Following the mantra “The show must go on,” students at York Catholic High School are going old-school with their spring performance April 16-18.
Big-score musical numbers, full-fledged scenery and in-person audiences are being set aside due to health and safety measures surrounding COVID-19. In their place are simple props, small-scale settings and improvised sound effects in the throwback stylings of the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
Entitled “Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play,” the recorded production brings spies, suspense and murder to the stage in the style of a 1940s radio broadcast featuring the director and screenwriter’s three films, “The Lodger,” “Sabotage” and “The 39 Steps.”
The pièce de résistance: York Catholic students take the lead in all parts of the drama, from the cast and orchestra to sound effects, costuming, camera operation, audio tech crew and post production.
The show will be available for streaming this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Virtual show times are April 16 at 7 p.m., April 17 at 7 p.m., and April 18 at 2 p.m. Tickets to the stream are available at York Catholic’s website, www.yorkcatholic.org. Cost is $20 per device, plus a $3.95 service charge. Tickets can be purchased up to the time of the show.
The pre-recorded show is among the many innovative productions high schools are presenting this spring to follow COVID-safety guidelines while showcasing students’ talents in music and the arts.
A Plot Twist
Three days before the unveiling of the vintage production, students representing different aspects of the show shared their experiences of undertaking a new style of drama.
Musician Emilio Gurany, who usually finds himself in the orchestra pit during York Catholic’s spring musicals, said the radio play “offers a best-of-both worlds compromise” between a Broadway-style production and a limited-scale musical, the latter of which had been considered earlier in the year.
“This is more of a play than a musical, of course, but there is background music and two songs. I think this was the best fit for the situation,” Emilio said.
As a musician, Emilio was given the task and honor of composing two radio jingles for his school’s production of the show. No well-respected radio show would be complete without catchy and kitschy commercial tunes. Supplied with prewritten lyrics, Emilio delivered the score for both commercials, which are performed by the high school orchestra.
“It was very different to be able to do that,” he said. “Personally, I have some experience in writing songs, but they are more pop/rock style, which is very different from a radio jingle. I immersed myself in a mindset of writing in a specific style and writing for an entire orchestra arrangement. I wrote the songs over the span of a few days. It was a bit of a struggle at first to find the inspiration, but from there it began to flow.”
Stepping away from their seats in the orchestra pit, student musicians took stage left, providing sound effects to enhance the vintage production. They learned the art of Foley effects, using everyday items like baking sheets, wood blocks and mallets to give authenticity to the Hitchcock style.
“That was an interesting thing too, because none of us have experience with the Foley technique. It was something completely new that we had to learn,” Emilio said. Exchanging their musical instruments for coconut shells, train whistles and soda cans, orchestra members brainstormed to create sounds simulating footsteps, car engines and creaking doors.
“There was a lot of learning as we went – what worked and what didn’t work – but in the end we got a good result,” said Emilio. Several of his effects can be heard in the production’s final story, “The 39 Steps.”
Dial M for … Modification
Cast member Sophia DeBolt, who appears in “The Lodger” portion of the show, said she wasn’t sold on the idea of a radio play at first. A regular in York Catholic’s spring productions, the senior said she was hesitant about this year’s show, given its different and sometimes challenging format.
But presented with new ideas and approaches, she changed her mind rather quickly, and is eager for the show to be released this weekend.
“It was very different compared to all the other musicals I’ve been in,” Sophia said, “but once we started doing it, it was actually a very good experience.”
The show’s stylings and production presented the cast with several challenges and called on them to adapt to various elements.
The first was emoting and portraying emotion behind face coverings.
To overcome the muffled sounds of voices behind masks, small plastic cage-like devices were inserted into the actors’ face coverings. The inserts created enough space between their mouths and masks to result in clear speaking voices.
Technician Luke Maly was responsible for producing quality sound for the show. Over the course of the three weeks it took to shoot, edit and produce the radio play, Luke spent hours between the tech booth and the stage.
“Working with sound, I’m usually in the booth, but I was also responsible for putting the mics on the cast and making sure the frequency was on point so we could record with little to no mistakes,” said Luke.
“For last year’s show, we were able to knock this out in one week, but this year it took three weeks. I still enjoyed it though, even being here until 8:00 at night,” he said.
Cast members were divided into three small groups for each of the show’s acts, which were filmed by students. Scenes were shot in small increments, different from the usual chronological flow of a rehearsal or live performance.
“It is definitely going to be really interesting to see the full show and how it all comes together,” Sophia said. “Since this is a play without big musical numbers and it’s limited to a few cast members at a time with some props, you can really see yourself and your acting.”
“The filming part was very interesting, too, because it was so different having the cameras there and wearing masks while we acted out the scenes. Overall, it was a very good experience. It was different, but a good kind of different,” she said. “For me, this experience has taught me how to adapt to different situations and scenarios, and change the way I act into order to convey emotion while wearing a mask. It also developed my acting technique. With musicals, the majority of it is singing, but with a play, you have to embody emotions.”
Emilio said this year’s production “forced me to get comfortable with on-the-fly learning. There were new techniques and sudden changes that we had to adapt to while recording.”
The cast and crew of “Vintage Hitchcock” hadn’t seen the full result of the production at the time of The Witness’ visit on April 13. The video was in its final rendering stages that day, keeping the students in eager anticipation of the final result.
“Doing this type of a show was a completely new thing,” said Luke, who has been a technician at York Catholic since seventh grade. “We tried this in the fall with the junior high play, and I tell you, it is a learning process to produce something like this. The spring play compared to the fall play is so much different. We did a lot of learning and trial and error, and we’ve seen a major improvement in this production.
“I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how much we’ve improved since the fall,” he said.
Purchase your virtual tickets to the show at www.yorkcatholic.org.
(Performance photos courtesy of York Catholic High School. Technician photo by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness