Pandemic or not, the show must go on

28 Jan

When you’re in theater and a global pandemic keeps you from packing an auditorium with people who want to see your show, what’s a director to do? Create a show which people don’t actually have to be able to SEE.

That’s exactly what the students at Webster Thomas have done with their production of The Webster Thomas Radio Hour.

As the name implies, the show — which actually runs about two hours — is modeled after a 1940s-era radio show, complete with serials, commercials and a musical guest.

The main program is a collection five short plays, all written and performed by students. They begin with a crime drama (The Case of the Missing Mallets), followed by some science fiction (The Adventures of the Time-Traveling Athenians and The Return of Professor Z to the Planet of the Beyond), a murder mystery (Terror Train) and a ghost story (Francis Fisher — Ghost Hunter). Tucked in between the features are several very creative commercials and short subjects. And, in keeping with the old-time radio variety show format, all of the sound effects and musical cues are performed live.

Even though the the play couldn’t be presented in front of a packed auditorium, director Mark Stoetzel has tried to give his young actors as much of a normal school play experience as possible. It is being presented on the Thomas stage, for example. But all of the actors will wear masks and maintain social distancing as they act out their lines, something that isn’t possible with a traditional production.

Stoetzel wrote,

Our students, especially the seniors, really do miss the regular performances with all that entails (tech week, set building days on weekends, creative concession tables, cast parties, much longer rehearsals, etc.). These things were stressful, but in a good way. Naturally, we cannot do most of these things, but we can recreate some of the trappings.

We’ll put a display in the trophy case outside the auditorium like always, with cast head-shots and bios. We’ve put the show’s poster on the kids’ lockers (thanks to Denise Warren, Tanya Yost, and Brian Phares for that – everyone is pitching in!). And we’ve scheduled the recording sessions at night like a regular show, and have allowed each student to invite their immediate families (spread out throughout the whole auditorium). There won’t be a cast party, but they’ll still keep certain traditions alive, like paper-plate awards.

The ensemble held their final rehearsal on Wednesday afternoon. I was pleased to be invited, mostly because I was a little unsure about how this radio-play-on-a-stage would work.

Basically, the Thomas stage became the “recording studio.” Actors’ chairs, microphones and script stands were scattered around the stage, with a table in back filled with sound effects materials for two Foley artists. Signs announcing each feature were stacked in front of the stage for the benefit of the studio audience. And of course, one dedicated cue-card holder stood at the ready to let audience members know when to laugh, applaud, boo or gasp!

Jenna Dow and Brynn Smith perform as Alex Ramirez instructs the audience.

I enjoyed the production tremendously. Each of the features was very well written and very funny. The actors actually acted out their roles as they read their lines, and they were all quite good. There were some humorous references to Rochester and the commercials poked fun at several of the students’ beloved teachers. And the poor musical guest … well, you just have to see the show yourself to see what happens to her.

And you will be able to see the show. After presenting the play to very small, invitation-only audiences Thursday and Friday, it will be posted on YouTube and other media platforms. I’ll let you know the details as soon as I know them, but in the meantime, you can stay up to date by following the cast on Twitter at @wthsfallplay.

It’s a very family-friendly production, by the way, so everyone will enjoy it.

Director Mark Stoetzel, right, gives some final instructions to his cast before a performance.

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