Due to the coronavirus, the intensive one-year MFA in Acting, Academy for Classical Acting, a joint venture between Shakespeare Theatre Company and George Washington University, was unable to hold final live performances for its students, but that doesn’t mean the class won’t perform.
Under the guidance of ACA Program Director Alec Wild, the school’s 20th annual summer repertory season has been transformed into three radio plays: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (airing July 16), the Bard’s Hamlet (airing July 17) and Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw (airing July 18) into a live program titled ACA Radio Reps.
The program showcases the talents of the ACA Class of 2020, coached by renowned voice actor and vocal coach Lisa Beley and audio engineered by the Shakespeare Theatre Company audio team, led by Gordon Nimmo-Smith.
“We usually do three shows at the end of the year in rep, and we knew we couldn’t do that, and we needed to figure out how to complete the program for this 18-person class,” says Wild, who will be directing Hamlet. “At the time, I had been getting into listening to Orson Wells’ one-hour radio plays of stage plays like Julius Caesar and Sherlock Holmes, and I thought it would be a cool thing to do.”
Guest directors are Holly Twyford, who is directing Romeo and Juliet and Aaron Posner, who will be leading Shaw’s Man and Superman.
“Come hell or high water, theatre remains a medium of language. This project is allowing us to delve into the language in a very deep way,” Posner says. “We are focusing a great deal of our energy on what animates language, what makes it entertaining and enjoyable to listen to, and how can it be dramatic and really hold our attention. No matter what form these students ultimately find themselves performing in—film, television, web series, classic plays, new plays, radio drama, devised and immersive work, and forms not even yet invented—this focus on the animating energy of language is likely to serve them well.”
He notes there are a variety of challenges, as well as some fun opportunities, with directing virtually.
“One tricky thing is that I have never met my cast in person,” Posner says. Except for one of them, whom I had happened to meet before this year, I have never been in the same room with any of them. This certainly makes getting to know them as individual artists much more complex.”
Another tricky aspect, he says, is figuring out how to really relate to, and play off your scene partner.
“This is hard when you are not in the same room,” Posner says. “You have to listen very carefully for all the nuances of what is being said, and you have to be very active and responsive in the way you connect.”
ACA Radio Reps
Hamlet, July 16, 7:30pm
Directed by Alec Wild
Romeo and Juliet, July 17, 7:30pm
Directed by Holly Twyford
Man and Superman, July 18, 7:30pm
Directed by Aaron Posner
Listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts.
“Fortunately, Shaw’s use of language is absolutely outstanding,” Posner added. “His characters are vivid, their use of language is very distinct, and the ideas of the play are wonderful, surprising, and shockingly up-to-date. While he might not be as poetic as Shakespeare, he is every bit as insightful and visceral in his use of words to convey multiple meanings.”
Wild says that most of the students weren’t familiar with radio plays at all, though obviously podcasts are somewhat the new norm.
“One of the things I did in the beginning of this process was send them some BBC dramas to listen to,” he says. “For about 30 seconds, they sound really old-fashioned, but then you are drawn immediately into the story and you can’t stop listening.”
We’re going to be in this moment for a bit of time and voice acting is a really lucrative skill for actors to have—even during times where we’re not in a pandemic. It’s been interesting to pivot into that and find all the things we rely on our faces for, for acting and bring it in with our voices,” Wild concluded.
Libby Barnard, who plays Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Francisco/Voltimand/Osrick in Hamlet, admits her feelings are complicated when it comes to this final project.
“There is, of course, the grief of what could have been, and I try to respect that in myself. But there is also so much joy and curiosity,” she says. “I’ve been thinking a lot about one of the last things Ed Gero said to our class when we were finishing our last term. He said, ‘Empower the place you are.’”
Even though Barnard is rehearsing alone in her bedroom, she loves exploring the world they are all creating together.
“This unique situation is allowing me to indulge heavily in my imagination, which is something I should do anyway in any process, but it is so much more apparent now,” she says. “There really isn’t any room for faking it, or letting some other aspects carry the story for you. We don’t have the balcony that separates Romeo and Juliet, we don’t have lighting that enhances the danger, all we have is what we as actors are pursuing. And what’s great is that it can change every single time we work. I have the freedom to try something completely new.”
In that same vein, she’s also enjoying the freedom of allowing her body to explore and to push the boundaries.
“I’m tucked away in the corner of my room in order to create the best atmosphere for sound recording, but I’m also dancing, and squeezing pillows, and reaching for my Romeo with every cell I have,” Barnard says. “And I think you can hear that in the performances.”
Sam Parrott, who is playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and Barnardo/Gravedigger in Hamlet, notes he’s shocked by how radically his feelings have changed over the course of this process.
“We still had three weeks left of classes when the shutdown began, and I vividly remember how devastating it was when Alec gathered us all together and delivered the news that we wouldn’t be able to meet in person for the rest of the year,” he says. “Since last August, our class had been in a sort of ‘voluntary quarantine,’ spending nearly 80 hours a week in an acting studio. We all made the choice to put aside our normal lives and fully immerse ourselves in the work of bringing Shakespeare’s plays to life, and through that process we necessarily created an incredibly close community.”
The experience of having that community ripped away so suddenly felt like he was losing a part of himself and the last few weeks of classes became an effort to reclaim and reshape that extended family under a completely new set of circumstances.
“At times, it’s been a disorienting experience, rehearsing alone in our apartments connected only through a computer screen, especially while the outside world is changing in such a momentous way,” Parrott says. “I feel like I’ve experienced the entire range of human emotions exploring these plays through the scope of a global pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the corruption of our nation’s political system. But I still feel so privileged to be able to work on embodying Shakespeare’s creative force in this new medium. Now more than ever, we need artists who will continue to expose and enrich humanity, bringing a sense of healing to our global community.”