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Bob Goepfert: Theater On The Air

SARATOGA - When attending theater, I always think of a conversation I had with a world-class Shakespearean scholar many years ago.  She made a point of saying that in Shakespeare’s time, people going to the theater would say they were “going to hear a play.”

The point was to listen to the words of a playwright.  The action, costumes, scenery and possibly music were supporting elements of the experience.   It was words that made the theatrical experience rich and fulfilling. The flourishes, like falling chandeliers, flying superheroes and giant apes came later.

With live theater being an almost endangered species, that emphasis on the spoken word has a special resonance today.  The go-to medium for theater has been Zoom-like presentations, which get better every month. But still, with flat, two-dimensional talking-head digital productions, it is the word that is still dominant.   

There now seems a trend to skip the visuals and go right to the words.   Some theater companies are embracing radio, audio books and podcasts.

There is a touch of irony concerning the recent presentation of the Public Theater’s production of “Richard II.”    The Public, a company I greatly admire, decided that for the summer 2020 presentation of “Richard II,” it would use director Saheem Ali’s concept of presenting the work as if it were a radio show.   

“Richard II” is about a fractured society with a broken social system.  The country is led by an egomaniacal ruler.   To make the issues in the play relative to contemporary times Saheem chose to cast it almost exclusively with actors of color. 

Since The Public could not offer the play at its outdoor theater space in Central Park, an almost insanely obvious conclusion was reached.   Offer the play on the radio.   July 13-16, “Richard II” was presented as a four-part series on public radio station WNYC.   

A live theater piece designed as if presented as a radio show produced as a radio show.  It’s the definition of something going full circle.

But there is also a thing called evolution.   That radio show is now a podcast available at the Public Theater website.  For an opportunity to hear the play “Richard II,” go to publictheater.org

The concept of presenting theater as only a spoken word experience is the hallmark of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s 2020 summer season.   At the start of the pandemic the choices for theater seemed to be closing completely or refiguring the theater for social distancing or producing only one or two person plays for on and backstage safety.

None of the choices appealed to Mandy Greenfield, Williamstown’s artistic director.  Instead, in April she announced a collaboration between WTF and Audible, the world’s largest producer and provider of original spoken-word entertainment and audio books to produce the entire season on audio.

What sounds like a simple solution is actually an enormous technical and logistical challenge.  Actors are in their own private space, working with recording equipment that is unfamiliar and, I would suppose, terrifying to many.   Interaction is difficult.

Time is also a factor.  We are ending July and the first show just started production. The goal is to record all shows by Labor Day.   That’s a true challenge as it means a short rehearsal period and little time for run-throughs. 

Because of actors’ availability, the assumption is group scenes will be  taped first.  That will be accomplished with actors at separar sites.  Once those scenes are mixed together, working on one and two person scenes will be recorded.  In other words, it unlikely the shows will be produced sequentially.  There are challenges for the actors, but it is the expertise of Audible’s sound engineers and editors that will be critical to produce the final product of quality that all desire.  

If production is complicated, marketing is another dilemma.  Because of Williamstown’s commitment to new and challenging work, most titles are unfamiliar.    The keystone production of the season is Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring  Audra McDonald, Bobby Cannavale and Carla Gugino.  Great actors, but outside the world of theater, they are not household names.

Amongst the other six plays only one, “Photograph 51,” a play about the competition to be the first to decipher DNA, has had another production, and that was in London.

The other five are world premiers and all sound exciting.   An example of the challenging material is “Chonburi International Hotel and Butterfly Club.”   It’s about a group of transgendered women who stay at a Thailand hotel waiting for the results of their final confirmation surgery.   It is a play about bonding, support, fear and courage.  I expect it will be fun to hear.

For details on all the scheduled plays and casts go to wtfestival.org

As of now, there are no release dates or prices.  WTF has announced that the productions will be made available first to new donors who contribute at the $600 level or higher.  Those who increase their current donation level will also move to the head of the line.  Which at this point, we can only hope is very long and dedicated. 

However, whatever platforms theater uses to deliver its product, you can stay tuned to 90.3 FM where WAMC will continue to deliver the best in entertainment, talk and news.

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