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The Merry Beggars and the Quarantine Plays

It is five in the afternoon on the East coast of the United States and a Zoom meeting is about to start. This will not be the typical business meeting Zooming. Those have discussions, instructions and check-ins and more. I can still work on my writing while appearing attentive. Participants cannot see the difference, after all I am still looking at my screen. I will not do it here.

This is different. No writing in the background.

I am attentively getting ready to participate in a type of event I once dreamed of doing years ago. Now I am here. It is a reading for an upcoming production of a radio drama by the Merry Beggars. A Catholic Theatre Group working with artists “to reveal the dignity of man.” According to their website The group is producing a series of radio plays during this Corona Virus time to focus and touch our emotional nerve of concern, drama and even irony.

Merry Beggars is led by CEO, Peter Atkinson, producer and teacher who holds an MFA from Columbia University. He builds upon his Ave Maria University undergraduate degree where he learned Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The group creates radio drama for the pandemic called the Quarantine Plays. They are audio/radio dramas there is no theatre needed and they are all closed, except the one in our mind.

Drawing on our real emotions and experiences

These will not be the Davy and Goliath morality plays but more the theatre that resonates with the interpersonal life we all experience enhanced by the current pandemic.

I come from a radio background, I am used to working on one thing while I listen to another. I did it as a public affairs talk show host on public radio, a folk and jazz radio host and I do it now for a Catholic radio broadcast

In front of me is about nine small zoom screens with an additional five others who are there but are calling in by phone. We are about to hear the first reading of a play entitled: All Is Right With the World by Hal Miers. He too is present. If his name sounds familiar he is a regular on Blood Queens among other roles. He is also Peter Atkin’s Columbia classmate.

The session begins

Peter, as host smiles, and welcomes us to the reading. He explains what we are about to see and invites us to offer constructive feedback at the end. The point is to help the playwright and the actors nail the drama for the best results.

Two actors in the ten minute one act two scene play will embody the conflict and the drama. The narrator will state what sound effects will occur as the drama continues. Making toast, marmalade being spread on the bread, car keys and more this is so we can get a sense of the play and give our feed back to Hal. Obviously, the actual sounds will be part of the final production.

Participants at the meeting involved those who have various backgrounds or lack thereof in the arts. They are there to listen and critique so that Hal Miers can tweak the play for the upcoming audience of listeners.

It begins. I will not reveal the plot it would not be fair to the efforts of the actors and playwright. I will only say that tension is between a father and his daughter and how they see the virus. The actors read their scripts. I do radio and I have a good radio voice but I can tell there is difference between speaking on the air, even reading copy and acting in radio. I admire the talent which I realized I may have a vestige of but certainly nothing so developed.

This not a saccharine production of Jesus is with us even through the virus, but like all drama it is more “This is our reality and how are we responding to it?”

Giving feedback

We listen to the play attendees from New England to Melbourne, Australia give their feedback. There is a religious setting in this play I give my input into what is realistic and what may be taken the wrong way. I explain one line needs to change because inadvertently can remind participants of an old joke and kill the drama. It is to prevent a similar effect from what I feel destroyed the climax in The Exorcism of Emily Rose because it takes place in a barn and horses whinny. If you previously saw Young Frankenstein it ruined the drama for the movie.

There are different inputs, what works well. What needs to be tweaked, a bit. A word here, a sentence there. The playwright listens and acknowledges and appreciates the feedback. We learn that the play will be produced and available to hear in January. I am looking forward to full production just as I heard the previous two plays.

The series began as a contest to produce one radio play and they had so many entries one hundred twenty in fact from around the world, they decided to produce more.

Broadway may be closed and theatre around the country waits expectantly for the world to re-open, but the Merry Beggars are bringing their drama to radio and it is exciting.

Photo credit: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


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