School has a sound idea with an old radio drama

Play: An audio-video communications class mixes the technical with the dramatic to reinvent theater at Dundalk High.

October 14, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

With rehearsal about to start, the play's leading actress takes a seat at a desk, her microphone balanced atop a dictionary. She does not get up until the show is over, even as her character is killed.

The actress, 17-year-old Kayla Castleman, is starring in the Dundalk High School production of Sorry, Wrong Number, a play first broadcast in 1943 on the CBS radio program Suspense. She and her classmates will read their lines into microphones rather than acting on a traditional stage, in what is thought to be the first radio play presented by a Baltimore County school.

The students, all enrolled in an audio-video communications class, will perform tomorrow in the communications gallery at the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway. They will do a show for the public at 1 p.m. and another for teachers attending the annual conference of the Technology Education Association of Maryland.

Baltimore County school district officials plan to use the Dundalk High production as a model, and they hope technology education classes across the state will follow. Tom Pless, Dundalk's audio-video communications teacher, said the project has many objectives, including bringing shy students out of their shells and getting students interested in reading.

Performing for peers

If performing before strangers weren't nerve-racking enough, the students will act out the play again this fall in front of a more judgmental group: Dundalk High's English and theater classes. It will be the first school play at Dundalk High in about eight years.

"I can do this in front of older people I don't see every day," says Castleman, the only student in the production with acting experience. She attended a theater camp in Missouri two summers ago. "With your peers, it's always different. If I'm not on my game that day, everyone's going to remember."

Castleman would have loved to act in high school plays, but in their absence went on to host the school's cable television news show What's Goin' On Here? She has interviewed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

A senior, she is unsure of her plans for next year. She would like to pursue acting or journalism.

Drama program hurt

Dundalk High has lost many aspiring actors to performing arts programs at surrounding magnet schools, said Pless, who has taught there for 30 years. Many of those remaining have part-time jobs -- Castleman works at the Gold's Gym day care and the shoe department at Sears -- and are unable to stay for late-night rehearsals. Add to that a new drama teacher almost every year, and efforts to revive school plays have been minimal. Until now.

Castleman says acting in a radio play is harder than acting in one where a set, costumes and actions help the audience understand what's happening. That you can read from the script is deceiving, she says, because you still have to know all your lines.

And Joe Lagana, 16, who plays the Western Union messenger, says listening to a radio play requires more concentration. "Our generation is so used to watching TV," he said.

Popular play

A few generations ago, Sorry, Wrong Number was so popular as a radio play that it was re-broadcast every year for a decade. In 1948, it was turned into a movie.

Sorry, Wrong Number tells the story of Mrs. Stevenson, "a querulous, self-centered neurotic," according to the script students printed from the Internet. She is a bedridden woman who overhears two men plotting a murder while trying to call her husband, and she becomes frantic in her attempts to prevent the crime.

The Dundalk High production gains a sense of historical accuracy through its radio sound effects: loud dial tones, rings, busy signals and the Suspense theme music.

The students have been practicing every morning from 8 to 9:15 for the past month. Pless recalls thinking on the first day of rehearsal: "Oh man, I'm in trouble." But the students have taken their responsibility representing the school very seriously, he said, and exceeded expectations.

First period Tuesday morning, it's little more than 40 degrees outside, and the students shiver in the unheated radio and television studio where they practice. Yet no one misses a line, and the sound effects are right every time.

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