Like most local theater companies, ShenanArts in Staunton has had to think outside the box to reach audiences this holiday season. WMRA’s Mike Tripp takes us behind the scenes for a glimpse at their latest production, in a form that your grandparents might well recognize.
[Footsteps sound effect]
Footsteps in the snow … part of ShenanArts’ latest production, ‘Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.’
CLARENCE FINN: It’s based on a true story from 1897.
Clarence Finn is the show’s director. He retells the classic Christmas tale…
FINN: This little girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. She’s 8-years-old, and she gets teased by her friends for believing in Santa.
[Children tease Virginia]
FINN: So, she thinks about it and asks her Dad, ‘Is Santa real?’
[Virginia asks her father if Santa is real]
The dad, you may remember, tells her to write to the newspaper, which he considers the font of all useful knowledge.
FINN: …This journey of this little girl who is just looking for some answers, and this reporter who was just looking for some hope. And it’s a beautiful story.
Finn believes it’s a story we can all relate to right now.
FINN: During this time, we’re all looking for some hope and some magic. And that’s why I wanted to direct this play.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic prevents this from being a traditional stage production. But that’s given the producers another reason to resurrect a classic 20th century form of mass story-telling -- radio, with a hint of video.
[Countdown to live on air]
FINN: It’s done in the style of the old radio plays. So you have actors at microphones. You have actors making sound effects and making music. It’s done in the style they did radio plays back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The only difference is there’s a camera there.
Cori McDaniel is an actor, and also in charge of sound effects for the production.
CORI MCDANIEL: I actually have some experience in sound design. I focused on that in college. It’s actually a lot of fun.
Remember the sounds of those footsteps in the snow?
[Footsteps sound effect]
MCDANIEL: Because the show takes place at Christmas and winter, we have snow, and people have to walk through it. So it was like how on earth are we going to make it sound like people are walking through snow.
The answer had to be purely auditory. In a radio drama, it’s all about what the audience hears.
MCDANIEL: And I actually found a more modern solution that if you take corn starch and put it into a Ziplock bag and then just kind of roll your fists over it, you get sound of walking through snow. Some of the others were a little bit easier. A door opening and closing. The sound of water being poured out of a tea kettle.
[Sound of tea being poured as actor speaks]
Others required a bit more thought, like …
MCDANIEL: A bell.
[A bell sounds three times]
MCDANIEL: We needed the sound like a bell from a boat out in the distance. Finding a bell that had that distinct kind of captain’s ship bell sound was really hard to come by.
A tire rim was the answer.
MCDANIEL: Set it up on a wooden block. And one of our actors actually takes a standard hammer and hits the rim of it, and it actually creates that exact same tone that a bell would. It was a lot of fun to kind of get to go back and play with a lot of those creative things. And see what all fun and interesting ways we can make the sound effects required for the show.
The use of a sound person, or Foley artist, is what fascinates Rebekah Bradley Ray, an actor and musical director.
REBEKAH BRADLEY RAY: For me, I would watch this show just based on being able to see the sound effects from the Foleys because it truly is fascinating to watch them produce all of these effects with the door, with the sandbags and especially the fight scene.
[Sounds of fighting]
BRADLEY RAY: Like it’s all live. It can’t be too cemented for this because people … their speed of how fast they say things changes, their inflections change, emotions change. As a pianist, I had to sense all of that and listen to all of that. And I had to immediately like on the spot figure out and adjust what I was going to play in real time.
She even wrote an original song for the production with fellow musical director, Matt Parrish.
[Singing ‘Winter Time’]
BRADLEY RAY: It’s called ‘Winter Time.’ Both Matt and I worked really hard on it. It really touches on a lot of the same themes of the show where we’re all going through really hard times right now. And just talking about sticking together and you know realizing who is around you. Like who is family and also sticking together through rough times. Getting through it together.
MCDANIEL: To me, this production just represents hope and the idea that we just have to keep believing. With everything that’s gone on this year, it’s been really easy to kind of get sad and lonely. Kind of feel there’s this sense of hopelessness. But knowing that there are people out there working to make things better, and there are people around you who care about you. That’s really the big message of this show is to just keep on believing.
Audiences can stream the play online December 18-20 with tickets and additional information available on their website at ShenanArts.org.
Also this holiday season, you can catch two different versions of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ The Wayne Theatre in Waynesboro will present a live radio performance, and the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton is streaming a stage performance of the Charlie Dickens classic.