By George Basler
The fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down the local community theater scene is one more reason to bemoan 2020 which has been, to paraphrase a T-shirt I bought, a truly “sucky” year.
That’s why a project being launched by the Binghamton-based KNOW Theatre is welcome news for theater aficionados going through withdrawal pains. The company — known for staging provocative, hard-hitting plays — has gone back to the days before television, not to mention the internet, to produce one-act audio plays.
The first two — Cocaine by Pendleton King and The Sequel by Percival Wilde — are currently available free of charge on Anchor, Google Podcasts, Spotify and other online platforms. KNOW is planning to put seven others online during the summer months. Again, there will be no charge.
KNOW Stage Manager Duncan Lyle developed the project at the suggestion of his wife after COVID-19 forced the cancellations of two KNOW productions scheduled for this spring. “It was a way to keep our creative juices flowing,” he said. “It’s not in our nature to just sit on our hands.”
While the name of the project is the KNOW Theatre Radio Players, Lyle emphasized the productions are not nostalgic recreations of radio dramas that were popular entertainment from the 1920s through the early 1950s. Instead, they are presentations of theater pieces in an audio format.
“I wanted them to feel like KNOW productions rather than old-time radio shows. These are scripts we could have done on stage,” Lyle said. In making the selections, he looked for a mixture of comedies and dramas with an emphasis on “thought-provoking works that is our brand.” The roster will include plays by Anton Chekhov and August Strindberg, as well as works by playwrights who are not household names, but should be.
KNOW is purposely keeping most of the productions in the 30- to 40-minute range, Tim Gleason, the company’s artistic director, said. Actors will rehearse via video conferencing and then record the productions in real time.
The main challenge is having actors reach an emotional level using just their voices, Lyle said, acknowledging everyone involved in the project is a novice when it comes to staging audio dramas.
“Reaching out to the actors was a no-brainer. They were chomping at the bit,” Gleason said. Performers will include actors familiar to audiences at KNOW Theatre and other local stages, such as Jeff Tagliaferro, Amanda Marsico, Anna Simek, Annie Fabiano, Bonnie DeForest, Eric Bill, Eric Fernandez and Nick DeLucia.
“Our core group is about work. The work is what we need in this time of separation,” Gleason said.
The Sequel, one of the two first plays online, is a satirical comedy about the folly of “love at first sight.” Percival Wilde, its author, wasn’t known to me but, according to Wikipedia, he was an American author who wrote numerous short stories, one-act plays and film scripts.
Likewise, I had never heard of Pendleton King who wrote Cocaine, the second of KNOW’s two initial productions. Through research, I found out that he was a promising playwright who tragically died of pneumonia at a young age after trying to rescue two African-American women from drowning. His play, as the title hints at, is a raw one that features drug abuse, urban poverty and both male and female prostitution. The kicker is that, while the issues remain contemporary, King wrote the play around 1916.
Upcoming KNOW productions will include a play by Alice Gerstenberg, a playwright and activist known for feminist drama, and Trifles by Susan Glaspell, an America playwright who helped found the Provincetown Players and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1931.
The initial audio productions have received some positive feedback on Facebook, with about a quarter of the audience coming from outside New York state, Lyle said.
The plan is to continue the audio productions until KNOW resumes live productions in the fall. But, if the theater remains closed, the audio plays could continue until it reopens, Lyle said.
While the plays are being posted free of charge, donations are welcome to keep the theater running. To hear the plays, or to donate, go online to knowtheatre.org or follow on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Be.In.The.KNOW.
Get your ears out: KNOW Theatre goes on the air with audio plays
By George Basler