OXFORD, Ms. – The pandemic has already made 2020 an especially frightening year, but with Halloween right around the corner, the UM Theatre and Film Department is looking to make 2020 just a bit scarier with its new production, “Listening in the Shadows.”
“Listening in the Shadows” is a series of five radio dramas that will release on the Department’s Facebook page and YouTube channel at 7 p.m. on Oct. 30. The radio dramas will also be distributed on the Department’s new podcast, “Stage & Screen,” which will premiere with “Listening in the Shadows.” Program Coordinator Katherine W. Stewart said the purpose of “Stage & Screen” will be to give a behind the scenes look at everything going on in the Department. The podcast will also feature interviews with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and special guests.
Written, directed, and acted by students in the Department, “Listening in the Shadows” will explore creepy and uncanny themes.
“It has just worked out that it fits as a Halloween idea, that’s not officially the direction we took with it, but timing wise it’s going to come out October 30; the uniting principle of all these plays, I gave the playwrights a theme to work around, is The Shadow which in one sense is a tip of the hat to one of the most popular radio dramas of all time “The Shadow”, who was a crime fighting millionaire, he was a precursor to Batman, it was a very popular crime fighting radio show,” Said Dr. Matthew Shifflett, the producer for “Listening in the Shadows” and an assistant professor of Theatre Arts. “But also, it allowed them to explore Jungian themes, like the psychoanalyst Jung, who talked about The Shadow and its role in dreams and fairy tales or to explore the darker side of human nature.”
As a longtime lover of radio, Shifflett said he has always wanted to do a radio show like “Listening in the Shadows,” and with the pandemic making live performance an unsafe option, a radio drama was a great way for the Department to allow students to perform this semester.
“I suppose there were two or three live wires were sitting there: we wanted to do more radio dramas, we wanted to give the students more voice work, and we wanted to do more original student-written plays within the Department,” Shifflett said. “When this quarantine forced us into a situation where we need to re-think our programming, all those wires just braided together.”
“Listening in the Shadows” began production earlier this month when five student playwrights were given prompts and told they had one weekend to each write their 15-minute radio dramas. The following Monday, those scripts were given to five student directors who cast the parts based on recorded audio monologues sent in by the student actors. After the casts were assembled, Shifflett said the Department handed out microphones, and each of the creative teams got together, at a safe social distance, and recorded their radio dramas using a program called Audacity, a multi-track audio editor and recording program. Currently, the Department is in the process of adding sound effects and foley, the re-production of everyday sounds such as footsteps or squeaky doors, to the radio dramas.
Megan Longton, a senior musical theatre major, said she has directed other productions before, but “Listening in the Shadows” will be her first opportunity to see her vision as a director fully realized.
“It makes me emotional for some reason because it’s very intense and personal to share that with people; because I’ve been working on it for so long, and my actors worked on it for a weekend,” Longton said. “When they had the script and recorded it, they were done in three days, but even though we are on a pretty quick schedule for this show, I’ve been working on it a little longer than they have, so I have a little more of a connection to it and emotional stakes towards people’s reaction to it,” Longton said.
One of the actors in Longton’s radio drama is Lauren Hite, a freshman fine arts major, said that she is excited to be part of “Listening in the Shadows” because it’s different from a lot of other college theatre departments are doing during the pandemic.
“Perhaps we’re not pioneering the idea of doing a radio drama, but I definitely feel like it’s not something that everybody’s jumping to; I feel like a lot of people just jump to Zoom and doing Zoom shows,” Hite said. “So to be able to give a show but also kind of have a new learning experience (for student actors) – I think that’s really fun and really interesting.”
For the production, Longton is directing a radio drama named “When Nobody was Watching,” a murder mystery written by Emma Siler, a junior fine arts major. Siler says she based her script on an actual unsolved murder case that happened in New Orleans, La., in 1964. The case revolved around Dr. Mary Sherman; a renowned orthopedic cancer researcher found dead in her New Orleans apartment after a fire. Police discovered that Sherman suffered several stab wounds, including a fatal stab wound to the heart. They also found that her body was so severely burned that only a charred stump remained of her right arm.
To this day, the murder remains unsolved, but several conspiracy theories have arisen since her death, such as author Edward Haslam’s theory, in which he claims that Sherman’s death was a government cover-up because she was involved in finding a cure to prevent an outbreak of soft-tissue cancers caused by the polio vaccine.
“What really got me was the fact that this really happened, something about that is more scary and horrifying than a slasher film that you can turn off and walk away from… this is true,” Siler said.