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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

UWM Theatre Class Creates Radio Drama As Substitute For In-Person Performance

UWM class Zoom rehearsal
UWM Theatre professor Jim Tasse (top left) in a Zoom rehearsal with students and dialect coach Raeleen McMillion.

During the pandemic, educators have been getting creative about how they keep students learning safely.

WUWM is exploring how performing arts classes have adapted. Last week, we heard about the Cedarburg High School choir creating radio concerts. Now we turn to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee theater class bringing the old-time radio drama back to life.

UWM theater instructor Jim Tasse was planning an in-person production of the 1907 Irish play Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge. It’s about a man who arrives in pub with a tale about killing his father.

"It’s a play I dearly love and I’ve always wanted to do," Tasse says. "And we had planned to do it this spring as a full production."

But when COVID-19 numbers spiked around November and December, Tasse didn’t know if it would be safe. "I thought, how can we hang on the performative aspect for the students, and at least manage the risk of a full performance?" he says. "So I came up with, for want of a better word, a radio play."

It was a new experience for Tasse and his students. Daniel Byrne-Szafoni, a theater student and actor in the play, says he didn’t know what to think about the audio drama.

"At first you’re a little disappointed because you want to be able to perform in front of people," he says. "But Jim Tasse, the man who directed this, is one of the teachers here, I think he’s one of the people you can put your lot and your effort and your skill behind him and you can trust him to lead you somewhere that will be rewarding."

In addition to adjusting from an in-person production to an audio play, the actors had to learn Irish accents. Tasse says the audio format allowed them to focus on dialect.

"I feel like our ability to really keep our gaze on the language was really useful," he says. "It would have been lovely to have the physical aspects of the piece, but it gave us a chance to really concentrate on the language and storytelling aspects, and in particular the dialect."

After weeks of Zoom rehearsals, Tasse and his students got together in-person to record the play. It's now in post-production.

UWM student Lauren Westfahl was stage manager for the production. She juggled the logistics of remote rehearsals and making a play that was written for the stage into an audio performance.

"I am really proud of this show," Westfahl says. "There were a few times that we were like, 'What are we doing?' It taught me to be more adaptable because I’m not the most adaptable person in the world. It taught me a lot about changing how I view theater as a whole."

If there’s anything the UWM Theatre department has learned this year, it’s that the show must go on — even if it looks different.

Playboy of the Western World will be available online April 28 as part of UWM’s spring Theatre Fest.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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