When Theaters Close, What Happens to Actors?

GW professor and recent graduates describe rising to the pandemic’s challenge.

February 23, 2022

Acting students in mask class

Acting students in mask class learn to tell stories through movement. (Photo courtesy of Alec Wild)

By Greg Varner

When the coronavirus pandemic started racing through cities around the world, theaters shut their doors. Where did the actors go?

Students in the George Washington University’s graduate program in Classical Acting, a joint project of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design housed in GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, moved their plays to the radio.

The director of the one-year degree program, Alec Wild, said there is a profound connection between performing on stage and on radio.

“Theater is about imagination,” Wild said. “We put a crown on somebody and ask you to imagine that he’s a king. We say that we’re in a castle, or a church, or on a street waiting for the bus, and you imagine it. We can’t bring in the bus, we can’t bring in a horse, so we’re asking the audience to imagine anyway. What if we actually ask them to imagine more?”

His inspiration to make the leap sprang partly from his affection for old radio plays like the ones presented by Orson Welles with a group of actors from the Mercury Theatre.

“I’ve always loved them,” Wild said. “I start listening to them and for the first 30 seconds I think, how old-fashioned this is! — and then in one minute I’m hooked.”

The skills necessary to successfully stage a radio play are highly transferable to the traditional stage, Wild added.

“Especially when we’re working with plays of heightened language, like Shakespeare plays, so much of what happens in those plays is in the language. An actor who can deftly handle that language, take us along their thought path, and really make us listen is a gifted actor on stage or on radio.”

The pandemic changed the way even radio plays are produced. Normally, actors rehearse by standing in a circle with microphones and music stands. With student actors avoiding the coronavirus by sheltering at home, that traditional approach had to change.

“We had to learn how to set up 18 different home studios,” Wild said. “We got microphones and sent them to everybody and set up studios and put up blankets and things to dull the sound. We had actors standing in their closets, playing the whole thing by themselves, and then afterwards we added footsteps and sword sounds and all that stuff.”

Cast members in the student production of Romeo and Juliet were able to see each other virtually on a screen. But they had to work a little harder when they recorded Hamlet, which they did via audio only. In both cases, students (now alumni) felt challenged and stretched by their experience.

“We had to make the audience see what we were seeing and feel what we were feeling without looking at us,” said Sam Parrott, M.F.A. '20, who played Romeo. “We had to create it all in our imaginations and then transfer it into theirs.”

Libby Barnard, M.F.A. '20, who played Juliet opposite Parrott, touched on some of the challenges of making radio theater while describing her experience recording the so-called “lark scene.”

“It’s their morning after, right before Romeo leaves,” Barnard said. “They’re in bed. Where there’s a kiss, we’d have to say, ‘OK, what kind of kiss? Is it a kiss on the cheek? Is he nibbling her ear?’ We got really specific and used breath to help inform what we were doing.”

A classmate, Morgan Pavey, M.F.A. '20, who played the role of Ophelia in Hamlet, said the experience taught her about the importance of voice as one of the tools — movement, for example, is another — in an actor’s kit.

“It really emphasized the impact and importance of voice,” Pavey said. “I had to focus on my physical habits that were making my voice come out a certain way. It really isolated that part of the training.”

The radio productions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, which are accessible on line, met with a warm reception from audiences, Wild said.

“A lot of people said, ‘Oh my gosh, it was so nice to go on my daily walk during the pandemic and just listen to this play, when I’ve been missing going to the theater so much,’” said Wild. “It was a good experience for them and for students.”