“I think people can totally disagree, but it feels to me like Zoom has not yet achieved the status of a medium,” says Wild, whose master’s program is a collaboration between the Shakespeare Theatre Company and George Washington University. “It seems like Zoom is a space into which we pour our longing to be together, and in a way that felt wrong to put an imaginative drama in.”
So when it came time for summer repertory season, during which students take their ACA curtain call by appearing in multiple productions in quick succession, Wild decided not to look forward via technology, but to hark back to a bygone era. In the fashion of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre of the 1930s, the ACA is producing three radio dramas, to be live-streamed next week and subsequently released as podcasts.
Billed as the “ACA Radio Reps,” the project will debut July 16 with a Wild-helmed version of “Hamlet,” followed by director Holly Twyford’s “Romeo and Juliet” the next day. The trio of plays concludes July 18, with Aaron Posner’s take on George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman.”
“This is theater of the mind, you know?” Wild says. “We do so much vocal work in the program, so much text work, so much breaking down a scene — What is this character doing? What do they want? What are they after? How do we portray that? — and it all transfers to radio.”
Twyford and Posner, staples of the D.C. theater community, already had discussed overseeing ACA repertory productions before the pandemic and reacted warmly to the radio plays pitch. Whereas Twyford always had her sights set on “Romeo and Juliet,” Posner specifically selected “Man and Superman” as a radio play because of Shaw’s “spectacular” stage directions, which he says are particularly well suited to being recited in an audio production.
“A big part of what’s been fun about this for me, and I think really valuable for me and the actors, is just going, ‘Okay, this is a whole new set of challenges,’ ” Posner says. “How do we tell this story clearly and effectively, but with no visual elements?”
The Radio Reps team has largely answered that question by staying true to the summer reps process. Voice-over acting often involves reading a script in isolation, but Wild, Twyford and Posner asked the students — each of whom appears in two plays — to engage in an intensive rehearsal process before recording their roles as a group. Just as they would for any other production, the actors dissected the material, memorized their lines and collaborated to fine-tune scenes.
“Even though we have scripts in front of us, [we’re] still getting off book, so that it is ingrained in us, that it is muscle memory, and we’re making it new and alive,” says actor Joshua Boulden, who appears in “Man and Superman” and “Romeo and Juliet.” “That’s what helps create the believability of these characters.”
The radio drama format also required the students to develop new skills. Each performer had to master the technical side of recording from home via a USB microphone, with some turning their closets into makeshift recording studios. Dialect coach Lisa Beley helped the actors refine their vocal performances, which carry additional weight in the absence of facial expressions and physicality.
As the actors have locked in their dialogue, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s engineering team has added music and sound effects — leaves rustling, footsteps pattering, swords clashing — to transform those audio tracks into fully produced plays.
“It became clear to me really quickly that this would be taken very seriously, that this wasn’t a consolation prize,” says actress Sarah Corbyn Woolf, who plays various roles in “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet.” “We are now learning the ins and outs of working with recording, which can enable future work.”
Although the students will walk away from the Radio Reps with those new skills to practice, and a polished production to showcase, Wild is most encouraged by their collective fortitude in the face of unprecedented uncertainty.
“This group, rather than retreating, and saying, ‘Oh, I’m not getting the experience I deserve, I’m not getting the experience I want,’ they really dug in,” Wild says. “That lesson — having to do that and having the support around them to do that — I think is going to serve them beautifully.”
Where to listen
ACA Radio Reps
Dates: All plays stream live at 7:30 p.m.: “Hamlet” on July 16; “Romeo and Juliet” on July 17; and “Man and Superman” on July 18. After live-streaming, the productions will be archived and made available as podcasts.