By Katie Cline
The year is 1922. The Radium Dial Company has just opened in Ottowa, Ill. The women who work there are paid
eight cents for every watch they paint, and they’re ecstatic about it. They don’t know that the jobs they are so excited to have will be what kills them.
This is the setting of “These Shining Lives,” the JSU Drama Department’s first show of the 2016-2017 season. Written by Melanie Marnich and first produced in 2
010, the show is based on the real-life story of Catherine Donohue and The Radium Girls of Chicago.
After working at Radium Dial Company for nine years, Catherine and her friends Charlotte Purcell, Pearl Payne and Frances O’Connell, and many other young women, contract terminal radium poisoning from the radioactive paint used on the company’s watches. The radium poisoning lead to brittle bones, cancer and severe bleeding. Many victims had to have their jawbones removed, and others had limbs amputated. When the company denies knowledge of the dangers of radium, the women sue.
“It’s a very emotional show,” said Alexis Robinson, a junior theatre performance major who plays Pearl, “very powerful. I’m a very emotional person, and I can’t stop crying on stage.”
“I like when you get to see people react to it,” added freshman Allison Lawley, who plays Frances. Lawley is a nursing major in her first production at JSU. “I love theatre because it shows actual human emotion, and it draws that out of people.”
The play concludes with the ruling of Catherine’s court case, which ultimately led to the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA).
Auditions for “These Shining Lives” were held in August, and the cast has been rehearsing since September, often working late nights to make the show come together.
Savannah Jones, a senior theatre performance major who p lays Catherine, discussed some of the difficulties of portraying characters onstage. For Jones, playing a character who physically disintegrates on stage has been a challenge.
“You put on a different skin,” Lawley said.
Ebony Antoine, another fourth-year student and performance major, explained the challenge of adapting to her character.
“My character is the compete opposite of who I am personally,” said Antoine, who plays Charlotte. “I’m super bubby, and I love people, and Charlotte is just sassy and wants all the attention. “For somebody who isn’t very talkative, when they take on that character who is really out there and very talkative and an overachiever, they have to pretty much drop who they are, and that’s why they can be so outspoken on stage.”
Antoine has been acting since elementary school and would like to pursue a career as a full-time actress, possible returning to school someday to obtain a theatre technology degree.
“I do it for joy,” said Antoine. “Growing up, my mom always told me that joy was a happiness that never went away. And every time I’m doing a show, I get this overwhelming joy, and I feel like I wouldn’t be able to find that in anything else.”
“That’s the best way to describe it,” Robinson agreed. “Joy.” Theatre, Robinson continued, is not a career path for the weak-hearted. “If this isn’t the only thing you can picture yourself doing for the rest of your life, change your major, because it’s a lot of hard work and late nights and no sleep and emotional and physical exhaustion and so much dedication.”
“We sculpt ideas. We make our art out of ideas and feelings, things you can’t see, and that’s why theater is such a unique art form,” Robinson said. “You can’t touch it. It just is. We manipulate the unseen. How do you take words on a page and turn it into something that can make somebody cry?”
“It forces you to be empathetic,” Jones said. “It forces you to take a look at both sides—every side—of every situation of every person. As human beings, we change constantly on a day-to-day basis. We’re constantly getting new information and learning new things, and, as an actor, you embody someone who is not you, and, even if you don’t have the same values as this person, you have to dig into the text, and you have to understand why this person feels this way, and it’s never just because, ‘Oh, they do.’ No, you have to have that empathy. You have to understand their struggle even if it’s not something you agree with, and it just gives you a broader understanding. And it helps with interacting with other people, as well. We tend to get so caught up in ourselves, and we’re self-centered about, ‘Hey, me. I did this. I have a story. ‘I-I-I-I-I’—all the time, and it’s nice every once in a while to go to the theater, to be in a show and to drop ‘I’ for a little bit and to experience what it’s like to not be ‘I’ all the time.”
The play also stars Dakota Yarbrough as Tom Donohue, Aaron Williams as Mr. Reed/Company Doctor/Dr. Dalitsch and Champ Bryant as Leonard Grossman/Radio Announcer.
“My favorite part about being in the show—and this can go for every show I’ve been in—is just the experience of being able to bond with the cast,” said Yarbrough, a junior in his third JSU production.
“I really love being in shows so I can get to know the people behind the scenes,” Williams said. “I watched shows at JSU before I was in ‘These Shining Lives,’ and I saw all these awesome people doing awesome things, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of that. And now those people I looked up to are my friends, and that’s really cool to me.”
Williams is a junior who dabbled in history before settling on a theatre performance degree the spring of his sophomore year. As of now, he hopes to be a voice actor in the future.
“These Shining Lives” is the first JSU production for Lawley and Williams, but it will be the first onstage performance ever for Bryant.
Bryant came to JSU in the fall of 2015 as a psychology major and switched to theatre in the spring, despite the fact that he had never acted before, not even in high school.
“The catalyst was definitely Mike [Boynton],” said Bryant. “I took his intro to theatre class my first semester, and it was great. So I switched to a drama major the next semester, and I was his assistant director on ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’”
Bryant is currently pursuing a design-tech degree with hopes of becoming a director one day.
The production is directed by JSU drama instructor Lesley Warren, and students and faculty from across the department are involved in every aspect of the show.
Students Cheyenne Oliver and Jessika Holmes serve as the stage manager and assistant stage manager. JSU junior Meg McCrina designed the costumes. Adjunct professor Jason St. John designed the set. Department head Randy Blades serves as sound designer, and alumna Keera Mitchell returned to serve as the lighting designer. Cody Harrell, who has returned to JSU for his second degree, is the assistant technical director.
In addition to these students and faculty, countless other students work in the costume and scene shops to bring these designs to life, and many more work backstage or in the front of the house, selling tickets and serving as ushers.
“These Shining Lives” runs Oct. 27-30 in JSU’s Carlton Ward Theater. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online at the drama boxoffice.
“For the pun,” Lawley concluded, “The show is gonna’ be ‘lit.’”
*Assistant professor of drama, Carrie Colton, conducts backstage interviews with some of the designers and behind-the-scenes crew of “These Shining Lives.” Check out the first two videos here!*