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During A Pandemic, Quarantine Radio Theater Finds Inspiration In The Past

Quarantine Radio Theater troupe members record their parts individually at home, and send them to Brant McChance, who mixes together the final product. The radio plays are available as podcasts or on YouTube. [6/11/20]
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Quarantine Radio Theater troupe members record their parts individually at home, and send them to Brant McChance, who mixes together the final product. The radio plays are available as podcasts or on YouTube.

Professional theater artists have been out of work since state and local officials restricted large gatherings to keep the new coronavirus from spreading. The ongoing shutdown of performance spaces also stings for folks who view theater as a hobby. 

Community theater enthusiasts use theater to socialize with friends and stretch their creative muscles. In a period of quarantine, the absence of this outlet can sting. 

A group of about a dozen people who were active in community theater before the coronavirus pandemic has found a way to keep their camaraderie going. 

As the newly formed troupe Quarantine Radio Theater, the amateur theater enthusiasts dust off the scripts to radio plays of the 1930s and '40s and produce new versions, complete with dramatic music and foley effects.

This effort is both nostalgic and a sign of the times. Since they can’t get together in person, they record their lines individually and then mix them together into a finished product.

“We just get the satisfaction now that people are listening to it and they enjoy it. That’s the only thing we wanted, for us to have fun, and if people are enjoying it that’s just a bonus,” said Brant McCance, president of the group and the man who weaves all the pieces together at his computer. 

McChance spent 17 years building cabinets and countertops, and now works for LGP Consulting in Wood River, Illinois. He helps construct safety equipment for laboratories — devices that remove and replace test tube caps. 

He also graduated college with a theater degree and is technical director for Alton Little Theatre, a longstanding community theater company. 

“I like the technical side of things, but like everybody I like to act,” McCance said. “It’s just refreshing to be able to lose yourself inside another character, another persona.”

Quarantine Radio Theatre coalesced about two months ago. Its members were part of a group that met regularly on video chats, reading plays out loud together as a substitute for collaborating on plays and musicals in person.

Members include two lawyers, a pre-K teacher, an office administrator and a data analyst and developer. Their first Quarantine Radio Theatre production was “Meridian 7-1212,” a 1939 mystery that centers on telephone operators. Next came “Poltergeist,” a ghost story that was first performed on the radio in 1936.

The group has also taken a literary tack, performing a radio adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Its next piece is an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”

The process is simple. Troupe members take turns selecting scripts and working out the cast. They have one rehearsal via video chat, then record their lines on their phones and send them to McCance. 

In this time of working from home and distance learning, close quarters at home can make quiet recording spots hard to come by. 

“I recorded one show in my kids’ closet. It was very glamorous,” said Alison Beach, a lawyer for the Air Force. She got involved with Alton Little Theatre when she was posted at Scott Air Force Base for two years. Now she collaborates with her theater friends remotely, from her quarters at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. 

McCance finds some sound effects and music cues online and creates others himself. When he needed a trombone sound for “The Fabulous Dr. Tweedy,” he asked his son to play a few bars. The stairs in his house are particularly creaky, he said, which gives him an ace in the hole for the spookier programs. He typically adds intro and outro sequences to the main program. 

Quarantine Radio Theater posts its shows to podcasting platforms and to YouTube. It will produce a 10-show inaugural season. Members hope to expand the repertoire, inviting people to write new radio plays inspired by the classics of yore. 

“It’s a way to keep the hobby going,” Beach said of the group. “We can get in again with a good community theater family. Even though we can only talk to each other over the digital platforms, it makes it so that creative outlet doesn’t have to stop just because in-person theater has halted for a while.” 

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyDGoodwin 

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