Behind the scenes of Old Time Radio Hour, an audio-only blast from the past
This spring, set your dials for the Belmont theater department’s Old Time Radio Hour.
Inspired by performances of the past century, the Belmont theater department has reproduced classic radio shows from the 1930s and 1940s for an audio-only streaming series under the direction of theater professor Paul Gatrell.
The current slate of productions posted April 9 includes four episodes of “Flash Gordon,” as well as the single releases “New Year’s Eve Party,” which is a Burns and Allen comedy program, and “Sherlock Holmes: The Problem of Thor Bridge.” Regardless of genre, every Old Time Radio Hour makes use of scripts and sound design pulled from the broadcasts of history.
“I always love seeing how actors can rise to the challenge,” said Annie Mathews, a senior who assistant-directed four of the shows.
Mathews has a directing emphasis in the theater program and directed two episodes of “My Favorite Husband,” a 1930s radio sitcom, on her own. The team is planning to release a total of five different shows.
But bringing audio to life did not come without challenges.
A major difficulty with these radio shows was that the actors had to portray characters using only their voices, Mathews said.
“There are things that, when you don’t have the visual element, you have to think of,” she said. “Our actors have had to do so many voices that are so distinct from each other, so they’ve really had to expand their vocal range and really explore what they can do with their voices.”
Grace Guerre, a sophomore theater performance major who acted in the productions, described the challenges of this project similarly.
“It’s definitely been different in the sense that you really have to embody so much in your voice. Every emotion, every movement, every action has to be heard,” Guerre said.
Bringing listeners into a fictional setting without all of the visual elements was especially challenging for the wacky, fantastical world of “Flash Gordon,” a sci-fi show from 1935, said Guerre.
Not only were the actors venturing into new performance territory, but other production-minded students were involved behind the scenes as well.
In an effort to make the shows authentic to their time, a group of students led by senior theatre production design major Mary Baca served as the shows’ foley artists, responsible for creating real-time sound effects as the episodes were being recorded.
“They have come up with some of the craziest, innovative ways to make these sounds,” said Andrew Bassett, a junior theatre performance major with roles in the radio shows. “One of them is a spaceship taking off and landing, and it sounds just like it. They’re doing it right in front of us with household objects and things, and it’s really cool.”
Not only are the shows bringing foley artists into the mix, but the actors are also recreating vintage commercials from the original radio shows, said Bassett.
These shows are a sign of the resilience and creativity in the theater department, said Guerre.
“COVID-19 has been so hard on the theater world and the entertainment world in general,” she said. “I think that this was one of the good things that came out of it.”
Bassett was especially excited to have gotten experience on these productions because voiceover work has become increasingly in-demand during the pandemic, he said.
“It’s great that we get to practice and work on so many different shows and tap into all of these characters that we can create,” Bassett said. “It’s intense but fun. It’s not work. It’s the coolest training ever.”
After a year of online and challenging socially distanced productions, these radio shows have given Guerre hope for the future of theater, she said.
“This semester, we’re moving closer to live theater,” she said. “It’s nice to get a little closer to normalcy.”
This article was written by Haydn Nash. Photo courtesy of Annie Mathews.