This weekend I went to see my friend perform in a staged reading of “Welcome to the Doll Den.”
It’s a play inspired by real-life events about the first all-female radio station, WGAL, in Memphis, Tennessee in 1955.
Talk about standing out—these ladies were the first, they were special, they were different.
Over the course of the next decade, however, things changed…dramatically.
The civil rights movement, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the rise of feminism, a host of unrest—all of this challenges WGAL’s idea of what its role on the air even is.
Are they willing to open up the phones and talk about the (real) issues, rather than swap recipes? Can they be not just a novelty act, but real leaders?
Or are they stuck on being “dolls”—providing cute, lightweight, benign radio while the rest of the world moves on?
To their credit, the jockeys were willing and brave…but surprise surprise! Management wasn’t. The show ends on a sad note: WGAL closes its doors and goes off the air for good.
After the reading, there was a “talk back” with the director and performers. This particular work has been through many iterations. No fewer than 30 artists, writers, and performers have had a hand in the play so far. (Learn more about Electric Eye Ensemble here.)
The feedback came first from people who had seen earlier iterations, and who were attached to their initial experiences of the show. Ok, fine.
But they wanted the artists to “make it more hopeful” and to “give the characters more wins.” I was shocked. This brainy and theater-minded audience of New York theatergoers wanted, it seemed, to be comforted more than challenged.
I, of course, can’t keep my trap shut. So I spoke up.
“First,” I said, “I’ve never seen this show before. And I loved it, and didn’t need more songs or more hope or more Disney characters or a happy ending.”
(My friend, who was sitting with her fellow actors, burst out laughing. She knows me.)
I went on to say that there is a dangerous temptation to want every woman to win at everything, and win the long game, and earn their Hollywood ending. But that isn’t how any of this works.
Every big step—and WGAL was a big step—takes us a bit further down the road. But no one takes us all the way. We all play our part, and sometimes that part ends.
But it’s worth looking at this, too:
WGAL lessened its impact (and lost its business) because its leaders feared taking their innovation beyond novelty.
They made history by being first, yes. But being “new” is not the same as being sustainable, or taking real risks.
What were they afraid of? Of opening up the mics and hearing what people really thought. Of getting into the real issues, of fights, disagreements. They wanted to be sweet as sugar, and were afraid to offer anything but.
You may not think that any of this applies to you, but boy does it.
Because how often do we beg off tough questions and issues because we’re afraid of conflict? How often do we go with safe and sweet out of fear of offending?
I know I likely offended some of the people in that audience who want theater to feed their emotional preferences or comfort.
But that isn’t what art is meant to do. And it’s not what you’re meant to do, either.