With the stage off-limits during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Peddie theater department embraced the new norm by looking to an art form from the pre-television days for their fall production: the radio play. Director of Theater Liz Sherman selected Orson Welles’ adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic “The War of the Worlds,” a fake news broadcast toying with fiction and reality, performed by The Mercury Theatre on the Air during the infamous evening before Halloween in 1938.
Sherman felt she found a silver lining for education during these unprecedented times. That the notorious Martian landing took place just down the road from Peddie in Grovers Mill, an unincorporated community within West Windsor, was also appealing.
“The cool thing is that we would not have otherwise pursued the radio play as a style of theater. It’s a neat opportunity to pull back and look at it historically, thinking about how people listened to stories. How do you tell a story without visual cues? I enjoyed the challenge of getting the listener engaged,” Sherman said.
It's a neat opportunity to pull back and look at it historically, thinking about how people listened to stories."
“It’s also topical, almost like a metaphor for a pandemic,” she added. “Suddenly, your life’s turned upside down. In addition, it was fun to play with what is fake and what is real. How do conspiracy theories spread? The play is a model for discussion of fake news.”
Marshall Herman ’23, who played a reporter and officer, chimed in with his perspective on radio plays.
“There are very few expectations or preconceived notions for what this performance should sound like for a modern audience. However, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we can record as many times as necessary, which lessens the pressure of memorizing. On the flip side, there is a higher expectation of clarity and refinement. It’s a challenge to fit all of the emotion, depth and finer points of a character into your voice. On the lighter side, you can make a funny face to get your voice to sound right and not worry how ridiculous you look.”
Casting and rehearsal challenges
Sherman said she was most surprised by how many remote students wanted to participate in the play. She thought it would be more of an on-campus project, but the audio venture became a global production.
“During the process, I wanted the kids to feel a part of something – to feel more engaged – so we held all auditions over Zoom. Everyone who came out worked on the play in some capacity.”
Emme Pham ’22 (Secretary of Interior/McDonald/Operator) described her unique situation and the challenges of the virtual landscape.
“This was my first-ever theater experience. I’m usually only into tennis and the visual arts, so it was about getting comfortable with script readings and preparation for recording,” Pham said. “The most challenging part of this radio play was coordinating meeting times that worked for everyone. International students often miss out due to the time zone differences, so we used night rehearsals so they could join the Zoom. It made the days long. But overall, I learned a lot about all the pieces that go into an audio theater production. It was definitely a fun experience.”
Unlike the original production, Peddie’s performance was not live. The format consisted of three segments, each about 20 minutes long, and released as a series of episodes. The final chapter ran on Halloween night. All of the final voice cuts were recorded on phones for a professional sound engineer to edit.
“We used three installments to make it palpable for kids to enjoy,” said Sherman. “It’s also a way to build tension and then leave a cliffhanger … and then to the next segment for more suspense and another cliffhanger leading to the final segment.
“The sound engineer layered all the tracks, put in sound effects, distortions and did different things with voices to enhance production value. He made a beautiful package and put our kids in their very best light.”
Jennifer Ma ’22 worked remotely from China as the musical supervisor and lead musician. She and Arts Department Chair and Music Director Alan Michaels produced the music component in a 1930s style to work with the play.
For Ma, the radio play was very different from any productions and musicals she had done before. Instead of using the original track, Ma and her student orchestra recorded four of the seven pieces. The introduction and ending music are from the original play along with La Cumparsita (a Spanish song), Stardust (jazz) and Chopin Impromptus.
“I recorded all my parts to ensure we had the accompaniment,” said Ma. “For me, the hardest part was actually the jazz and blues music. I’ve been trained as a classical musician, so when I recorded my jazz piece, Mr. Michaels would say ‘that’s not the right feeling,’ and I understood what adjustments had to be made.”
A word from our sponsors
Enhancing the radio play format, a team of Peddie students pooled their imagination and crafted commercials. Ranging from local businesses to medicinal advertisements, one of the spots advertised a post-apocalyptic pawn shop, located off the “New Joisey Turnpike.”
Thomas Sweet of Princeton was ripe for a spoof. One commercial portrayed a girl with zombie symptoms coming home to meet her friend. Thomas Sweet’s ice cream is a potential cure her friend suggests, and an announcer jumps in to fire off some convincing factoids.
“There’s a ton of jokes thrown in throughout,” said Pham. “The zombie idea initially was a joke made by assistant director Ms. [Mikaela] Chang, but my peers and I ran with the idea, completely changing our original script.”
“They did a fantastic job – from brainstorming commercial ideas to workshopping and self-recording their bits, all in addition to their work on the actual scripted play,” said Chang, who is also a history teacher at Peddie. “We played with time and space when thinking about the setting for our advertisements, so some bits felt more sonically nostalgic, while others sounded like something you might hear on the radio today ... intentionally ambiguous.”
The trick was to convince the listener that they were watching the production live at a theater.
“I believe we met the challenge to engage our listeners from start to finish, to visualize the whole experience,” said Sherman.