Guest Blog: Kate Moore on The Radium Girls

The Radium Girls
The Radium Girls

From Stage to Page: The Journey of Writing The Radium Girls

In the spring of 2014, I had just made my directorial debut, thanks to KDC. I’d taken the helm for a production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding and had been firmly bitten by the directing bug. Just a week after the get-out for BW, I started searching for the next play I wanted to direct, googling ‘Great Plays for Women’. And as soon as I read the opening monologue of These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich, I knew it was ‘the one’. It had fantastic, strong female leads, a beautiful lyricism and, most significantly, it was based on a little-known but powerful true story: that of the Radium Girls, the American women from the 1920s who were poisoned by their work and courageously fought for justice. I pitched it as ‘Erin Brockovich meets Made in Dagenham, starring the Pink Ladies’.

At first, KDC and I got a knockback on the rights, but I felt so passionate about directing the play that I phoned Marnich’s agent in America and pleaded my case. Luckily, the rights were granted, and the show became part of KDC’s Spring 2015 season.

These Shining Lives cast
These Shining Lives cast

From the very start, I felt a responsibility to do justice to the Radium Girls’ real experiences and conducted a lot of background research. By the time of our first rehearsal, I knew enough to give a presentation to the cast about the true story we would be telling onstage. I shared with them the details of the women’s suffering; I showed them photographs of the people they had been entrusted to represent. My ethos as a director and actor is that ‘it’s all about the back story’, so the cast and I spent hours in rehearsals working on the back stories of all the characters, improvising scenes and discussing the imagined details of their lives: what was Tom and Catherine’s wedding like; who was Grossman’s wife; did Pearl have any siblings?

As I researched more about the true story, I realised that Marnich had fictionalised some aspects of her play – for example, in These Shining Lives, Charlotte Purcell is a wise-cracking, unmarried, childless woman, but in real life she was fairly quiet, with three children and a husband called Al. My research also revealed something I found hard to believe: no book existed that focused on the women and told the story from their perspective, in an accessible, readable, narrative account.

By this time, the girls had become precious to me so I thought, If no one else has done it, why don’t I? I pitched my non-fiction book about the women to publishers while we were still rehearsing the play, and invited them to attend our production to learn more. The editor who eventually bought the book, Abigail Bergstrom of Simon & Schuster, was one of those in the audience as KDC staged the play at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town in March 2015.

While publishers considered my pitch, plans were afoot behind the scenes for a second run of that KDC production. The cast and I, sharing a desire to bring the women’s story to as large an audience as possible, self-funded a transfer to the Pleasance, Islington in September 2015. By the time we opened, I had a book deal inked with Simon & Schuster and my flights were booked to America for a research trip. I was to follow in the footsteps of the characters I had directed.

It was an incredible experience. The play had given me names and addresses; and to stand in Ottawa, Illinois at 520 East Superior Street – the home described by Catherine Donohue in that opening monologue which had first captured my attention – was such a powerful moment. I knew, of course, that the play was based on a true story but perhaps that moment, more than any other, cemented the knowledge.

I also tracked down and interviewed relatives who had known and loved the people in the play: I spoke to Grossman’s son; to Catherine’s niece and nephew; to Charlotte’s son and grandchildren; to Pearl’s nephew ~ They showed me childhood photographs and generously shared details of their relatives’ lives, which I wove into the tapestry of my book. In a way, it was the ultimate ‘back story’ exercise – and I found out so much that the cast and I had never touched on; could never have touched on. Tom Donohue was a twin (his birthday was the same day as mine); Tom and Catherine’s wedding had 22 guests and a colour scheme of pink and green; Pearl was one of 13 children; Grossman had a young German wife named Trudel, whom he adored. I found original letters written by the women in a local museum, and held them in my bare hands, tracing Catherine Donohue’s signature, which she herself had written in pencil. It gently indented the paper. It felt so special.

Catherine and Tom
Catherine and Tom

While some of the things I learned were new to me, or contradicted the play, others we had unwittingly got right. I learned that Tom had used to carry Catherine around in his arms when she got sick; I had directed my actor playing Tom (James Barton-Steel) to do exactly that onstage, little knowing that the real man had acted identically. Marnich had written a ‘shopping list’ scene, where Pearl and Frances listed all the groceries they had bought for Catherine to help her, as she was too sick to get to the store; I found details in these letters of the pails of eggs, roast chickens and white nightgowns that Catherine’s real friends had bought for her to help her out. Bit by bit, I learned the women’s true story, and the genuine details of their lives.

And I visited the women’s graves. Watching my actors tell the Radium Girls’ story, I had been moved to tears many times: it is a powerful tale, and they were gifted. But as I stood in that sunlit cemetery, this wasn’t acting, or a cleverly crafted line, or a dramatic climax to a staged tragedy before me. This wasn’t a play.

This was Catherine’s grave – her actual, real grave; her body was beneath it. As her relatives stood respectfully a short distance away, I could not help the tears that tracked my cheeks and I knew in that moment, more than ever before, that I had to bring her story – her real story – to the world.

Radium Girls Book CoverEight months later, my book, The Radium Girls, has just been published. It tells the story not only of the Ottawa women that the play was about, but also of the Radium Girls of New Jersey. It is that narrative account that was previously unpublished: the book that puts the girls centre stage, and gives them a voice. I have used those interviews with the relatives in the book, but I have also embedded the women’s own accounts of their story – those letters I found, and their diaries and court testimonies – to bring them to life, in their own words. ‘Always at the centre of the narrative,’ wrote The Spectator in a review of the book, ‘are the individual dial-painters, so the list of their names at the start becomes a register of familiar, endearing ghosts.’

I hope the Radium Girls will be around to haunt us all for a good while yet.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is out now, published by Simon & Schuster

Follow Kate on Twitter @katebooks

These Shining Lives Cast Biographies

Tickets now available

(in order of appearance)

Anna MarxAnna Marx – Catherine Wolfe Donohue
Anna is very excited to be in a KDC play after not doing anything for ages. In her spare time, she likes swimming and talking about herself in the third person. What she lacks in acting ability, she makes up for in punctuality and love of the semi-colon; to prepare for the part she watched three series of Dallas before realising the play is set in Illinois.

Darren EvansDarren Evans – Max ‘Goose’ Graves / Carlo / Dr Richard Winmore
Having studied with City Academy drama centre in 2010, this will be Darren’s third KDC production, completing the ‘Moore trilogy’, having starred in Blood Wedding directed by Kate Moore and, more recently, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot directed by Duncan Moore. Having performed a variety of roles over the years, this will be Darren’s first display of multiple roles within one production. He is looking forward to working with Kate again and performing with such a wonderful cast.

Mark EwinsMark Ewins – Oliver Albert Young (aka ‘The Twist’ or ‘Baby Face’) / Dr Leonard Rowntree / Radio announcer
Mark has performed with KDC since 2006, having had a variety of roles ranging from Shakespearian fools through to a terrified signal man. He is excited to be back at the Lion and Unicorn having previously performed in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Barons Court. Described as a collector of hobbies, Mark can be found eating and drinking to pay his rent whilst at night he retreats to the quiet life of community orchestras, swimming, ice skating and trout tickling (I made that one up). Enjoy the show!

Cathy AbbottCathy Abbott – Frances O’Connell
Cathy is delighted to be returning to the stage after a break of over five years. She joined KDC in 2000 and has lost count of the number of productions she has been involved in. Previous roles include: Viola in Twelfth Night, Andromache in both Troilus and Cressida and The Trojan Women, Simon in Lord of the Flies, Pope Joan in Top Girls. She has also played both Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor in separate productions of The Crucible (several years apart!).
In real life she is a children’s wear designer, who loves ice cream and is addicted to Instagram. If you want to know what Cathy had for breakfast, she will be more than happy to show you @CathyCatLondon.

Julia PagettJulia Pagett – Charlotte Purcell
Julia is a recent graduate from Drama Studio London and is currently represented by Inspiration Management. Before attending drama school, she attained a degree in French Studies from the University of Warwick. Julia’s upbringing in Africa, North America, France and the UK has helped mould her into the actress she is today.

Sarah HudsonSarah Hudson – Pearl Payne
Sarah is delighted to be acting with KDC again after an absence of six years; back in 2009 she played Elizabeth in Six Degrees of Separation. Since then, she’s moved to Brussels and back, and performed in productions on both sides of the Channel including The Threepenny Opera, Hello Dolly, All My Sons, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and Autobahn.

James Barton-SteelJames Barton-Steel – Tom Donohue
James graduated from Mountview Academy of Performing Arts and is grateful for his first play with KDC. He took a rather unorthodox route after graduation, acting his way through a full-time job before having a lightbulb moment and returning to the stage; better prepared he hopes. James has appeared in, amongst others: An Ideal Husband (Sir Robert Chiltern/Criterion), The Accrington Pals (Ralph/The Pleasance), The Way of the World (Mirabell/The Gatehouse) and Greek (Eddie/Warwick Arts Centre). James is at home playing very English rakes and cads, so a Chicago steel welder is right in his comfort zone!

William BaltynWilliam Baltyn – Rufus Reed
William is a regular KDC actor, having most recently appeared in Manger A Trois in Summer 2014. Prior to this he played Prince Charles in The War of the Waleses in London, Stratford and at the Edinburgh Fringe.  Other roles have included Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina and a surprising number of nameless parts such as Father, Interviewer, Priest, Narrator and Zookeeper.  He is relieved to have a name.

David DoyleDavid Doyle – Dr Walter Dalitsch
Since being cast as ‘sheep number three’ in his school nativity play (reviewers said his ‘Baa’ sent shivers down the spine), David has secretly suspected he would return to the stage. In his job as a journalist he has to pretend to be knowledgeable about a host of subjects, so he is hoping it will be a small step to pretending to have a medical degree as the honest Dr Dalitsch.

Lionel LaurentLionel Laurent – Leonard Grossman
French-born Lionel is making a return to theatre and London after several years in the Parisian wilderness. As a teenager he was always at home acting in modern American classics like Glengarry Glen Ross and The Crucible, so he’s excited that his first appearance with KDC is as a Chicago lawyer – even if his accent’s a little rusty!

These Shining Lives Cast List

17 – 21 March, Lion & Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town

Catherine – Anna Marx
Charlotte – Julia Pagett
Pearl – Sarah Hudson
Frances – Cathy Abbott
Tom – James Barton-Steel
Mr Reed – William Baltyn
Company doctor/Reporter 2 – Darren Evans
Dr Rowntree/Radio announcer/Reporter 1 – Mark Ewins
Dr Dalitsch – David Doyle
Leonard Grossman – Lionel Laurent

Spring Season 2015 Auditions

The Spring Season 2015 will consist of:

17 – 21 March 2015
These Shining Lives by Melanie Marnich
Directed by Kate Moore

24 March – 28 March 2015
The Butler Didn’t Do It by Ryan Watson
Directed by Charlotte Vassell

31 March – 4 April 2015
All In The Timing by David Ives
Directed by Kat Wootton

Auditions Notices for These Shining Lives and The Butler Didn’t Do It
Date: 12, 13 and 14 January
Time: 7pm
Venue: Clean Break Studios, 2 Patshull Road, Kentish Town, NW5 2LB. The nearest tube is Kentish Town

You can audition for both shows on the same night though ultimately you can only be cast in one.

Auditions Notice for All In The Timing
Date: 20 and 21 January
Time: 7pm
Venue: Clean Break Studios, 2 Patshull Road, Kentish Town, NW5 2LB. The nearest tube is Kentish Town

Our auditions are free to attend. There’ll be committee members on hand to help every night so we promise you’ll be well looked after!

Please come along on whichever days suits you but do bear in mind that the last night is usually very busy so we’d advise you come on an earlier night if you can.

Recalls will be on the following Saturdays following the initial auditions, i.e. 17 and 24 January.