With live theater struggling across the country amidst the pandemic, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem is doing its part to bring back the Bard. After spending an entire summer figuring out how to best deliver their content with coronavirus restrictions firmly in place, professors at UNCSA came upon an idea: a socially distant radio play.
Students and faculty there will premiere a modern-day radio play Thursday of Shakespeare's Henry V. The story of a battle that took place in 1415 finds new relevance today with its theme of uniting a divided country.
Sara Becker teaches Shakespeare, voice, and dialects at UNCSA. She calls this a golden opportunity to work on communication skills in a safe environment.
“So, we have this cross-collaboration with composers, sound engineers, our actors,” says Becker. “And we were able to do some real digging in on the language of this piece and never be in the same room with each other.”
Becker coached accents for a few characters in the play — French, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish — but she says the emphasis in this production is different: an eclectic group of American accents telling what is, for her, a timely American story.
“And here you have a play that's about people who don't understand each other, don't speak the same language, performing a miracle in coming together,” she says. “That's the story my heart needs now and that's the story that I want my students and colleagues to have time around and really I would like to have told.”
Doing a good bit of the storytelling will be UNCSA fourth-year actor Jeremy Gill. He says being in arts school mid-pandemic was strange at first. Since such a huge part of acting is connecting with other actors and the audience from the stage, he feared the radio play would feel stunted. Two months later, countless Zoom rehearsals and hours spent recording scenes again and again alone at home, he says he needn't have worried.
“You've got to find different variations of tactics of making them imagine,” says Gill. “In my laundry room with my camera set up and my mic and trying to mute everything with pillows and blankets, but being there with a director who is so poised and intelligent and a group of students who are insanely talented.”
The exacting production work has also given Gill a clearer sense of who King Henry V was: a charismatic storyteller who could read others and knew how to share tall tales with excited groups of people. Gill says his character resonates 400 years later.
“And that's what we see today,” he says. “It doesn't matter whether what you're saying is true or not. If you can tell a good story, if you can make images real and tactile enough for people to get excited and to visualize those things, they will follow you.”
Once the best takes are recorded, they're combined with those of the other actors and edited. But that's just the beginning, according to sound design director Jason Romney.
“They don't just have to edit that in, but they also have to make it sound like those voices were speaking in a room that would be appropriate given the story," he says. "So, they're speaking out in a field where the war is happening, or they're speaking inside of a building somewhere, so when someone walks into a room we need to hear their footsteps, we need to hear a door open. All that stuff has to be there.”
Four design and production students, in separate rooms, worked remotely on their own computers, selecting from a library of more than 30,000 sound effects — many created at the school — and layered them into the actors' contributions. Among them was sound design and composition undergraduate Ian Vespermann, who also wrote the original score.
Vespermann says the focus on sound turned his world upside down in a good way.
“This project, we generated two hours and thirty minutes of audio in a six-week period,” says Vespermann. “It was insane. But I really got into it and I loved it. And it showed me that you can do work like this during a global pandemic and that sound can be a major component in whatever the new art or the new format is going to be.”
The UNCSA radio play premiere of Shakespeare's Henry V is tonight at 7:30. The production is free, open to the public.