Richard Hitchler was already fighting isolation in the Twin Cities before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The virus provided him a new challenge, but it’s only making him double down on his efforts.
Hitchler created Theatre 55 in 2018 with the goal of working with actors 55 and older, after spending 20 years running SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul, which caters to young actors. He said he learned that only 15 percent of theater participants in Minnesota were over the age of 65.
“I had read that isolationism and health issues arise in people in this age range, empty nesters, people living alone, who aren’t able to see friends and get out,” he said. “It has doubled in the time of COVID. It is one of the biggest concerns of people in this age group. Theater to me is the ultimate combatant to this issue. If you’re doing musical theater you’re moving, you’re singing. you’re promoting your show on your social media. If you didn’t know how to [do social media], we taught people how to do it.”
Starting September 19, Theatre 55 is staging streaming performances of Philip Marlowe, Private Eye. The actors, tech crew and foley artist will gather at the Hennepin Theatre Trust Event Center to create shows that mimic old-time radio shows, which will be livestreamed to live audiences.
“My desire to do a radio play came from listening to podcasts which are basically an old-time radio show,” he explained. “The sense was we can create theater in an audio form, and we can create theater until we can be in a space until we can do traditional theater.”
When Hitchler posted a call for auditions for Philip Marlowe, he received 70 recordings, but only had eight to 10 slots open for actors. To adapt, Theatre 55 decided to have three nights of theater, featuring three different stories from the Marlowe series. Each night will have a new script, performed by a new cast. That tactic allowed Hitchler to get 23 actors onto the virtual stage, while having as few people in the building at a time.
“It’s a group effort, but I’m trying to keep it to as few people as possible for safety purposes for everyone involved,” he said. “The idea of doing it together to record it is more out of necessity than anything else. You could have each person come in separately and record their parts, but that becomes less than theater and more like radio and there’s not as much connection. There will be a social connection to this.”
In addition to the ability to perform during a time of forced social isolation, another reason the Theatre 55 crew is looking forward to this production is that they’re teaming up with the Hennepin Theatre Trust Spotlight Education program to get high school students involved in a unique part of the show — foley.
Foley artist Victor Zupanc is handling the audio effects for Philip Marlowe, and he’s being assisted by high school students.
“I thought this would be fun as an intergenerational thing, what would be considered a long-lost skill,” Hitchler said. The class explored how even in movies, audio effects come from the art of creating sounds through foley. He said the students were wide-eyed watching Zupanc create sounds in unexpected ways — and so was he.
“There’s a lot of punching and hitting that happens in a detective show. How do you create the sound of someone being punched? It’s a head of lettuce and a two by four. It’s not good for the lettuce but it’s an amazing little thing.”
Zupanc led a group of students in a foley masterclass, which is a major component of the Spotlight program. He selected three students who will help him run the audio effects during the live performance, and anyone who tunes into the show will see that theater audio magic happen on camera.
“It will be fun for people to see.”
There’s a precedent for knowing that a younger audience will be engaged with theater put on by an older cast and creative team. The company was in the middle of a production of Urinetown when the pandemic forced them to bring down the curtain early. Before that happened, at least one high school theater company had come to see it, because they were also planning to stage that performance this year.
“They wanted to have a sense of how people of a certain age were dealing with it versus their thoughts on it with their less life experience.” Hitchler explained the students were exploring the ideas of protesting and fighting the man, which are heavy themes in Urinetown.
“It goes to show you how a piece of theater can be relevant to the very young and the very old and have different meanings.” It was fulfilling to watch the students think through the ideas of perseverance that are showcased.
“[Protesting is] a marathon, not a sprint. Otherwise we’re going to be woefully disappointed. You realize each battle comes to be a win.”
He’s not sure what message the students will take away from the current production, but he knows that it will be exciting for cast, students and audience to be able to break away from the pandemic-TV habits many of us have formed.
“We all need each other. Humans were not designed to be in silos. We were meant to be communal and together. Each one of us is part of the bigger picture, the bigger community.”
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