Throughout the pandemic, theater organizations have been struggling to find a delivery system that might replicate the live theater experience. Few would have assumed that radio shows would have found itself part of the solution.
But here we are. In March, two area theater companies are streaming plays produced in the form of a radio show, and a third is releasing audio versions of plays that were written for the stage.
Home Made Theatre in Saratoga Springs is producing three short melodramas that and the Theatre Institute at Sage College in Troy is streaming the classic mystery “39 Steps”.
Williamstown Theatre Festival made a decision last year to offer their 2020 summer season in the form of audio books. The final three plays of the seven-play series will be released on March 25, April 1 and April 8.
In separate interviews, the directors of Home Made Theater and TIS say the concept is logical for many reasons. First and foremost, it is safe. The actors all have their own space and can be separated by six feet, which makes performing without a mask permissible. Constant testing for Covid adds to the security. And too, it offers a format tailor-made for filming.
David Baecker, a professor of theater at Sage directed a complicated “A Christmas Carol” that streamed in December. For the sake of diversity and simplicity, he thought a less busy format with the actors stationary would work for “39 Steps.”
Dianne O’Neill, who is directing for Home Made agrees. The three melodramas which were selected are her first experience with filming and she describes the learning process as “a vertical learning curve."
It’s a process she is enjoying immensely as it is a nice reminiscence for her. She is of the age that when growing up, radio was the only entertainment in homes. “It’s fun to recreate those shows,” she says. A special pleasure, one she expects the audience to appreciate as well, is having an actor at a separate station creating sound effects. “It’s an opportunity for viewers to see how ingenious many of those shows were,”she says.
Again, Baecker agrees. He too is having an actor create sound effects. Both show will have actors in period pieces representing the 1930s and 40 and in each, actors will play multiple characters, so changes in voice will be important.
While the production elements are much the same, there is a difference in material. O’Neill has consciously chosen melodrama. She describes the form as delightful and silly. "It’s all about having fun,” she says.
The three plots of the stories support her theory. “Fleecing the Flock,” and “The Cheesecake Factory on March 21 are about young heroines, destitute widows and dastardly cads.
“The Cheesecake Factory” is about securing the secret family recipe for making cheesecake from a diabolical man trying to put them out of business. As O’Neill tells it, the recipe created by Graham Cracker, is at risk.
The first two shows run 15-20 minutes each, but the final show “Magic Merle’s Miracle Makeover Mush” takes about 45 minutes. O’Neill calls it a hoot as it is about a 46-year old man claiming to be 86. He is selling the phony elixir that keeps him looking young. What is especially intriguing is in the material the heroine untypically aspires to be a sheriff, a goal which is put to the test in a comical way.
“39 Steps” is, perhaps, best known as a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock spy film. In 2012, it was adapted into a 5-character play with four of the actors playing all the roles from the film. This work written by Joe Landry takes the same approach.
However, Baecker insists that the espionage elements in the work are secondary. He compares it to other Hitchcock films that are termed mysteries. but are really an adventure about a man and a woman who are strangers and flee together from bad guys.
“It’s good fun, he says. “Everyone gets it immediately. That’s one of the reasons it works so well in a radio format.” “39 Steps” is also short, running about 45-minutes, which Baecker feels is perfect, pointing out that original radio programming rarely took more than an hour.
It’s hard to categorize this style of entertainment. Is it theater offered online in the style of a radio show? Or is it a radio show with visuals? Either way, they promise to be fun.
The Home Made Theater’s “On the Air” plays 7 p.m. through March. Access is available at homemadetheater.org or 518-587-44427.
Theatre Institute at Sage, “39 Steps” is available through March 26 at 518-244-2248 or theatres.age.edu
Williamstown’s audio plays are available wtfestival.org
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.