for 10, you can do it with as many as 38 actors (though I think the doubling is half the fun so I don’t recommend doing it that way).  It’s a play about a turning point in American labor history, set during the Jazz age (which makes for fun costuming), and it can be done with almost no set. In fact, it works better with no set – just a couple chairs and a table do very nicely—though a great lighting designer is essential. And—let us not deny the importance of this detail to high school theater directors—it’s clean: got no cussing and shows no skin.


Further, because I was adapting the play – not just cutting it – I was free to introduce new material.  So a scene that never appears in the original is now in the one-act version, to more economically present the financial pressures on the company men and to introduce the crusading Consumer’s League director near the top of the show—pitting her character directly as an antagonist to Roeder, something that is not laid out nearly as sharply in the original.


For any playwright whose work has attracted the attention of high school drama teachers looking for competition material, I would say consider taking control of your play by preparing your own cutting, or better still, revisit the play as a one-act piece. For me that meant narrowing the scope of the story and refocusing the point of attack, retaining some of the most important elements, while sacrificing others. The 40-minute version still has a sense of scope, but I think it loses something of its theatricality.  I miss my Brechtian devices—they are great fun! However the play still offers young actors some really juicy parts and it gives them an opportunity to dive into mature material – a story that explores the dark underbelly of American capitalism. It still respects the intelligence of its audiences and of the actors who perform it. Nothing about the one act is dumbed down.


So the next stop for the script is a read-through at Imagination Stage with Nikki Kaplan and her students in early December—this time I will be finessing the 43 minutes back to 60—for a slightly longer one-act version suitable to students in the acting conservatory at the theatre.  After that, the script goes to my publisher for an edit, and we shall see whether Radium Girls, the one-act, will have as much of an after-life as the original. Based on Steven’s enthusiastic embrace of the script – and the strong result I saw at Camp LeJeune High – I expect it will.