DSU theater goes back to Golden Age of Radio

DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY Digital Arts and Design students will present "Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play" this weekend. Set in a radio station, actors -- including Tate Molenkamp (left), Paige Bennett and Bree Weidenbach -- will recreate three of Alfred Hitchcock's early films on stage at the Dakota Prairie Playhouse.

Today, families have myriad ways to entertain themselves with electronic devices. But in another generation, Americans relied upon a single device -- the old-time radio -- for entertainment in the home.

This weekend, theater-goers will have an opportunity to enter the Golden Age of Radio when students in the Digital Arts and Design program at Dakota State University present "Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play."

"They can step into the past and come and enjoy a good mystery," said Ann Elder, director of theater.

In considering what to present this year, Elder faced the same challenge that other theater companies face: how to present live theater in a safe manner with a pandemic stampeding across the state. Most plays involve some degree of interaction among actors on the stage.

"I've been talking to some of my colleagues around the state, and radio plays are the way to go," she said.

The play will have distinctly dramatic elements -- costumes, lighting, sound effects. But the risks are also minimized with actors scattered across the stage, each with a separate microphone.

"We set the stage to look like a 1940s radio set," Elder said.

She also reduced the risk by limiting the cast and crew to a single class -- students enrolled in the Digital Arts and Design program. During the course of the semester, they have studied Alfred Hitchcock films in addition to learning about the different tasks associated with presenting a theater production.

"Whatever area they wanted to learn about, they could choose," she said.

Students worked on advertising, set design, costumes and sound effects. Not only did they conduct research but they also made presentations in class.

"Hopefully, I'm setting them up for success in their future," Elder said.

The play is built around three of Hitchcock's earlier movies: "The Lodger," "Sabotage" and "The 39 Steps." In "The Lodger," released in 1927, a man who takes a room at a boarding house is suspected of being a serial killer. "Sabotage," released in 1936, is an espionage thriller in which a Scotland Yard detective pursues a saboteur. "The 39 Steps," released in 1935, is also a thriller, but one in which a man seeks to stop a spy ring after a woman he assists is killed.

In watching the films, the students noted that the story line, characters and even some of the dialogue in the play, written by Joe Landry, is identical to the films. The nuance of Hitchcock films was a little more difficult for them to grasp.

"I'm not sure they understand all the humor," Elder said. "At first they were taking it very seriously."

Hitchcock, she explained, wove humor and romance into what were essentially scary movies.

For sound design students, the weekend production offers an opportunity to shine. While they will be using some recorded sound effects and music, they will also be creating many of the sound effects on stage, including the sound of a stabbing.

"We worked with a number of different fruits to see which one sounded best," Elder said. In the end, they decided a cantaloupe was best -- and didn't create the mess which resulted from stabbing a watermelon.

For many of the actors, the weekend production will be their first time on stage.

"As film students, they've never thought about being on stage. They're camera people or editing people," Elder explained.

However, she feels the experience will be beneficial for them -- in addition to being necessary as a result of her decision to limit the cast and crew to a single class.

"They need to know how actors think," Elder said.

This was a lesson she learned when she herself was studying theater. Her goal was to be a director, but she was told directors need to act.

Fortunately, performances during the Golden Age of Radio didn't require scripts to be memorized, so the novice actors will not have to worry about forgetting their lines. They will be reading from scripts, as did radio personalities during that era.

"You're taking a slice out of the wall and looking into the radio station," Elder said about the effect they are working to create.

Live performances will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10 for the general public and free for students with their student ID.

Face masks and social distancing will be required at the Dakota Prairie Playhouse. Seats are marked to make choosing appropriate seating easier.

The performance will also be available to stream for a $10 fee on Saturday and Sunday, according the Elder. The details are currently being worked out, but she is confident the link will be available at the theater club's Facebook page: Dakota State University Theatre Club.