While the pandemic has dropped the curtain on theater productions from Broadway to Kingston, the URI Theatre Department has come up with a creative alternative.
From 12:01 a.m. to midnight on Nov. 21, the plays will be on Broadway on Demand. A Theatre Department Watch Party begins at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 21, on Google Zoom. To attend, register on the department’s Facebook page. Next week, all plays except “The 39 Steps” will be available on YouTube.
The project, “Volume Up!” is a collection of five classic radio plays recorded in collaboration with the Harrington School of Communication and Media’s Broadcast Center. The plays are “The 39 Steps: A Live Radio Play,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” “The Journey Out,” and “Vic and Sade Discuss a Close Friendship.”
Faculty advisor Rachel Walshe chose radio plays because they could be done under current restrictions, and the genre provided a rich tradition that allowed students to research its best practices. “With the pandemic, we’ve worked very hard to be resilient, innovative, and flexible and still provide our students with a really good year,” she says.
Choices and challenges
Jay Forcello ’21 chose to direct “It’s a Wonderful Life,” trimming the holiday classic down to 22 minutes to tell the story of small businesses hit hard during the pandemic. His adaptation focuses on the small community bank at the heart of the story whose existence is threatened by the town’s greedy villain, Mr. Potter.
“I want my project to make people aware and support those struggling right now,” says Forcello.
Kate Dyson ’21 also chose a play that resonated. “The Journey Out” weaves a story of the LGBTQ+ community through interviews with Rhode Islanders about their experiences. “As a gay woman, doing works written by and for the queer community is very important to me,” says Dyson.
The genre was also a complete turnabout for these directors, forcing them to concentrate on sound to create the world of their stories. Rehearsals—both in-person and over Zoom—focused on voice work by actors and sound effects created by more than a half-dozen student sound designers.
In creating her adaptation of the short horror story “The Monkey’s Paw,” Erin Haas ’21 listened to some old, creepy radio plays and researched how they were produced. “I wanted to make it like an old-fashioned radio play,” says Haas, “with the use of music and an introduction.”
For “The 39 Steps,” a spoof of the Hitchcock classic, director Shannon Donnelly ‘21 spent weeks working with actors to focus on the characters’ voices and creating sound effects that establish settings in the fast-paced, international spy thriller. “I chose the play because it provided endless opportunities to actors and sound designers to explore new territory that is not focused on in traditional theatre,” says Donnelly.
‘It’s all voice work’
For the 14 actors involved in the plays, the chance to work in a production during the pandemic was a major lure and the need to concentrate on their voices a major challenge. Most play multiple characters, requiring them to create a unique voice for each. Beyond that, they needed to learn to deliver their lines through a mask.
“Even though this is very different for all of us—just using our voices as opposed to looking at people—it’s a great tool to have in our tool belts,” says Lauren Jannetti ’21, who also created the melody and harmony for jingles in “39 Steps.”
“You have to get into the mindset of a radio play,” says Liam Roberts ’24. “Creating this character, you cannot use your face, your body language, anything like that. You have to keep in the back of your mind that, what would my character look like in this situation? But it’s all voice work.”
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Matthew Corbett ’21 plays George Bailey and several other characters. “I’m digging deep into my creative chest of ideas because I can’t rely on my body. This is taking the things I know about how I move my body and transferring that into how I maneuver my voice,“ he says.
“It’s a lot of fun,” adds Trey DiGioia ’21, who voices Mr. Potter and several other characters in the first five minutes of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “In a normal play where I’ve had multiple characters, I wouldn’t get to do them on stage at the same time.”
Theater in any form is a collaborative art. “Volume Up!” was recorded in The Harrington School’s Broadcast Center by center manager Jeff Fountain and student Clay Cook ’22, and edited and prepared by sound supervisor Max Ponticelli, a theatre lecturer, and student sound designers.
But one of the biggest roles in “Volume Up!” may be that of Emma Becker ‘21, production stage manager for all five plays. She worked with assistant stage managers, helped troubleshoot problems, worked as liaison with the production team, and oversaw rehearsals and recordings in the Broadcast Center.
Becker has worn many hats in her URI theater career—actor, choreographer, dramaturg, puppeteer, and assistant stage manager. For her first time as production stage manager, she put in a lot of preparation, especially researching COVID-19 policies. But it’s gone smoothly.
“It’s been very much a team effort,” says Becker. “Especially now during COVID, we’re all working even closer than I think we have before. We’re realizing how much we need each other to get through.”