KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 19, 2020 – If you’ve run out of Netflix or Hulu shows to binge, the University of Rhode Island Theatre Department has you covered.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has dropped the curtain on theater productions from the Great White Way to URI’s Will Theatre, URI is turning back the clock to provide a collection of classic radio plays on Saturday, Nov. 21.
In collaboration with the Harrington School of Communication and Media’s Broadcast Center, the department has recorded five plays – “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.” The lineup, free and open to the public, will be aired for 24 hours on the website Broadway on Demand, and then posted on YouTube next week.
“They’re all really different. There’s a mix of really classic radio dramas and there’s one by a local playwright that’s a series of interviews with LGBTQ+ people reflecting on living through the AIDS crisis,” says Rachel Walshe, faculty adviser. “With the pandemic, we’ve worked very hard to be resilient, innovative and flexible and still provide our students with a really good year.”
The radio plays project, “Volume Up!,” is one of those initiatives – a chance to provide students with production, design, management and acting credits after the department’s fall in-person productions were canceled. The project is the culmination of last spring’s THEATRE 322 class, in which student directors get a chance to stage a short play. Because of the pandemic, those plays were canceled and directors were invited to produce in an audio-only format.
Jourdan Miller ‘21, of, Seymour, Connecticut, was one of five directors to jump at the chance. He chose to direct “Vic and Sade,” a lighthearted comedy about friendship by Paul Rhymer.
“I desperately felt the need to create something of my own and flex my artistic muscles,” says Miller. “Coronavirus robbed me of my ability to be theatrically creative and heavily affected me. When I was approached with the opportunity to put my creative skills to the test for the first time in six months, I couldn’t say no.”
Jay Forcello ’21, from Hyde Park, New York, chose to direct the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” by Frank Capra. Forcello trimmed the holiday classic down to a tight 22 minutes to tell the story of small businesses, which have been hit hard during the pandemic. His adaptation focuses on the Bailey Building and Loan, the small community bank at the heart of the story whose existence is threatened by the town’s greedy villain, Mr. Potter.
“I think the plight of the small business has been really overlooked in the media and is an issue quite literally destroying the backbone of America,” says Forcello. “I want my project to make people aware and support those struggling right now.”
Kate Dyson ’21, of Lowell, Massachusetts, also chose a play that resonated – “The Journey Out,” a play by Frank V. Toti Jr. that weaves a story of the LGBTQ+ community through interviews of 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. “Too often our stories are outright ignored or tokenized by people not in the community.”
As faculty adviser, Walshe chose the radio plays format because the plays could be produced under pandemic restrictions, and the genre provided a rich tradition that allowed students to research its best practices.
Erin Haas ’21, of Providence, embraced the historic genre. She listened to some old, creepy radio plays and researched how they were produced in creating her adaptation of the short horror story “The Monkey’s Paw,” by W.W. Jacobs. “I wanted to make it like an old-fashioned radio play,” says Haas, “with the use of music and an introduction.”
The genre was also a complete turnabout for directors, forcing them to focus only on sound to create the world of their stories. Rehearsals – both in-person and over Zoom – focused on voice work and creating characters and sound effects, which were produced by a half-dozen student sound designers.
For “The 39 Steps,” by Joe Landry, a spoof of the Hitchcock classic, director Shannon Donnelly 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 ’21, of North Providence. “The actors each are playing a handful of characters and we’ve worked to make each voice distinctive.”
For the 14 actors involved in the five plays, the chance to work in a production during the pandemic was a major lure.
“I think we should take any opportunity we have at the moment to be able to act,” says Lauren Jannetti ’21, of Lincoln, who also created the melody and harmony for jingles in “39 Steps.” “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.”
“It was the chance to act at this time mixed with the fact that this project is very much driven by our peers,” says Erin McGowan, ’21, of Zionsville, Pennsylvania, who plays Mary Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “It’s all student directors, so we’ve had classes together for years. I think it’s really exciting and rewarding that we get to work in a production that’s run by our peers.”
The radio plays have forced the actors to concentrate on their voices. Nearly all play multiple characters, creating a unique voice for each, and they’ve needed to learn to deliver their lines through a mask.
“It’s definitely different than anything I’ve ever done,” says Liam Roberts ’24, of Warwick. “You have to get into the mindset of a radio play. Creating this character, you cannot use your face, your body language, anything like that. You have to keep that in the back of your mind, what would my character look like in this situation? But it’s all voice work.”
Matthew Corbett ’21, of Attleboro, Massachusetts, plays George Bailey and other characters in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He found that creating the several characters he voices has taken a lot more effort. “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.”
But maneuvering your voice to create multiple characters in quick succession?
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Trey DiGioia ’21, of Warren, who voices four or five characters in the first five minutes of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” including Mr. Potter. “In a normal play where I’ve had multiple characters, I wouldn’t get to do them on stage at the same time.”
One of the biggest roles in the “Volume Up!” project, however, may be that of Emma Becker, production stage manager for all five plays. She worked with assistant stage managers from Stage Management class assigned to each play to make sure rehearsals went off as planned, helped troubleshoot problems, worked as a liaison with the production team, and oversaw rehearsals and recordings in the Broadcast Center.
Becker ‘21, of Tiverton, 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.”
“Volume Up!” was recorded in The Harrington School’s Broadcast Center by center manager Jeff Fountain and Clay Cook ’22, of East Providence, and edited and prepared by sound supervisor Max Ponticelli, a theatre lecturer, and student sound designers.
To listen to all five plays, go to Broadway on Demand. The plays will be posted from 12:01 a.m. to midnight on Nov. 21. The Theatre Department is also hosting a Watch Party starting at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 21, on Google Zoom. The event will include the five plays and commentary from the student directors. To take part, go to the department’s Facebook post to register. Next week, all the plays except “The 39 Steps” will be available on YouTube.
The casts and crews
The 39 Steps
Director: Shannon Donnelly. Actors: Ryan Alexander, Lauren Jannetti, Liam Roberts, and Edhaya Tennarasu. Assistant stage managers: Jordan Cardona and Tricia Snell.
The Journey Out
Director: Kate Dyson. Actors: Omar Laguerre-Lewis, Matthew Oxley, Alana Parrott, and Ben Pereira. Assistant stage managers: Sara Gallagher and Liz Priestley.
It’s a Wonderful Life
Director: Jay Forcello. Actors: Matthew Corbett, Trey DiGioia, and Erin McGowan. Assistant stage managers: Tess Cruz and Ben Pereira.
The Monkey’s Paw
Director: Erin Haas. Storyteller: Mary Mullane. Assistant stage managers: Courtney Satterley and Sarah Taylor.
Vic and Sade Discuss a Close Friendship
Director: Jourdan Miller. Actors: Alexander Linn and Riley Nedder. Assistant stage manager: Kyle Smith and Goat For Always Star.
Broadcast Center manager: Jeff Fountain. Sound technician: Clay Cook. Sound supervisor: Max Ponticelli. Production stage manager: Emma Becker. Dramaturgs: Trey DiGoia and Athena Nakrosis. Sound designers: Owen Gilmartin, Liam Horne, Brian Miranda, Goat For Always Star, and Audrey Visscher. Technical director: Jake Hegnauer. Video tech editor: James Horban. Student production manager: Allison Marchetti.