“Ok, come off mute… three, two, one and on one I want to hear a good shriek.”
Before the 10 young actors deliver their performance of “a good shriek,” instructor Alyssa Rae Hendricks wants to run through the elements of making a good shriek on a recording.
Stopher Elementary fifth grader Mychele Bradshaw has one idea.
“Not too loud where it busts someone’s eardrum,” Bradshaw says during the Zoom rehearsal.
“Yes, think of the people wearing the headphones,” Hendricks says. “We don’t want to freak them out.”
Another way to perfect your on-mic shriek? Put emotion behind it, the instructor continues, even though the audience won’t be able to see you.
When Metro Louisville classrooms shut down last spring, and everything moved online to non-traditional learning, Louisville educational theater group Drama by George went straight to audio. And Hendricks has been helping these young thespians hone their acting chops for the radio.
After some more discussion about how to shriek for a listening audience, Hendricks is ready to hear the results.
“Three, two, one.”
The young actors let out a series of high-pitched screeches.
A bit “squeaky,” she determines, but she likes it.
A Pivot From The Stage To Audio
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of so many things over the last 10 months: shows and concerts, festivals, in-person learning, vacations and personal milestones like weddings or birthday celebrations.
Ten-year-old Bradshaw was worried that the same fate would befall on her drama club. So while she misses doing drama club in person, she thinks this radio thing is pretty cool too.
“I’m excited that they started doing this because I thought everything was being canceled and there’d be nothing left that we could really do,” she said.
“For an experience, I like it,” added fourth grader Mahika Kapoor. “You can read scripts without remembering it.”
Hendricks, a theater teaching artist with Drama by George, said the audio plays allow them to keep kids engaged with theater remotely without too much fuss.
“There’s a lot of things that we can do dynamically with the recording and give it a life without a lot of production in terms of getting the kids in costume and shipping those things to them and sets and all of that,” Hendricks said. “So it seems like a really natural way to… transition them to a digital space.”
Their current production is called “Tonya Sawyer and the School Fence.”
It’s a twist on a famous scene from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” by Mark Twain, when Tom’s Aunt makes him paint a fence as a punishment.
In this radio take — which Drama by George has also done as a staged production pre-pandemic — the protagonist is Tonya Sawyer. She and her friend, Huck, get in trouble at school, and their punishment is to paint a school fence on a Saturday. But they’ve been framed.
Bradshaw, who plays the role of Tonya, explained that there are “snooty girls and they don’t really like Tonya” and Huck.
“They want to frame them for something, but then it just backfires on them,” Bradshaw explained.
This is the fifth audio play from Drama by George.
Artistic director and founder George Halitzka said he studied radio broadcast in college and it’s been good to flex his audio muscles again. He also liked that, with an audio drama, they could put on a show “that would make everybody, virtually speaking, appear to be in the same room together,” instead of creating a video full of Zoom squares.
“I also think there’s something really freeing for the kids… because they don’t have to focus on having stage fright, or being camera shy,” Halitzka said. “All they have to do is focus on delivering a vocal performance.”
The young actors also don’t have to fret about memorizing lines because they can read from their scripts as they record their individual tracks.
Halitzka then takes all of those tracks and mixes them with sound effects to create the final play.
Keeping ‘Performing Alive’
As much as Halitzka has enjoyed producing these audio plays the past months, he’s not sure he’ll keep it up post-COVID.
Enrollment for the audio-focused drama clubs is significantly lower than typical, Halitzka said. He had just one drama club last fall, open to any student who had done a Drama by George program before, compared to 12 just before the pandemic. He’s opened up enrollment for a spring virtual drama club, which will also produce an audio play, but he’s eager to get back to being in person.
In the meantime, he’s glad to offer any kind of creative outlet.
“Even though this is a much smaller semester than we’re used to… we’re still working with kids to keep the creativity and the performing alive,” Halitzka said. “And I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
Young actors Mychele Bradshaw and Mahika Kapoor have been able to make new friends during this recent drama club, something that’s difficult to do during a global pandemic. That’s been the best part, they said, even if they haven’t met them in person yet.
“I think it was fun cuz it’s normally with people from your own school, and then we do have people from different schools,” Bradshaw said. “It’s like fun to meet new people.”
“You’re meeting new people, you haven’t even seen them, but now you’re like friends and you talk a lot with them,” Kapoor said.