Pittsburgh Troupe Turns To Radio-Style Drama During Pandemic

Oct 14, 2020

Most theater companies have adapted to the coronavirus pandemic with live-streaming and other newfangled technologies. PICT Classic Theatre is using them, too, but with a vintage twist.

PICT Classic Online presents "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll": Oct. 15-31

PICT is the first troupe in Pittsburgh during the pandemic to receive permission from Actors’ Equity Association to offer full-contract work, meaning performers get union scale plus health and pension benefits. The union’s strict safety rules — along with limits on the size of indoor gatherings — have prevented most troupes that employ Equity actors from rehearsing or performing in person during the pandemic.

PICT is facing the challenge by turning to a storytelling form most popular in the 1930s and ’40s: radio drama.

On Thursday, PICT will begin a two-week streaming run of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll.” The production of artistic director Alan Stanford’s adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic was recorded by actors who met in person, but were separated by Plexiglas barriers in a custom-built studio at WQED Multimedia, in Oakland.

"We went to an incredible degree of health and safety measures"

The production couldn’t begin until Allegheny County’s COVID-19 infection rate dropped to 5 percent, Stanford said. Actors and a minimal crew then worked in the building — their usual home for live performances — with only a handful of WQED employees, said Stanford. And they followed rules including daily temperature checks, weekly COVID-19 tests, and mandatory masking outside the booths. Only four of the cast of nine actors were permitted into the studio at one time, said Stanford.

“We went to an incredible degree of health and safety measures, and that’s how we got the union to approve it,” said Stanford.

“For the first time in the living history of me and the theater, which goes back 54 years, there was no coffee available, which did not a lot for my peace of mind and temper, but these are the sacrifices you make,” quipped Stanford, who directed the production.

An Actors’ Equity spokesperson said via email that PICT is one of only a dozen or so companies nationally that have received permission to work under full union contracts. Most of the other approved companies are staging live performances, but union rules apply here too because PICT’s actors are entering a workplace, and not performing via online video. (Equity performers can work online under modified contracts.)

The pandemic has taken a huge financial toll for theater troupes and performers as well.

Martin Giles, for years one of Pittsburgh’s busiest stage actors, said “Jekyll” was his first work on a full Actors’ Equity contract since February.

“It’s just great to get a paycheck and to have contributions to health and a pension,” said Giles, who plays Utterson, a friend of Dr. Jekyll’s. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, I get to work for a minute!’”

Tony Bingham plays Jekyll. The cast also includes James FitzGerald, Karen Baum, Cotter Smith, Ken Bolden, John Michnya, and Carolyn Jerz.

Few Pittsburgh performances troupes are currently staging in-person shows, either because of health concerns or because government-mandated limits on audience sizes make it unfeasible. Many are instead offering some form of online programming, ranging from readings to the Zoom-enabled live performances of Quantum Theatre.

One company, City Theatre, postponed its entire season in favor of an outdoor drive-in arts festival featuring local performers. Pittsburgh Opera is staging live performances, but with greatly reduced audience sizes and other precautions.

PICT, it should be noted, is not pioneering the revival of radio drama in Pittsburgh. That honor would surely go to Bricolage Productions, which for years has staged radio-style dramas live as part of its Midnight Radio series.

But PICT is hewing to tradition in the use of practical audio effects, include some to simulate the most gruesome of Jekyll’s crimes.

“We’ve been destroying red cabbages, zucchinis, various other things that go 'squelch' for sound effects,” said Stanford.

He said radio drama has advantages over Zoom-enabled ensemble performances beyond physical proximity. “By bringing actors into a studio, you have complete control of the quality of the recording,” he said.

PICT plans to wrap its calendar year with a radio-style production of “A Christmas Carol,” said Stanford. 

Tickets for "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll" are $10. More information is here.