This message was originally written for the drama students of Thespian Troupe 5364 at Collins Hill High School, which had planned to produce the author’s Radium Girls this spring. The production, which last year ranked eighth on the Educational Theatre Association’s annual list of most-produced high school plays, was canceled because of quarantines related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

WE ARE LIVING through a strange moment, as you know.

For many of us, and for graduating seniors particularly, this spring has been one of deep disappointment. Beyond the cancellation of your spring play, you’ve had to accept the cancellation of the two most significant rites of passage for any American high school student — your senior prom and your graduation ceremonies — as well as the other celebrations that go along with them. As someone living with an auto-immune disorder, I want you to know I am personally very grateful to you and everyone who has taken the request to isolate seriously and is doing their best not to be a source of infection for vulnerable people like me.

Usually when I’m invited to talk to the cast and crew of one of my plays, it’s to congratulate them on their hard work and to say “break a leg’” on opening night. In this case, there is no opening night, but I congratulate you all the same for your commitment, your courage, and your excitement in taking on a theatrical project such as this. Even though you won’t get the chance to perform it, you did embrace it. By committing to your roles and responsibilities, you’ve made a commitment to the art itself.

That’s no small matter because it takes great discipline to bring a work of art to the world. Whether that work is a poem or a painting, a dance or a concert, a novel or a musical composition, or the production of a play, it reflects choices made by all the artists and craftspeople involved. The choice is to dedicate yourselves to something you believe is so important that you happily give up other pursuits to dive into the hard work of learning lines, learning blocking, struggling to understand your characters, building costumes and sets, scouring for props, hanging lights, publicizing the production, and more.

When we look back on the productions we’ve been involved in, we tend to think of the excitement of opening, the gratification of seeing seats filled, and the accolades that come to us after the show. All that is part of the experience, to be sure, but the ultimate gratification — and one not lost to you even now — is the community you create around the project. In committing to the play, accepting your roles, or volunteering to support the production behind the scenes, you made a compact with each other. You agreed to a shared purpose and, under the guidance of your director, a shared vision for what you want to achieve onstage.

Spotlight prism

What you learn about yourselves and each other in making that commitment and creating that community, however brief your time together, is something that will stay with you. The ability to commit to a difficult task and to have the resolve to see it through no matter how hard it might be in the moment is one of the most important skills you will ever acquire. Please be assured the work you have done is not wasted, not at all — because every one of you is better for it.

In the last few weeks, like a lot of artists, I’ve been ruminating on the future of theatre: whether there is a future, and what role I might have in it, if any. I confess I’ve had a hard time with these questions. It is easy to be discouraged about the future of an art form that is all about creating community, that is so dependent on bringing people together in enclosed spaces. Even though many theatres have met the challenge by bringing their work online, through Zoom readings and livestream productions, it is the live experience that distinguishes theatre from video and film. Though we can convey the content of a play with these technologies, we cannot truly duplicate the experience of the play. And so (for now) we are, many of us, on hold. In the meantime, however, I’ve been thinking about why we do theatre in the first place, why it matters, and why I believe it will persist.

As a writer of historical dramas, I tend to look backward to look forward. In this case, I look to Shakespeare’s day, when theatres were shut down repeatedly because of the recurring plague. And I look to a period not long after, when the Puritans rose to power in England and Parliament shuttered theatres for nearly two decades. What was enacted as a temporary ban in 1642 — in the name of public safety — was made permanent in 1648. It was not until the restoration of the monarchy 12 years later that theatre came roaring back. Not only did it come roaring back, it came back transformed. Restoration drama brought women to the English stage for the first time, and plays written by women became staples of the repertoire. So, too, in our time will we see transformation. There is no great trauma that does not bring with it some kind of renewal, and this pandemic is no different. How it will play out is yet to be known, but we know from experience that theatre as an art form is extremely resilient.

One reason for that resilience is its unique ability to touch audiences. When I set out to write Radium Girls more than 20 years ago, I had no idea what a long life it would have after the initial production. People have asked me why I didn’t write this story in some other way, as a novel, for example, or a nonfiction book. Why a play? And they often ask why I tell this story in the way I did, inviting the audience into the head of a character most people perceive as a villain, forcing the audience to sympathize with Mr. Roeder before they watch him march headlong into a disaster of his own making.

The answer for me is the immediacy and intimacy of the stage. The story of the Radium Girls is the story of American culture writ large. The questions it wrestles with are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1920. In some ways, these questions can feel overwhelming and distant at the same time. It’s easy to turn away from them, but in a theatre, you cannot avert your eyes. You watch the story unfold, and you are drawn in emotionally to the characters. The play forces a dialogue between the audience and the art; I don’t believe you can walk away unchanged. Some question, some notion, is triggered within you.

And when you force an audience to sympathize with an otherwise unsympathetic character, you force them to look within themselves. We all like to think we would do better than Arthur Roeder if we had been in charge of the radium factory. But would we? Would we put people before profits? Or would we, too, be caught in a mentality of fear and denial to justify the lifestyle we’ve achieved and are terrified of losing? These are the questions your production would have put before audiences. You won’t get the chance to do that for them, but you’ve already posed these questions to yourselves. And these questions are not going away — they are reflected to you in daily headlines and social media posts. What is the price of prosperity? Is there a trade-off between public health and private enterprise? Or is there another way? What do we owe our fellow citizens if not a fundamental respect for their right to health and happiness?

I urge you to continue to wrestle with these questions and think about the future you would like to create for yourselves, your community, and this nation. The path forward is not certain for many of us. I assure you, though, we have seen hard times before, and we’ve come out of those periods. Live long enough and you will see many ups and downs in the business cycle. The stock market will rise and fall. Unemployment figures will bounce around; we will see more recessions and, very likely, more pandemics. What we don’t have to see is callous disregard for each other. What we don’t have to be is a society so focused on profit that it refuses to take responsibility for the vulnerable among us.

As you go forward in life, you will discover the skills you’ve developed in theatre will be of great use in many other settings. In theatre you’ve learned to commit to your purpose, to reflect on and process complex information, to think on your feet, to make difficult choices, to respect structure and honor deadlines, to work cooperatively, and to communicate better than you did before. Above all, you’ve learned to roll with the punches, because anyone who does theatre knows that best-laid plans not only go astray, they knock you sideways if you let them — and you have learned not to let them.

All these skills will serve you in the present moment as you figure out how to respond to events unfolding around you. The first thing you must do is commit to the hard work of staying engaged. It’s easy to tune out and give up. But no one ever solved a problem by pretending it didn’t exist. You are theatre kids, so you know that nothing beautiful comes easily — and in this respect, you have a great advantage over other young people who have not had the privilege or pleasure of bringing stories to the stage. Don’t forget that advantage. Resolve to put it to good use.

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