Despite a shuttered in-person season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pier One Theatre brought theater back to Homer with the first act of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” broadcast last Thursday on KBBI AM 890 Public Radio.
The public can get involved and listen to Episode Two of the radio theater production tonight at 7 p.m. and Episode 3 at 7 p.m. next Thursday, Aug. 20.
For those who missed Episode One, last week’s broadcast can be heard through the KBBI website at www.kbbi.org. The play also can be read online at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/844/844-h/844-h.htm.
“We wanted to have that feeling of a story you would get to follow week after week in the old style, with some cliff hangers,” said Pier One Theatre Director Jennifer Norton.
The idea for radio theater was floated for Pier One before the pandemic hit in early March, said Scott Bartlett, who did the sound effects for “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Now the Homer Council on the Arts Executive Director, from 2000-2006 Bartlett worked as a producer and engineer for Jackstraw Productions in Seattle.
“We started talking about this recently, before COVID hit,” he said. “… It kind of got fast-tracked with the pandemic and not being able to have live performances.”
Radio theater is old-school media dating back to the 1920s and 1930s, when radio stations would broadcast weekly dramas or single shows, like Orson Welles’ 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds.”. With the pandemic shutting live shows, theater companies across America have turned to radio drama, according to a June 9 National Public Radio article.
“The idea of radio theater is not a new thing to modern culture,” Norton said. “… I’m just excited about all the content being created in the moment right now. It’s accessible for theater companies.”
Pier One Theatre selected Wilde’s 1895 play because it’s now a public domain work that can be done without paying royalties. Pier One had looked at radio dramas that only offered one-time, live broadcast rights.
“It was very challenging to find the owners to the rights or what was available,” she said. “We wanted to be able to record it, because we can’t have a live audience.”
In early April, the cast began recording the play using the Zoom videoconference program. Actors set up home studios using smart phones, iPads or computers. Some actors made studios in their closets.
“It was kind of a challenging time,” Norton said. “Everyone was in transition and trying to work from home.”
After recording was complete, one of the actors, longtime Pier One actor Nancy Chastain, died on July 15 at age 76. She plays the character Miss Prism.
“It’s kind of amazing to have this last performance from her to share with the community,” Norton said. “We weren’t expecting it to be a last performance. I’m sorry she never got to hear it.”
Subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” the play’s plot hinges on mistaken identities and false personas. “Ernest” is an invented brother that character Jack Worthing has crafted to allow him to travel to London when “Ernest” gets in trouble. Cecily Cardew, Jack’s niece, is his ward, and Jack’s friend Algernon Moncrieff is in love with Cecily. Algernon has been impersonating Ernest to woo Cecily, and he also makes up an alter ego he calls “Bunbury.”
Meanwhile, Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, but she thinks Jack is Ernest. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, doesn’t think Jack is suitable because he’s an orphan found in a handbag at Victoria Station. The play is filled with Wilde’s trademark witty and quick dialogue — a challenge for the sometimes time-lagged glitches of the Zoom platform and slow Internet connections.
Fortunately, KBBI General Manager Josh Krohn came to the rescue. After the actors recorded their Zoom parts and did retakes, Krohn tidied up the audio recording.
“The delay between people was a bit of a challenge,” he said. “The pacing had to be slowed down for the recording. We picked the pace back up in production.”
After Krohn got the recording cleaned up, Bartlett took over and added sound effects. A musician and percussionist, he used some instruments like cymbals and drums. Bartlett created a theme to convey moods, like a cello bow played on a cymbal to express an icy glare.
“I tried to identify a bunch of different moods or references in the play,” he said.
Wilde didn’t write “The Importance of Earnest” as a radio play, so Bartlett had to use some tricks to convey visual action.
“I tried to build that and the drama through the punctuating sounds,” he said.
For sound effects like people walking, “I had a lot of shoes,” Bartlett said. “I had a box of gravel for walking on gravel. I had a big slate tile for the outdoor garden scene.”
Pianist Carol Comfort also added music, such as for when Algernon played the piano, as well as to set the mood in other scenes. Bartlett put in some ambient sounds he recorded locally.
“The whole Act 2 is a looped background of outdoors, mainly birds,” he said. “… Dusk in Fritz Creek probably doesn’t sound like mid-afternoon in the (English) Midlands.”
When he worked for Jackstraw Productions in Seattle, Bartlett also did recordings of plays for visually impaired people. He added a pre-show description of the set, characters and their costumes. That also included voice samples of the actors so someone would know who was who. For the Pier One radio theater version of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Bartlett did something similar.
“In the cast list at the beginning of the play I dropped in tiny snippets so you know their voice,” he said.
Norton said response to the broadcast of Episode One has been positive. Pier One plans to do more radio productions, she said. Upcoming are two plays, one written by local writer Brenda Dolma, “Rising,” a one-woman play with Katia Holmes about dealing with grief and climate change. Another local writer, Jessica Golden, has written a radio play, “Shakespeare in Quarantine.”
“I’m really excited about that one,” Norton said. “It’s a real fun script that explores his language and his moment.”
Norton said she hopes people will enjoy Pier One’s experiment with radio theater.
“I’m glad to have the outlet for our performers,” she said. “It’s also a great way to reach our community. … Hopefully we feel like we’re in the same room together at the same time.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.