by Josy Jones

In March, theaters across the country, from Broadway to local community theaters, were forced to stop their productions mid-rehearsal, mid-tech, and even in the middle of a run. Like most arts industries, theaters shifted to tackle COVID-19, and virtually accessible theatre flooded the internet. While some companies jumped onto Zoom, other companies, like Ohio Shakespeare Festival (OSF), decided to stand out among their peers and take us back to the old school with radio plays. 

A very physical theatre company, Ohio Shakespeare Festival typically presents compelling stage combat and a great classic storyline. Although they could no longer have performances at their theater space in Greystone Hall and despite the fact that they’d never done a radio play before, the shift did not divert OSF from its dedication to bringing the classics to life. 

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They chose to use a previously closed stage performance in October 2019: An adaptation of “Dracula” written and directed by Joe Pine, Technical Director of OSF.

“Dracula” “lent itself to [a radio play] beautifully,” says Tess Burgler, Managing Director of OSF. The show is “narrative in structure,” so it was a perfect fit for adjusting from stage to “radio.” An added bonus was that Orson Welles had also done a radio play version of “Dracula” in 1938, a version that Pine had heard and “thought it was cool as a child.” It couldn’t have been a more perfect connection. 

The script, however, needed some adjustments before it was ready for audience ears. Although it maintained a lot of its structure, many things that were meant for the stage needed to be reworked to add more narration for things that could not be seen. The editing became a collaborative process for the company. 

Though an adjustment, the company embraced the process and added a few nuggets for the public that made the knowing radio play listener giggle: commercials. Buddy Taylor, who  does sound and scenic design for the company, had fun inserting old fashioned commercials into the intermission and running the sound live for their performance. In future shows, they are offering organizations they’ve partnered with in the past the opportunity to make their own commercials. 

Ohio Shakespeare Festival Radio Play

Kelsey Tomlinson, Resident Costume Designer and an actor in the show, says the separation that theatre normally gives crews was nonexistent. Tomlinson performed from her living room in front of her television with her partner, Emerson, on watch duty. They live in a “close neighborhood” and since Kelsey played two characters and had to die twice, she had to wield a double dose of death-worthy shrieks for the audience. Emerson served as the watchman to make sure the “neighbors weren’t coming out.” She also couldn’t stop her dog from barking during the live show, but the audience went along with it! 

Ryan Zarecki, Resident Fight Director for OSF and an actor in the show, felt that learning curve as well. Having to adjust from his stage voice, projecting so that hundreds of audience members could hear him from the balcony, to his digital voice, which requires less gusto, served as a learning experience that still causes the team to giggle.

“Dracula” premiered as a Facebook Live event, hosted in partnership with ArtsNow. The live radio play gave the company back some of the interaction that they’d lost. They were able to “get that feedback we’ve been missing from live audience members”  thanks to the live chat feature. It was an “unexpected surprise,” Tess says. The radio play format also gives back to the audience in a time when sitting in front of a screen for a ZOOM performance has become the norm. With the radio play, you’re encouraged to really “use your imagination instead of staring at a screen,” Buddy says. 

OSF has already moved on to other radio play productions, including a commissioned work from the Hudson Library and Historical Society: “Robin Hood.” They are going to continue to create more radio play content through 2020, and they’ve already picked their next show, “The Monkey’s Paw,” which will be available in late July or early August. They’re even thinking about adding a bloopers section to their new Patreon account for bonus content for their supporters. 

Ohio Shakespeare Festival is sticking to its roots of classic works and they hope that it encourages audiences to go back and read the originals. If you’ve never experienced a radio play, OSF is the place to start. 

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Josy Jones is an actor, director, playwright and community builder in Akron, OH. 
Photos: Used with permission from Ohio Shakespeare Festival.

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