For almost a decade, Theater has been a UChicago staple for those drawn to the stage and undaunted by tight deadlines. As the organization’s name reveals, the goal is to produce a show — the scripts, the rehearsals and the eventual performance in the FXK Theater in the Reynolds Club — within 24 hours.
For Theater participants, the first weekend of the quarter typically represents a return to the gambit; students meet on the first Friday back to campus and put six plays together by Saturday night. The University’s transition to remote learning this quarter, however, presented an obstacle to the company’s modus operandi — one that it quickly sidestepped with a move to audio drama, rebranding itself “Radio.”
“As many on-campus creative projects have been cancelled, we wanted to provide students who have an interest in visual art or music the chance to make art and music in the festival,” said fourth-year Cameron Bernstein, one of the curators of Theater.
Each quarter, Theater unites its shows under the banner of a single theme. For its inaugural radio edition, it was “Bed, Bath, & Body Works.”
Participants met over a Zoom call on the first Friday of spring quarter, during which they divided into groups made up of actors, writers, producers, sound designers, composers and graphic designers. Individually prompted with different Bed, Bath & Body Works fragrances (White Caramel Cold Brew, Caribbean Escape), writers spent all night writing scripts that were then interpreted and produced by the rest of their groups the day leading up to the show, which was streamed live on YouTube.
“Our sound designers had the massive role of editing the whole show on Saturday, creating the soundscape, putting everyone’s voice recordings together and working with our composers to include original music for their plays,” Bernstein said. “Those four roles are analogous to the typical positions in Theater, of writer, actor, director and designer.”
There were 48 participants involved in total this quarter, students taking on multiple roles to pull together their individual productions.
Fourth-year Rohan Gandhi, for instance, served as an actor and director of his group’s play, Very Legal.
“There was a learning curve for all of us with the new format, but I think we did pretty well,” Gandhi said. “We had to keep in mind that when a play is audio only, the audience can't read any body language. It involved changing lines, changing emphasis and a lot of the acting fundamentals you would use on stage. I worked with our sound engineer, composer and graphic designer to make sure all the additional pieces of the show fit well together. The main focus was on how we could create a final product that felt polished and coherent within the time constraint.”
Radio participants characterized their production constraints as forcing them to be creative with their available production capacities; in some ways, it served as an extension of the constraints which Theater students traditionally thrive off of.
“Actors recorded their parts on their own ends in coat closets and under comforters and blankets,” Bernstein said. “Some recorded lines on their own. Many groups ran rehearsal and recording sessions over Zoom, with people acting out the play in real time, capturing themselves on their computers or phones and sending the audio files to the sound designers to stitch together.”
Participants described the new format as allowing them to parody hallmarks of the audio broadcast format — highlights include a radio talk show for vampires set in the 1300s and a satire of true-crime podcasts like Sarah Koenig’s Serial.
“There were also some incredibly strong visuals that we could have only ‘seen’ with our ears,” Bernstein said. “One show [took place in a] vegan nightclub, another involved violent acts of angry method-acting pirates, and there was one with a misogyny-causing candle — flames would have been a huge no-go on an actual stage.”
“One group put together a whole musical,” she added. “A. Whole. Musical. Beautifully scored, sung and edited together.”
Although Radio was born out of necessity, participants believe there’s space for the new format even after students return to campus.
First-year Gabi Garcia, who has served as a writer for the past two quarters, sees Radio as a unique opportunity to make the work of students more widely accessible.
“Moving Theater online gave so many more people opportunities that weren’t available in its traditional format,” Garcia said. “This time, we had sound designers, composers and graphic designers. And in the past, once Theater was over, all the plays remained in the collective memory of its audience. With Radio, recordings of the play exist online so you can listen to them again and again.”
Bernstein hopes that Radio can continue to exist as an associated project with Theater , and is considering broaching it as a creative outlet during the summer session. “Then we could truly be a quarterly festival,” she said.