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Behind the glow of the Flagstaff High School Drama Club's 'Radium Girls'

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FHS Presents Radium Girls

Shayne Smith, Flagstaff High School's director of bands and theater arts, sits on stage Monday afternoon in front of the set of Radium Girls. The play, a 1920s story about factory workers and dangerous materials, is set to run Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the school.

In the theater of Flagstaff High School, the stage is set and the lights are green for the upcoming production of “Radium Girls,” which opens Thursday at 7 p.m.

Literally, the lights are green.

“The color scheme was to reflect the actual glowing radium. Lots of green, lots of blues, colors to make everything look radioactive,” said Shayne Smith, the director of bands and theater arts at Flagstaff High School.

Onstage, these irradiated lights contaminate a set that depicts work benches complete with green aprons, paintbrushes and bottles of glowing green acrylic paint — the “radium” itself.

“When the lights go out, the whole set is dark except the radium,” Smith said.

This set is meant to portray the workplace of the Grace Fryer, a historical American woman who was employed by American Radium in the 1920s. Fryer was 15 years old when she started working for the chemical corporation, and her duties mostly consisted of applying radioactive radium paint to glow-in-the-dark watch faces. At the time, the company assured Fryer and her coworkers, who were largely young women, that the paint was harmless.

“The girls were actually instructed by the company to point the brushes with their mouths to make sure that they had accurate painting,” Smith said. “So, the girls were literally ingesting radium-based paint.”

Over the years, Fryer observed in horror as her co-workers fell ill and died. Soon, she suspected radiation poisoning.

“She started seeing effects from the radium and quit and began her legal battles in her mid-20s,” Smith said. “They went all the way through her like 30s.”

While her legal challenges were successful in that they found American Radium guilty of negligence and required to corporation to pay out settlements, for many young women, the damage was done. Of the Radium Girls who shared Fryer’s line of work, countless became permanently ill and more than 30 died. Fryer herself succumbed to the poison of her employment in her early 30s.

The show “Radium Girls,” written by D.W. Gregory, recounts the life and efforts of Grace Fryer.

Despite depicting events from 100 years ago, there’s still something timely about the tale, said Smith.

Contemporary takes

He tries to produce plays that are relevant, and “Radium Girls,” makes him think of current struggles between laboring classes and the mega-rich, the way that today’s workers push back against low wages and unsafe working conditions, particularly in an age of pandemic.

“There's a line in the show that kind of sticks out,” Smith said. “A character says, ‘This is just kind of how it is now.’ And there's another line that goes ‘People are dying everywhere.’ And that is something that I've heard a lot during the COVID pandemic. But the line ignores the source and puts blame on nature, rather than on the poor working conditions that these girls were put in.”

While the conflicts of “Radium Girls” may fit easily into the present day, that synchronicity does not account for the whole of Smith’s attraction to the play. He finds Grace Fryer’ story inspirational and believes this American folk hero could be a role model for young women.

“I hope young girls see representation of strong-willed women who are pushing to stick up for their rights, and stick up for quality workplaces and equal pay,” he said.

He also believes it’s important for the thespians of Flagstaff High School to be offered strong roles.

“I'm working with teenage women every day,” he said. “A lot of them are seen in plays and musicals as a damsel in distress. And they're constantly framed as pawns in a love story. ‘Radium Girls’ pays off because there are teenage women who are the centerpiece of this story in an empowering way. This play gives them the opportunity to not be the damsel in distress or the pawn in the love story. They get to be the fighters.”

The production of “Radium Girls” will showcase the combined efforts of at least 65 students. Smith has contributed direction (and even a specially written, brand-new scene in the second act), but the rest has been erected by the hands and hearts of young actors and technicians.

It hasn’t been easy. Safety measures have mandated that rehearsals were conducted with masks, and facial expression is a crucial element of theater, so the actors have worked exceptionally hard to make up the difference. But when the curtains open there will be no masks onstage, and Smith is not concerned. His students are committed, and they have successfully pulled off two shows with masked rehearsals in the past.

Smith expects “Radium Girls” will be their best yet.

“Third times the charm,” he said.

Opening night is Thursday, but the show will also have performances on Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the door, and at FHSperformingarts.org. Smith encourages all (older than 5) to the see the educational, powerful, and times darkly sorrowful play. He also encourages folks to get involved as volunteers so that his students and the Flagstaff community can continue to enjoy the privilege of theater education.

“Theater in the public schools is something that doesn't always happen, and it’s also at the end of the rope when budget cuts happen,” he said. “If anybody's looking for places for their tax credit money to go, public school theater program and music programs are definitely always looking for that.”

For more information, visit FHSperformingarts.org or contact Shayne Smith at ssmith@fusd1.org.

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