Jamie Johnson’s students are calling their own shots in the theater world — and they’re not even out of high school yet.
This past summer, the Lawrence High School theater director traveled with three students to Oskarshamn, Sweden, where they participated in a workshop for musical writing through the Florida-based nonprofit Lovewell Institute for the Creative Arts.
By the end, they’d written and performed their own play — completely from scratch — for a theater packed with Swedish locals. It was “surreal,” says LHS junior Julian Weslander.
“It’s like you’re writing your own role, which is not an opportunity you get a lot — unless you’re like, Lin-Manuel Miranda,” jokes Weslander, already a regular around the local theater scene in addition to their school’s drama program.
Like Miranda’s megahit “Hamilton,” Weslander’s show also borrows from a sometimes-overlooked bit of history. “Everglow” shines a light, pun intended, on the story of female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning while on the job painting watch dials with radium paint.
The women, who worked in New Jersey and Illinois factories post-WWI, had been told the paint was harmless. But then the workers began suffering from anemia, bone fractures, and rotting teeth and jaws.
The “macabre” element appealed to Liam Romano, an LHS senior who helped build the show’s set.
“Someone came up with the line, which we didn’t use, ‘The Radium Girls: A Jaw-Dropping Musical,’” says Romano, 18, who aspires to a career in theater tech.
It was a remarkable story that Liam and his peers — including Weslander and LHS classmate Jalyn Banks — had never heard before, but one they felt was worth telling.
After years of having their claims brushed away by the watch-dial manufacturers and the corrupt physicians and dentists the companies had paid off, former employees of the Illinois plant successfully sued for compensation in 1938. Their case led to the establishment of rights for individual workers to sue corporations for damages due to labor abuse, fueling improved workplace safety standards for decades to come.
“It became a lot more about fighting for rights. It was the first time people ever sued a company, and that was pretty big, because they were fighting for workers’ rights,” Romano says. “And because they were women, it was empowering in that sense.”
The radium storyline also allowed for some novel uses of glow-in-the-dark makeup, blacklights and synthesizers, to name a few of the show’s spookier elements.
Jalyn Banks, 16, played an American soldier who starts a correspondence with one of the Radium Girls back in the States.
The gadgets were cutting-edge army technology used by soldiers in the European trenches, and supposedly, Banks says, sometimes the girls in the factories would write notes on them. His soldier tracks down the writer of the message, and they get to know each other through letters, eventually singing a duet together.
Because his teacher had participated in Lovewell workshops as a student and retains connections with the nonprofit’s staff, Banks says he was already familiar with the program when Johnson introduced the idea of the Swedish workshop.
“I was in a small Lovewell show my freshman year at LHS, but it wasn’t the same experience sitting down and writing with a bunch of people I’d never met before — people who, culturally, almost could not be more different from me,” Banks says.
“They grew up in a totally different environment and climate than I have, but we all came together and put our differences aside and got through this and created a piece of art together,” he says.
Johnson, who teaches English and drama at Lawrence High, says she wanted her students to have the same kind of “amazing” experience she had with Lovewell as a teen. She describes the collaborative process as “empowering” for aspiring young artists like her students.
“You can’t make things with people and not come out a little bit changed by it,” she says.
Weslander agrees. Eventually, like other Lovewell shows, “Everglow” will be available for licensing through the nonprofit’s website. Weslander says you can also buy songbooks (including the songs they helped write) online.
Months later, the LHS kids still have the "Everglow" tunes in their heads.
“I was so excited about it, and I was telling everyone I knew about it back home, like, ‘Hey, this is what it’s about, this is that character,’” Weslander says. “It’s funny to be, like, a fan of something you created.”