By David Perry
Two years ago, Emma Valentine arrived on campus with a love of theater cultivated during four years of acting at Woburn High School. She was far from alone. The business major found UML’s student-run theater group, the Off-Broadway Players
(OBP), and climbed onstage.
Last year, as a sophomore, she acted in and directed “She Kills Monsters,” a play by Qui Nguyen. Valentine was also elected the group’s vice president.
And then, during spring break, the COVID-19 pandemic flipped the script on Valentine and the nearly two dozen other Off-Broadway Players. The spring show, an adaptation of the “Dracula” story, would not go on.
“When we heard we weren’t going back to campus last spring, we decided just not to do it at all,” says Valentine. “But we continued to meet online over Zoom.”
In April, OBP President Devin Provencher suggested the group try a new venue for its talents in the time of pandemic — radio theater. Everyone agreed.
This month, the students will present three productions on the university’s student-run station, WUML (91.5 FM)
. The productions, “Retail Therapy,” “Sherlock Holmes” and “Snow White,” will also be streamed on WUML’s website
Radio theater is an all-acoustic form that dates back nearly a century, and thrived until television grabbed leisure time. In America, one radio drama stands above all others in reputation, 1938’s “War of the Worlds,” a production of H.G. Wells’ story that had some listeners believing an invasion from space was really happening.
The ease of distribution on the internet, relatively low production costs and the rising popularity of podcasts have led to a radio drama mini-revival in recent years.
OBP Treasurer Andrew Termini, who also works at WUML, helped the group find time slots at the radio station to broadcast pre-recorded plays. The students got to work and chose three scripts. Typically, the group produces one play a semester.
Business major Patrick Woods, OBP’s membership coordinator, says the radio productions are a welcomed alternative during a time of social distancing.
“We are trying out radio theater this year as a way to still give our members a creative outlet and keep our momentum going, despite our inability to meet in person,” he says.
The group rehearses twice a week on Zoom.
Zoom is “pretty interesting,” says Valentine. “The actors don’t have to worry as much about memorizing lines,” as pre-recording productions allows for editing.
It can be harder to develop a sense of ensemble when the actors are never in the same place, she says.
“You can still play off one another to a certain degree, but if there are technical difficulties, timing might not always be there. Both comedic and dramatic timing can be affected,” Valentine says.
But Valentine says there are advantages.
“Everyone gets there on time pretty much, since they’re at home and don’t have to worry about traffic or classes running over,” she says.
And, while radio theater wasn’t something they anticipated, they are taking away lessons from the experience.
“We’re sort of learning along with everyone else how to best put this on. It’s definitely a very different experience from our typical in-person performances,” says Woods.
“Retail Therapy” airs Nov. 6 at 2 p.m.; “Sherlock Holmes” airs Nov. 9, 11 and 13 at 4 p.m.; and “Snow White” airs Nov. 16, 18 and 20 at 6 p.m.