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.

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