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Creating theatre in a pandemic: Spoon River Anthology

Amy Evans and James Newbery discuss what it has been like to collaborate on a student theatre project during a remote term.

Spoon River Anthology is an audio adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ poetry anthology of the same name. The audio will be accompanied by an art journal and music. Due to the pandemic the performance is being created remotely with a large team:over 20 actors, crew and artists. 

Amy Evans (Marketing): Getting involved in student theatre for the first time during a pandemic, where everything is remote, is a strange experience. Spoon River Anthology is really unique in its multimedia nature, bringing together art, audio and music, and this is what drew me to want to be part of it. 

I like how collaborative being on a crew is, especially as there is such a big group of people working on this production and it is such an ambitious project. Working with other people on Spoon River is definitely a welcome distraction from the monotony of being stuck in lockdown at home. It is truly inspiring to get to witness so many creatives coming together for this production. 

Marketing as a role is not as affected by the pandemic as other aspects of theatre. It is also less hands-on because you’re not involved in creating the performance itself. This makes it quite a good role for someone reasonably new to the world of Oxford drama. With creating the social media feed there is a lot of scope to be creative, my fellow Marketing Manager (Rosie Robinson) has created a wonderful theme for our Instagram. Although I’m in marketing, a highlight so far was definitely the first read-through with the full-cast, it gave us an idea of what the final product might be like. 

During such difficult times, I think it is extremely important to keep creative projects going, as they bring people together and provide some much needed entertainment and escapism in such an uncertain period. 

James Newbery (Assistant Director): I was so excited when I found out that I would be assisting Georgie Dettmer on her production of Spoon River Anthology. As a fresher, I am new to the drama scene in Oxford. My role as assistant director began by helping Georgie edit her brilliant script. While we’re not changing the text of any of Masters’ poems, there is added prose where the characters interact, helping to create a sense of narrative and tie together characters’ arcs—I like to think of Spoon River as one giant early 20th century American version of Love Actually!

Prior to the auditions, we held a workshop on audition technique. As I am mainly involved in the sound element of the production, I explored how you can experiment with creating a sense of character through voice alone with the workshop participants. We wanted the show to be as accessible as possible, so we were delighted when over 90 people auditioned! The standard of all the auditions were high, and it was difficult to whittle down the numbers for callbacks. 

In the callbacks, we mainly looked at how well actors responded to redirection. The process lasted three days with back-to-back auditions, but were equipped with several cups of tea to ensure we had enough caffeine to get through. The cast is made up of actors with varying experience, from freshers and post-grads who have never acted before to seasoned performers in the Oxford Playhouse. The read-through was extremely exciting, finally having the opportunity to see these wonderful characters come to life. 

Much of what we’ve been thinking about so far are the bigger questions surrounding each character and monologue. We spent an hour with Eugenie Nevin, our lead, thinking about her character Minerva’s objectives. What does she want in each scene, and the play as a whole, as she guides us through Spoon River? How does her persecution and victimisation in the past influence her actions in the present? Although in Masters’ poems, all these characters are dead and narrating from gravestones, we wanted to imagine the characters as if they were still alive in order to keep it as engaging as possible for our audience. 

At the time of writing, I’ve just come away from a rehearsal with actors Gregor Roach and Phoebe Telby-Watson on their characters Mr and Mrs Purkapile. We thought a lot about overlapping dialogue and physicalising the performance (even though it is voice-only) to create a spark in their interactions with each other. I was impressed with how they managed to convey both a sense of pathos and wit about the deteriorating marriage—something that is very challenging to do given that the majority of the monologues do not last for much longer than a minute. I can’t wait to listen to the finished product and see how it marries into the journal for a magical evening on the 13th of March.

Tickets can be bought here.

Ticket sales close on 24th February.

Image Credit: kenrossalex / CC BY-SA 3.0.

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