How St. George’s theater department found a way to practice art in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
From Broadway to West End, theaters are shuttered and actors are doing their best to find other means of work. The closures make sense – large indoor spaces with patrons sitting shoulder-to-shoulder are potential breeding grounds for infection, and their hesitance to reopen is ultimately made in the interest of public health. But for student actors at St. George’s Independent School, ingenuity and a bit of good fortune made it possible to put on this fall’s Upper School play, “Radium Girls.”
It all began last May when director of theater arts at St. George’s, Karen Dean, selected “Radium Girls” as the Upper School’s fall play.
“I chose it to meet the talents of my students and because I wanted a serious, history-based piece,” Dean said. “But when I really looked at this play, the structure and the set requirements, it was the perfect piece to take on during a time where we had to do a lot of adapting.”
After the March shutdown canceled the final performances of the 2019-20 school year, Dean was determined to see this play to fruition. She carefully considered how this play might make sense in a world where theater feels anything but traditional. She was ultimately driven by her students.
“My students needed this opportunity,” Dean said. “So I was going to figure out a way to make it work. I knew there had to be a way.”
As she reviewed the play, the technicalities of the piece could not have been better suited for contemporary parameters. The cast requirement was small, only nine students would be required to fill the play’s more than 30 roles. Throughout most of the play, only three or four actors would be on the stage at once. None of the actors were required to physically touch each other. There are no elaborate props or backdrops, and a traditional stage wasn’t required. This piece could be performed anywhere, and Karen devised a plan to make it work.
“I approached our administration with the idea, and we worked closely together to come up with guidelines that would allow us to perform within St. George’s safety protocols,” Dean said.
Together, they came up with a plan that would allow the show to go on. Students would go straight from school to practice, ensuring they already passed health screenings for the day. They converted St. George’s Upper School dining hall into a black box theater with socially distanced seats, rather than using the traditional chapel space on the Germantown campus. The performance was live-streamed each night for anyone who was unable to attend in person. All attendees were required to wear masks and sit in family units socially distanced from others. Crowd size was limited to 50. Students had their own microphones that were sanitized before and after each use. While they did not wear masks on stage, they put them on as soon as they entered the wings and were taught to rely on their microphones rather than traditional vocal projection.
Beyond the physical nature of the play, the content feels especially relevant. The play loosely tells the true story of women who fall ill to radium poisoning after working a factory painting watches. As they struggle to understand what is happening to them – and how aware the leadership was of the risks involved with their work – they start a courageous mission to fight for adequate care and justice.
From Nov. 5 through 8, the play ran without a hitch. Leading actors Caroline Higley and Dean Campbell gave compelling performances and the complement of cast members excellently executed their varying roles with nuanced depth. Audience members walked away with an important historical and contemporary lesson: fight for what you believe in, even if it seems like everything is against you.
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