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Beethoven Reimagined In SPAC's Audio Play "Testament"

The Saratoga Performing Arts Center, unable to hold live performances due to COVID-19 this summer, is bringing classical music lovers Beethoven in a new format: purely audio. On its new open-air patio, WAMC got a special preview of the performance.

To mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Saratoga Performing Arts Center has been hosting a virtual festival featuring a variety of performances. For the culminating event, Saratoga Shakespeare Company will premiere Testament on Saturday.

Adapted from a stage play and recorded as an audio book/orchestral hybrid, Testament drops you into a pivotal point in Beethoven’s life: he is losing his hearing and, quite possibly, his mind. A mix of sudden bursts of music from the Philadelphia Orchestra and rich dialogue from the actors transports listeners just as any good podcast would.

Executive and Artistic Director of the Saratoga Shakespeare Company, Marcus Dean Fuller, says the production is a testament to the resilience of the arts. But converting the play to something people can listen to at home had its challenges. Fuller says when you’re watching actors on stage, they can hold you in a moment of silence because you can see the moment in their face.

“When you’re moving to an audio medium you lose those moments because those moments just become dead air,” Fuller said. “And in an audio performance I said to the actors, we have to think of this like a skipping stone. We have to find the speed of fun. So what happens to a stone when it slows down? It sinks. And you never get it back.”

Fuller says in order for the audio story to feel real, he had to record the actors while they could still see each other – a challenge during the pandemic, when everyone is supposed to be socially distancing.

Fuller says he tried putting all the actors in a circle on a large lawn and recording them individually. That didn’t work out so well. So Fuller reached out to Grammy-winning sound designer John Wager at Galileo Media Arts in Albany. 

“We ended up reconfiguring his studio here in town for separate booths for each actor so that in the performance they could see each other from a private booth,” Fuller said. “You know, we stripped it back bare bones. We met all the safety regulations of the state and the union – which are two very different things – and we had to work with Equity, the actor’s union, to kind of invent a new form of how we were going to be able to do this.”

Fuller says because they were waiting on union approval, the production was recorded and produced in a matter of days.

But the voice of Beethoven, Julian Tushabe, didn’t mind the time crunch. The junior at nearby Skidmore College says he was just happy to be part of such a unique production. Tushabe says he has always wanted to do voice-over work but was surprised at how different it felt from stage.

“I’m used to looking my scene partner in the face and playing off of the energy they’re giving me and giving back that same energy,” Tushabe said. “So it was really – it was a different kind of experience to listen for what you’d take from their face.”

“We are, by design, a live performance entity,” Fuller said. “And eventually, obviously, we want to move back to that. Until the world kind of shifts back and people get comfortable doing that, then we have to be [the] creative artists that we are. And I think we have to be smarter than our problems. And in the end you’ve got to ask yourself – what is the nature of what we do? Is it how we do the work or is it what the work gives us, the audience? And I would argue the latter.”

Testament will be available to stream for free from Saturday, August 22nd at 8 p.m. to August 23rd at 11:59 p.m. on SPACBeethoven.org

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