Like all educators across the country, Rowland Hall theatre teacher Matt Sincell had to rethink his lesson plans after the COVID-19 pandemic derailed in-person learning in March.
With traditional classes and a spring production off the table, Matt found himself looking for ways to provide theatre experiences for students during quarantine. He decided to introduce them to radio plays, a completely acoustic type of theatre, which could be produced from their homes.
While the term radio play might bring to mind radio series from the 1930s and 1940s, this type of production still attracts audiences today—podcasts, for instance, are “sort of the modern-day version of a radio play,” Matt said. Stories told as radio plays also have lasting power: "The War of the Worlds," a Mercury Theatre on the Air radio episode based on the 1898 H.G. Wells novel of the same name, dramatized a Martian invasion and is remembered because of the fear it stirred when it aired in 1938. “It caused a nationwide panic when it was first performed. People actually thought we were being invaded by aliens,” said Matt.
In the early months of distance learning, Rowland Hall students began exploring this theatre form, ultimately creating an adaptation of the popular children’s book The Gruffalo (which was edited by seventh- and eighth-grade Arts & Ensembles theatre teacher Meighan Smith). Their work was shared with families and friends—and, thanks to Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company, the wider community when it was featured on The City Library’s BiblioBoard. And as Matt planned for the 2020–2021 year—which he knew would still include distance learning in some form—he decided to continue the study of radio plays. “With students at home, in class, and, for some, distance learning only, it seemed the most likely class project to be able to complete,” he explained.
This fall, Matt assigned his sixth-grade Arts & Ensembles class the task of creating an original radio play. The result, The Awakening, is a 16-minute production written and performed by students Sebby Bamberger, Lila Bates, Josie Fonarow, Elayna Hoglund, Paulina Ize-Cedillo, Emery Lieberman, Elle Prasthofer, Morgan Schmutz, Sophie Smith, Izzy Utgaard, and Kate Weissman. The play, which took about two months to complete, was written in both the horror and comedy genres, explained Elayna.
“The inspiration for it was the story of ‘The Ghost with the Bloody Finger,’” she said, referencing a well-known campfire ghost story designed to make listeners laugh. Elayna said the sixth graders wanted to incorporate humor into their radio play because they knew their audience would be mostly made up of listeners who were middle-school-aged and younger. “We knew that it’d be more fun to have some funny in it.”
All 11 students were invested in the project, getting involved in the brainstorming, writing, and script editing required of a radio play. Although they weren’t able to do the close-contact acting techniques of a stage production, they did get to experience voice acting, with distance learners applying best practices to capture the cleanest sound possible by recording with blankets over their heads or by sitting inside a closet, and in-person learners utilizing a handmade, COVID-approved sound booth made of two stacked desks wrapped with a thick, padded moving blanket. (Blankets were changed and desks and equipment were sanitized between each recording session.)
“There was never a time that a student was directly interacting with another student, but we were able to create the illusion that they were indeed responding to each other,” said Matt, who edited The Awakening.
The students also learned the importance of sound effects in radio plays, which are key to bringing this art form to life. “The tricky thing about a radio play is that there, of course, is no visual to accompany it,” Matt explained, “so it's even more necessary to rely on our sense of sound to tell the story.” He had students experiment with Foley, a sound-making technique pioneered in the 1920s and still used today—Elayna captured the sound of a refrigerator door closing, a microwave beeping, and a candy wrapper crackling, while classmate Sophie recorded a door slamming, feet running on concrete, and her interpretation of a leprechaun laughing. Sophie said it felt good knowing that her sound effects helped make a difference in the finished recording. “It was pretty nice because you knew it was your work,” she said.
Art will find a way, even in the most challenging times.—Matt Sincell, theatre teacher
And that finished recording is impressive indeed. It’s a strong reminder of student creativity and ingenuity, even within a pandemic. “What they have been able to accomplish in the face of such adversity is really quite unique and wonderful,” said Matt.
The theatre teacher is hopeful that the radio play will also bring smiles to the larger community: on December 14, Matt announced that Jerry Rapier, Plan-B Theatre’s artistic director and a dedicated supporter of theatre education in Utah, had offered to again promote the Rowland Hall students’ work by linking The Awakening to The City Library’s BiblioBoard and to Plan-B’s mobile app.
“It's super exciting to once again have Plan-B Theatre support our students' work,” said Matt. “It’s nice to think that they are able to provide a 16-minute gift of joy to other students outside of the Rowland Hall community. It's proof that art will find a way, even in the most challenging times.”
Banner photo: Rowland Hall middle schoolers Lila Bates and Kate Weissman preparing to record lines of The Awakening.