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Diary of a Theatre Gal | These Shining Lives

Theatre is a world unlike any other. I got a glimpse of this in high school, a daily dose in college, and for the past six weeks I've been drinking this truth from a fire hydrant. Back in October, I put my BFA in Theatre Performance to good use and auditioned for a show called These Shining Lives. Much to my surprise and delight I was cast in the lead role of Catherine Wolfe Donohue, a young wife and mother who gets her first full time job at the Radium Dial Company where her life is forever changed.

The thrill of this role was getting to tell the story of the real women who left their mark on history. They paved the way for company regulations and who spoke out against the big businesses that threw away their workers for the product they made, getting away with it for far too long. When these woman contracted radium poisoning, they fought back, and they fought to the death. Catherine won her case after a 7 year law suit and died three weeks later.

The terror of this role came in two pieces: 
1) carrying a show on my shoulders, acting as both narrator and character with only a five minute break off stage
2) cutting off my beloved long hair in favor of a 1920's bob (very Louise Brooks/Thoroughly Modern Millie-esque)

The first was challenging yet so rewarding, an emotional and mental journey for sure! And the second still surprises me when I walk past a mirror. You can call me Velma or Edna Mode if you'd like ;)

[Photo credit: Mary Mackin]

This is the largest role I have had to date, and one of my favorite plays I've ever worked on. I stage managed it during undergrad and tossed the script into the "to direct" pile, my mind full of expectations and ideas for a future production. Little did I know I would step into Catherine's shoes three years later on the performance side instead of behind the scenes. Having had a director's mindset brought its own set of challenges to the process. I had to let go of my view in favor of someone else's, bringing what I had to the table and accepting it when my director had a different take. 

Catherine goes on a rather emotional and physical journey throughout the show. When we first meet her, she introduces us to her world from the outside, from the other side. "This isn't a fairytale, though it starts like one," she says. "It's not a tragedy, though it ends like one," she adds quickly. It's an uphill battle, a learning process, and told oh so poetically. 

She begins as a bright-eyed and hopeful nineteen-year-old off to her first day of work, then must find her place in a gaggle of girls who have worked at the factory for years, watching her family adjust to this new phenomenon of the working mother. A few years later, things begin to go sour. The dust from the paint she works with is no longer a light shimmer that lingers on her fingernails and dresses, but her skin glows from within. Aches and pains settle in, and the company doctor won't tell her what's wrong. She and the other girls are fired from the company when they all become ill, and they must choose to suffer quietly or go down swinging. After losing a bet, Catherine must decide, and it's off to court they go. 

During one rehearsal, I commented that I avoid conflict at all cost. I don't have the guts to stand up like Catherine did; she calls out her boss for the truth behind the matter and presses on even when her health leaves her bedridden and under scrutiny from her hometown and the media. She has such a conviction, a determination, to fight for what's right no matter the cost. That's something I wish I had more of. 

At the end of the play, spoiler alert, we see her again as we did in the beginning. After all is said and done, after her life has faded away, we see Catherine on the other side. Her first words? "There is a God..." She goes on to speak of miracles and angels and her perspective on all that has happened. With a laugh she says, "I think lucky me that I still believe in it all, after all of this." Oh man. What truth! What hope! After all the pain and suffering and injustice she faced, leaving this world well before her time, she still believed. She still hoped. She fought for something greater than herself.

I want to be that kind of woman. I want to stand in front of my Creator at the end of my days and say that I believed and I served with everything I had. I want to tell meaningful stories. I want to encourage others as they journey through their own. I want to act justly, walk humbly, and love mercy. I want to leave an impact, even if my name never hits the papers. And I thank These Shining Lives for reminding me of that.

It always surprises me what I learn about myself and my heart when making theatre. Journeying through love and loss in someone else's life reveals the places where I am building walls or nurturing old hurts or planting new dreams in my own. So as hard and overwhelming and emotionally exhausting I might be at the end of the day, I know the passion for this kind of storytelling and art-making is from the Lord. I can't wait to see what's up next.

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