Theater professor Kathy Privatt (center top) and some of her students work through preparations for a radio drama to be performed live on Zoom on Friday night.

Story by Awa Badiane ’21

As we all are adapting to the challenges that come with distance learning, faculty and students across campus are getting creative, including those who usually showcase their talents on the theater stage.

Despite students being spread across the globe this term, Lawrence University’s Theatre Arts department has found a way to host its annual spring theater show while adhering to physical distancing.

It’ll do so through a radio drama presented live on Zoom at 8 p.m. May 15, and then an edited/produced version will be available on the Department of Theatre Arts Productions web page, under the View Streaming Video link.

Update: See unedited version of the radio drama here.

The students will tackle The National Youth Administration: A Radio Drama, by Herb Meadow, a piece written in the mid-1930s that is essentially a series of vignettes embodying the effects of the Great Depression on young people.

But first, what would have been. 

“I had an entire production planned called The Domino Effect,” said Kathy Privatt, the James G. and Ethel M. Barber Professor of Theatre and Drama and associate professor of theatre arts.

The COVID-19 pandemic scrapped that plan.

“Now, hopefully, it is going to happen next year instead,” Privatt said. “Yes, it is an interesting script, but half of it should be movement, so doing that one at a distance is not an option.” 

So, how to do a spring production when instruction and collaboration are happening via Zoom?

“I started thinking about radio drama” Privatt said. “Partly, because my colleague Tim Troy has a deep and abiding love for radio dramas. He’s done some at Lawrence, and at the end of winter term he had just done a sound recording of his production, Richard III. So, we’ve been talking about maybe we should just routinely do just a sound recording, because so many scripts stand beautifully as just a sound file.”  

That idea – to begin creating sound file versions of the plays the Theatre Arts department produces – planted a seed that would lead to Privatt’s decision to pursue a radio drama on Zoom with her theater students.

A quick history lesson: Radio dramas, dramatized acoustic performances, find their roots in the world of théàtrophone. Prior to the development of radio technology, between the 1900s and 1920s, people would set up a network of lines to listen to live performances. After the development of radio technology, A Comedy Of Danger became the first play written with the intention to be performed on the radio. It aired in 1924 on the BBC network. 

The National Youth Administration: A Radio Drama is a piece written in 1937,” Privatt said. “There was part of a whole set of programing that came out of the Great Depression and the Works Progress Administration, which more specifically had a unit that was the Federal Theatre Project.” 

The National Youth Administration (NYA) was a program geared toward providing jobs and education for people ages 16-25. This radio drama was propaganda to increase support of and knowledge about the program.

When deciding what radio drama to produce with her Lawrence students, Privatt remembered the Federal Theatre Project and its radio drama sector. This set of plays was especially interesting to Privatt because of the parallels that can be drawn between this global pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout and the era in which this play was written. 

Privatt decided the radio drama was “something we can really hone in on.” And when she found the Federal Theatre Project, she knew she struck the right chord.

“When I found that script it just felt right,” she said. 

“It’s been creatively motivating”  

Learning about the connections between America shortly after the Great Depression and our present situation has also been interesting for the students involved. Unlike the spring production in years past, where Privatt would have a year to prepare the piece that students would perform, she had roughly two weeks. With this, she decided to make the show a collaborative effort, where students have the opportunity to use their research skills to learn more about life during this time. 

“I love that we’re getting to learn about this new form of theater,” Maren Dahl ’21 said. “I also really love that it’s giving me the opportunity, one that I otherwise would not have had, to use my research skills. … I think that the best part about it for me has been that feeling of people working toward a common goal they really care about; it’s been creatively motivating.”  

Dahl is double majoring in theater and psychology and will be featured in the show.  She also is using this as her Senior Experience project. Dahl has been part of a multitude of theater productions at Lawrence and has fully embraced the new avenues this show provides. 

“I think the main difference is not having the face to face contact and not staging something,” Dahl said. “But, I think that opens some doors for us where because we don’t have to stage a full production we have the time to do certain things like deeper dives into the text or do something that is more research heavy and spend a lot of time talking through that.”  

The opportunities to explore has not been limited to the director and actors in the show.  

“I thought that this show was especially interesting because of the limitations we’re under,” said Grace Krueger ’21, a theater major who is working as the dramaturg, compiling historical background for the audience. “We’re able to create theater in a new way, and it’s something that hasn’t been done before on this campus, so I am glad to be a part of it.”  

Not staging a spring production wasn’t an option.

“It’s what we do,” Privatt said. “It’s one of the great joys of my job. Once a year I gather with a team of artists and we find a way to share a story with an audience that lets us be one big community for a while.”

Not even a global pandemic is going to keep Privatt and her students from making that magic happen.

If you want to see the production live: The National Youth Administration: A Radio Drama will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday on Zoom. To obtain a “ticket” (the Zoom meeting link and password), email Privatt at kathy.privatt@lawrence.edu. A limited number of people will be allowed in. It’ll later be shared on YouTube and on the Department of Theatre Arts Productions web page.

Awa Badiane ’21 is a student writer in the Communications office.