Friday, March 7, 2014

An Interview with ‘Radium Girls’ Playwright, D.W. Gregory

By Don Redman

D.W. Gregory grew up in Pennsylvania in a family of Irish Catholics and German Lutherans _- “the Irish won out in the religion department, and the Germans in the culinary department,” she says.
During her formative years she became fascinated with the Algonquin Roundtable – a renowned group of writers, critics, actors and wags in the 1920s who met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel in New York to trade lively banter. She was particularly drawn to writer and drama critic George S. Kaufman, whose notable works include Of Thee I Sing – earning the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a musical – and the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, You Can’t Take It With You.

D.W. Gregory
Photo by Claire Newman-Williams
“I thought it would be really cool to be a theatre critic in the 20s,” says Gregory. “Since I couldn't engineer that career choice I went into journalism as a business reporter and worked in daily newspapers for a number of years.”

She says she drifted into playwriting because she “didn't have enough nerve to be an actress. So I get to play all the parts at the keyboard.”

Gregory began her career path as a playwright first by attending workshops and “writing terrible one-acts with no real point.”

“That went on for a few years,” she said, “and then one day something clicked and I wrote a children's play that won a contest and a 10-minute play that eventually was a finalist for the Heideman Award at Actors Theatre of Louisville.  This proved encouraging and I kept on writing plays.”

Drawing on her working-class roots, Gregory’s plays, whether comedies or dramas, often explore the disconnect between the dream and reality of American blue-collar experience. That’s what attracted her to the Radium Girls when she read about the real-life events in a newspaper article.

“What interested me about the story,” she says, “was the idea that you could be on the job, at work, just doing the job you were instructed to do and end up with a horrible disease -- I found it morbidly fascinating and as I dug into the story it became apparent that there were incredible parallels between that story and the story of big tobacco, big Pharma, and myriad other cases of product liability.”

Working from a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, Gregory developed the play at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.

“The original production involved the associate artistic director of the theatre,” she recalls. “I did not choose him, he just stepped into the job, but we worked together in casting -- which is really fun. Lots of actors coming in and reading the parts. I was amazed at how hard they worked to prepare. Before we got to that point, though, the play went through a series of readings and a workshop.”
The play premiered at Playwrights Theatre in 2000 and was named the Best New Play of the 1999-2000 season by the Newark Star-Ledger.
Nearly 15 years later since writing Radium Girls, what still stays with her?
“How young they were,” she says, “how trusting, and what a horrible betrayal it was, that they were poisoned and then the company dragged its feet in taking its responsibility.”

Gregory’s approach to writing a play varies, depending on the subject.

“Each play is different,” she says. “Radium Girls took a lot of research, and I didn't start out with an outline so much as a list of events I knew had to be in the play. I'm writing one now that I outlined in detail. Some I start just by writing scenes and letting the characters talk.”
She says because of her regular job, she usually has to write in bunches.
“I'm a binge writer,” Gregory says. “Since I have a day job I can't put in more than an hour or two during the weekdays. When I'm working on a play I like to hole up in my office on a long weekend and crank out about 50 pages in three days.”

Juggling multiple writing projects, Gregory’s weekends are undoubtedly busy.

“I have a couple things in development,” she says. “One is a black comedy about a young couple who move into their dream house, only to discover the new neighborhood is being stalked by a serial sniper.”

D.W. Gregory writes in a variety of styles and genres, from historical drama to screwball comedy, but a recurring theme is the exploration of political issues through a personal lens. The New York Times called her “a playwright with a talent to enlighten and provoke” for her most produced play, Radium Girls, about dialpainters poisoned on the job in the 1920s. A resident playwright at New Jersey Rep, she received a Pulitzer nomination in 2003 for the Rep’s production of The Good Daughter, the story of a Missouri farm family struggling to adapt to rapid social change. Other plays include The Good Girl Is Gone, a black comedy about maternal indifference; October 1962, a Cold War era psychological thriller; and Molumby’s Million, a comedy about the boxer Jack Dempsey, which was nominated for the 2011 Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play by the Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia.

Gregory also writes frequently for youth theatre. Her play Salvation Road, about a boy whose sister disappears into a fundamentalist church, was developed through New York University's Steinhardt New Plays for Young Audiences program. A member of the Dramatists Guild, a former national core member of The Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, and a recent inductee into the League of Professional Theatre Women, Gregory is also founding member of the Playwrights Gymnasium, a process oriented workshop based in metro Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

An Interview with 'Radium Girls' Director Sara Pagones

By Don Redman

Sara Pagones has been involved in community theater for more than 30 years as an actor, director and even president of the Slidell Little Theatre Board of Directors.

Sara Pagones
Courtesy Paul Wood Photography
She has suffered a concussion, a displaced knee and numerous injuries of a more minor nature while on stage, and yet she keeps coming back for more. Radium Girls, is the sixth play she has directed and the second drama. She's won Ginny's for acting, most recently for Mona in "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.'' She won directing Ginnys for "The Foreigner'' and "Camelot.'' A veteran journalist, Sara is St. Tammany Parish bureau chief for The New Orleans Advocate. She and her husband, Jim, have three sons, all of whom spent part of their growing-up years at SLT.

We recently asked Sara to take a few moments of his time from directing Radium Girls to tell us more about her experience and background.

Q: What was your earliest involvement in theatre?

PAGONES: My earliest taste of theater came in first grade when I played Mrs. Puddleduck in a school play. I think I was cast because I was loud.

Q: What attracted you to theatre to begin with?

PAGONES: I was attracted to theater then because it I loved make-believe. And still do.

Q: What is it about theatre that holds your interest today?

PAGONES: We spend most of our lives hiding many of our thoughts and feelings, and it might seem like acting is another way to wear a mask. But it actually demands revealing our inner selves. And it's cheaper than therapy.

Q: Tell us five plays you’ll never forget, and why:


1.    The Unsinkable Molly Brown, because it was the first live production I saw, as a preschooler. I was mesmerized.

2.    Equus: first play with nudity and I attended with my parents (as a teenager) and the production had some seats on the stage. Guess where we sat?

3.    Camelot with Richard Burton at the Saenger. He was near the end of his life, but those burning blue eyes -- he made a wonderful disillusioned Arthur.

4.    Wicked on Broadway -- The spectacle and the music.

5.    Lend Me a Tenor, with Steve Cefalu and Allen Little, directed by Jack Cerny. Funniest show I ever saw at SLT.

Q: What play do you think people should see, but they probably haven’t?

PAGONES: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- It's long and makes you so uncomfortable. But what a great vehicle for the actors who get to be George and Martha.

Q: What was the oddest play you ever saw, directed, or starred in?

PAGONES: The Bald Soprano, my first encounter with theater of the absurd. And it was.

Q: What was the best advice you ever received about acting?

PAGONES: Be generous.

 About 'Radium Girls'

Q: Tell us about your vision and inspirations for your production.

PAGONES: Radium Girls is based on true events, and as a journalist, I find that appealing. Norma Rae, Silkwood, and Erin Brokovich come to mind, as shows with similr themes.

Q: What are the challenges to staging this production?

PAGONES: The script  has a very documentary/screenplay feel to it. The challenge is to make that work on stage -- with many different places and quick changes from one place and time to another.

Q: What the audience can expect to see?

PAGONES: The set is minimalistic by necessity. But that bare bones setting, I hope, will allow the audience to focus on the actors. They should come across as real people.



Sunday, March 2, 2014


By Suzette Ferrari

During World War I, U.S. Radium Corporation hired hundreds of young women to paint military watch faces with its luminous paint, Undark.  The women were instructed to keep a fine point on their paint brushes by licking or rolling the brushes against their lips.  For fun, the women often painted their nails or teeth for a glow-in-the-dark surprise.  The surprise was on
U.S. Radium Dial Painting Studio
Undark was made in part from radium salts.  After years of being ill and searching for an attorney to take their case, five fatally ill former employees of the Orange, New Jersey, factory, dubbed the “Radium Girls,” sued U.S. Radium.  The case, including U.S. Radium’s cover-up, delays, and smear tactics, was widely covered by the media.  Running out of time, the women settled their case shortly before most of them died.  D.W. Gregory’s play, Radium Girls, is based on their story.
The discovery of radium is attributed to Marie Sklodowska Curie (later Madame Curie) and her husband Pierre Curie, who isolated radium chloride from uranium ore in 1898. 
Madame Curie
Uranium ore, also referred to as uraninite and pitchblende, was a by-product (or tailing) of silver mining.  Madame Curie and Andre’-Louis Debierne isolated radium in its pure metallic state in 1910 or 1911.  Madame Curie won two Nobel Prizes for this work, and the common unit for the measure of radioactivity is called the “curie.”
The isolated substance was called “radium” because it emitted energy in the form of rays.  Radium is a heavy element, and its atoms (or isotopes) are unstable.  (For reasons beyond this author’s understanding) because of this instability, radium is luminescent and radioactive.  It is three million times as radioactive as the same mass of uranium.  On the Periodic Table of Elements, radium (Ra) is found in the same group or family as magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca).  The body may treat radium as if it were calcium, absorbing it into the bones, where it the radioactivity degrades the marrow and can mutate the cells of the bones.  In general, however, radiation causes damage to the body because it changes the chemistry of everything with which it comes in contact.
Radium isotopes emit radiation as alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays.  Although not generally harmful to exposed skin, when ingested (or swallowed), the high energy alpha particles collide with tissues and cause damage to the body.  Beta particles can redden or burn skin but can be stopped by solid materials.  However, if ingested or inhaled, beta particles travel deep into tissues and cause molecular damage.  Gamma rays are essentially pure energy and can pass entirely through the body (like X-rays), colliding with and energizing atoms in the body.  A lead apron or wall is required to stop these rays.
The connection between radium poisoning and the dial-painting industry was not made until 1924 or 1925.  It is now known that the inhalation, injection, or bodily exposure to radium causes cancer, necrosis, and other disorders.  However, in the 1910s and 1920s, radium was touted a miracle cure for all kinds of ills.  Radithor, billed as “liquid sunshine,” was a radium laced water said to increase one’s vitality, sort of like today’s Red Bull.
Gregory’s play captures all of the physical, legal, and social hurdles the New Jersey “Radium Girls” faced in trying to get compensation for their injuries.  For a more indepth discussion of the history, key players, and legal significance of the Radium Girls saga, read Kovarik and Neuzil’s excellent article, listed below.  There are numerous other stories of the Radium Girls of Ottawa, Illinois.  Perhaps, the subject of another play?

Alpha ParticlesBeta ParticlesGamma Rays, @

Environmental History Timeline: Radium Girls, by Bill Kovarik and Mark Neuzil, @

LaPorte v. U.S. Radium Corp., 13 F. Supp. 263 (D. Ct. N.J. 1935).

Nanny Froman, Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Polonium and Radium, @