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

Director pitches – Autumn Season 2016

We are looking for two directors to take on a week each at the Barons Court Theatre. The weeks are 25-29 October and 1-5 November. Rehearsals would start in early September.

What’s the deal?

Without our wonderful directors nothing would happen. We rely on those creative geniuses to dream up the ideas and become the enthusiastic, balls of energy that inspire our actors to take those ideas to the stage. We want to hear from all budding and established directors who would be interested in pitching a play to be performed for one week in June.

What kind of thing do we want?

ANYTHING!!! We love theatre in all its dramatic, hilarious, touching and downright avant-garde glory. From Shakespeare to new writing, Ibsen to long-form improv, we’ve done a lot and we are always looking for the next challenge.

Things to consider

KDC prefers play with upwards of 8 roles in order to give our actors plenty of parts. However, don’t let that deter you from pitching other things, we have ways…

The theatres we use are fairly small and our show budgets are limited. If you are picturing a revolve and purpose built ship it probably won’t happen.

KDC have fantastic actors but they aren’t professionals: they have lives, families, jobs, insecurities and are doing theatre because they love it, not because they are paid for it. As a director you need to be sensitive this and create an environment where people feel safe and free to be creative. Please have a think about this because it’s very important and we will ask!

But I haven’t directed before!!

That’s fine, we have to do everything for the first time at some point. Although we do like a bit of experience, we appreciate different backgrounds bring different talent and have plenty of old hands to help you find your feet.

I’m interested, what now?

In the first instance drop the artistic director, Kim Morrison, a quick email briefly explaining what you’d like to pitch by 5pm on Friday 1st July and we can take it from there.

Summer Season 2016

25 – 28 June Breaking the Mould
A festival of brand new work based on well-loved classics, created by you, our fabulous membership

3.30pm matinee 7.30pm evening
25 Alice
The Laboratorium –
A Furrytale
Love, Shakespeare
The Laboratorium –
A Furrytale
26 Love, Shakespeare
The Laboratorium –
A Furrytale
Love, Shakespeare
The Laboratorium –
A Furrytale
27 N/A Love, Shakespeare
28 N/A Love, Shakespeare

Taking place at The Rag Factory, 16-18 Heneage Road, E1

28 – 30 June @ 7.30pm
There Has Possibly Been An Incident by Chris Thorpe
The Spread Eagle, Croydon

Would you stop a tank carrying nothing but your groceries? Would you save a child from a crashed plane? Would you save your country from corrupt rulers? How about kill for what you believe in?

There Has Possibly Been An Incident is a play about choices and consequences. Pasts and futures. Questions and answers. Right and wrong. One story about bravery, one about accidental power, one about missed opportunities, and one about conviction in your own beliefs. Plus one more story about the biggest choice of them all.

KDC Presents… The Party

The PartyTickets are £15 per person, or £12 if you have a group of 8, and include a free cocktail and canapés.

Every ticket entitles you to 3 songs on our play list as well, so make sure you email your choices to Friends and partners are welcome.

The revelry will commence at 7:00 pm and finish (at this venue at least 😉 at 2:00 am. Friends and partners are very welcome. The nearest station is Dalston Kingsland.

Check out The Dalston Boys Club on Facebook

We’d love to see all your faces, but be warned… we have a strictly limited number of tickets available, so make sure you book early!

You can book your tickets via our online form. We will stay in contact with you as The Party approaches.

Looking forward to seeing you all there!
❤ The Committee

There Has Possibly Been An Incident Cast List

Incident_thumbThere Has Possibly Been An Incident is showing 28 – 30 June at The Spread Eagle, Croydon. The cast:

The Plane Hero: Su Vigus & Stephen Lucas
The Politician: Samantha Wright & Rob Whitaker
The Watcher: Deborah Omolade & Tom Cunningham
The Terrorist: Julia Pagett & Keir Mills

Director: Saskia van ‘t Hoff
Assistant Director & Designer: Rose Pickles
Stage Manager & Production Assistant: Olivia Ho

The Laboratorium – A Furrytale Cast List

LaboratoriumAs part of the Breaking the Mould festival, The Laboratorium – A Furrytale will be performing at The Rag Factory:

25 June – matinee and evening
26 June – matinee and evening

The cast:

Danielle Florence
Laura Mantovani
Michaela Mackenzie
Victoria Olusanya
Giulia Bruzzone

Director: Carl Fletcher