By Carissa Lee
Joining scores of theater and performing arts companies across the nation who have adapted to virtual productions, the Stanford Shakespeare Company premiered their winter show, “The Tempest: A Radio Play,” for remote audiences last Friday.
But what exactly is a radio play? Best enjoyed with headphones, the show is an auditory treat that cleverly juxtaposes ambient music and sound effects to bring to life the magic of Prospero’s island all within your living room. Starting off with a bang (or, more precisely, a thunderclap), the howling storm and roaring sea that assault one’s ears in the first few seconds are jarring, yes, but they introduce the listener to the immersive potential of the auditory format. Listeners are instantly thrown into the tumultuous conflict of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” guided by a stellar cast that effortlessly breathes life into the antiquated script and a soundscape as intricately put together as the playwright’s original. Simply put, “The Tempest: A Radio Play” is a must-hear.
Without spoiling anything, “The Tempest” is, according to director Ryan Tan ’21, a story about stories. “Despite movies and tragedies, these plotlines that we create of ‘revenge’ and ‘romance’ and ‘righteousness’ in our lives can never fit quite perfectly onto ourselves or others,” Tan writes in the show’s program. “There is a potential danger in getting attached to the stories we tell about our lives, especially if we begin to act in ways just because they are consistent with what the fictional character of myself would do.” With quarantine and introspection going hand-in-hand, the character Prospero’s steeled belief in their role as protagonist poses a fascinating challenge to modern-day listeners: Are we truly the protagonists of our own stories? And if so, how accurate are our self-prescribed narratives?
In keeping with its far-reaching message, the Shakespeare Company’s rendition of the play includes thoughtful modifications to the original that broaden its approachable nature to a wide range of remote audiences. For instance, the protagonist Prospero, who is traditionally gendered as male, instead uses they/them pronouns. In conjunction with the absence of character portraits or otherwise influential visual guidelines, Prospero becomes a faceless protagonist — such that our impressions are sculpted entirely through their emotions and interactions — with whom virtually all listeners may sympathize or even identify with.
Nevertheless, the play’s ability to question and resonate with audiences extends beyond a dramatic reading of the script alone. Rather, the radio play format allows the audio to play a major role in what lead sound designer Wilder Seitz ’22 describes as “creating ‘moments.’” According to Seitz, “At the editing stage you’re in complete control of all the elements, so you can make effects and music and acting all line up in the right way that theater snaps together into moments of profundity.” It is precisely in these “moments of profundity,” indicated by a puncture of volume or godly echo, that the emotional depth and meaning behind the Shakespearean phrases become suddenly so clear.
No review would be complete without mentioning the intricately composed musical scores interspersed throughout. Taking inspiration from “freak folk,” the character Ariel’s singing, accompanied by the sometimes soothing, sometimes melancholy array of string instruments, ties the play together in an ethereal fashion that reflects the role of the character. Just as Ariel possesses the unique ability to jump between the various groups on the island, the musical transitions seamlessly draw the island’s disparate inhabitants closer and closer together as the story unfolds to its climax.
Naturally, such well-executed command over the soundscape was not without difficulties. Seitz discusses the unique challenges of recording over Zoom — a necessity, given the amount of actors and background members — describing how “the final recordings that the sound team got from each actor would have a slight delay in between lines and responses. So designing the sound ended up being a game of also trying to be in that acting headspace as well, trying to effectively recreate dramatic pacing, comedic timing, really intangible stuff like that and replicate it with little millisecond adjustments.”
What’s next for the company? While unable to produce their typical two full-length Shakespeare plays per year, the company plans to continue outreach events for fellow Shakespeare enthusiasts. According to the official company website, the 2020-21 year will continue to be one of “experimentation with digital media forms to re-imagine Shakespeare for our current time.”
“The Tempest: A Radio Play” is available on YouTube, Spotify, Amazon Music and SoundCloud for your listening pleasure.