Radium Girls: The Show Must Go On

When campus closed in March, history teacher Claire Tam faced an unusual dilemma. She was directing the upper school drama, Radium Girls, and students were only a month into rehearsals. She asked her cast and crew if they wanted to continue with the production and the answer was a resounding “Yes!”. She and her students needed to figure out how to take a play that was written for the stage and transform it into a virtual experience. 

Luckily, the cast and crew had already started to block scenes and work on the script. Ms. Tam’s approach to directing also fit the situation well. 

“As a director, my process is to always focus on the words,” she said. 

“The staging will get as fancy or as simple as it needs to be to serve the dialogue. That translated well into a remote situation because we focused so much on the dialogue and the emotions that came with it.”

To make the staging as authentic as possible, students created virtual backgrounds from historical images that they then projected on blank walls or sheets pinned to walls at home. Actors rehearsed and individually performed their scenes while being filmed over Zoom. Each piece was then carefully stitched together with the others to create the final performance.

Ms. Tam’s initial fear was that her students might find it difficult to act without the in-person experience of working off other actors. She was pleasantly surprised by their perseverance. A stand-out example came when they had to reshoot part of an important scene because of technical difficulties discovered some time after the original shoot. The scene included Jordan Becknell ‘20, who played the play’s lead character, Grace.

“It was a very emotional scene between Grace and her mother (played by Mary Fangman ’20). Jordan just jumped into the middle of her climax monologue - without any buildup. She went straight from chatting with friends in the zoom session and was able to immediately turn it on,” said Ms. Tam.

“Having a cast that was able to tap into that type of thing was fantastic.” 

Students also had to overcome the challenge of rehearsing in the middle of their homes during the lockdown. 

“They had to contend with things like having their dog wander into view while we were filming or having siblings doing homework at the other end of the kitchen table. Their ability to create their own universe within four feet around them was impressive,” she said. 

The technical side of the production presented yet another kind of challenge.

After teaching herself the basics of the Premier Pro film editing system, she spent a frantic 72 hours editing the play, sometimes having to merge video from different takes, cutting and pasting in audio clips line by line. She gave high praise to Arts Program Director Steve Dziekonski for providing 24-hour support and reassurance.

Radium Girls tells the true story of female factory workers who contracted radium poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint in the 1920s, and their long quest for justice. According to Ms. Tam, the timing of the play was impactful for both actors and audience.

“What I love about theater is that you can use it to say really important things, and it was apropos that the weekend we launched this show was the same weekend that the protests blew up,” she explained.

“We had spent several months talking about ‘what do you do when you see injustice?’ and ‘who is affected by the systems that are in place?’. Seeing that being mirrored in our world was a cool reminder that even when you are in the midst of a pandemic with teenagers who are adjusting to remote learning, you can still do important, impactful work.”