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Davidson students bring Shakespeare drama to the radio

By Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.
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Bill Giduz - DAVIDSON COLLEGE
Rehearsing “Merchant of Venice” are, from left, Davidson students Katherine Silva, Jessica Albano, Chris Blanchard, Ellyson Glance and Jacob Fanning.

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  • ‘Merchant of Venice’

    At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, students at Davidson College will perform Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” on WDAV-FM (89.9).

    A read-through performance will also be held at WDAV-FM, 423 N. Main St., Davidson, at 7:30 p.m. Monday. Admission is free. Email radioshakespearewdav@gmail.com for reservations .


Shylock the money lender, one of Shakespeare’s best-known characters, sparks back to life this weekend in an unusual dramatic broadcast being voiced by Davidson College students.

At 7:30 p.m. Saturday on WDAV-FM (89.9), 10 students in a senior-level English seminar called “Radio Shakespeare” will cap weeks of study and rehearsals with a live presentation of “Merchant of Venice.”

Radio dramas, once a popular staple, faded after television caught on in the early 1950s. Rarely are they heard today, even on niche radio.

Shakespeare scholar and Davidson English professor Cynthia Lewis, however, thought the college’s public radio station would be a good outlet for her students and simpler than producing a stage performance.

“She approached me timidly to see if we’d be interested in broadcasting it,” says Frank Dominguez, general manager of WDAV. “And to her surprise, I said we’d love to.”

Dominguez was a soft touch. He has acting credits in several Shakespeare plays, including a role as Friar Lawrence, who moves the plot along in “Romeo and Juliet.” Also, he loves radio drama.

Shakespeare is probably a good fit for the station’s audience, which comes to WDAV for classical music, Dominguez says. He’s been to a few rehearsals and says he’s impressed with the grasp the cast has of the play.

“They’ve got it well in hand. What they lack in polish they make up for in enthusiasm. And they really understand this text,” he says.

Understanding the text is key to bringing alive a script that’s four centuries old. Audience comprehension of the Elizabethan lauguage depends on the actor’s interpretation of the words, inflection and mood.

Under the leadership of Lewis, students began the course this semester studying the intricacies of the play and sophisticated literary criticisms. They also studied theory of radio performance and how “Merchant of Venice” has been presented through the centuries. (Little-known fact: at least three silent movies were made of it.)

Lewis came to Davidson in 1980 after doing her dissertation at Harvard on “Merchant of Venice.” She has led discussions with her students on the strong passions the play arouses and subtexts such as anti-Semitism in Shakespeare’s time. She thinks they know more about the play and its history than many Shakespearean actors.

“Merchant of Venice” was chosen, in part, because it didn’t depend upon slapstick visual comedy found in many other plays, Lewis says. Students have come up with sound effects for context, everything from rattling keys to a kazoo to signal the approach of a clown.

Because of the need for multiple roles for some of the actors, students needed to improvise different accents for different characters they portray.

And though it’s invisible radio, there’s a flash of costumes. Ellyson Glance, for example, voices three different men in the play, and she wears a different hat for each to help her keep in character. Christine Noah, who performs Portia, wears a corset symbolizing the social constrictions of the character’s station in life.

Other students in the production are Jessica Albano, Alex Baggott, Chris Blanchard, Mary Catherine Clark, Noah Driver, Jacob Fanning, Katherine Silva and Katie Wilkes.

Lewis says she’s found that radio creates an interesting experience for both the actors and the audience as it occupies a rare middle ground between reading a play and seeing one performed.

“This isn’t just reading into a microphone,” says Lewis. “It’s a full staging, but a staging of a different color.”

Media Movers

Roger Sarow, who has led WFAE-FM (NPR, 90.7) for 26 years, will retire early next year. As president of the public radio station, Sarow, 63, guided it through its split with UNC Charlotte to independent status in 1993 and led it into a period of expansion and increased news coverage for the region. A nationwide search will be conducted by WFAE’s board of directors to find a replacement. …

New arrival in the home of WSOC (Channel 9) anchor Blair Miller: a second son, Cash. … David Rhew hosted his final “Off the Record” public affairs show this week. Rhew is leaving as assistant general manager of WTVI (Channel 42). … Chris Larson joins WBTV (Channel 3) as a part-time meteorologist. He started his career in the early 1990s at WBTV on the overnight shift and most recently was at the ABC affiliate in Reno, Nev. …

Four Regional Edward R. Murrow awards were awarded this week by the Radio Television Digital News Association to WFAE-FM (NPR, 90.7): Ben Bradford on Moral Monday protests in Raleigh won for hard news; Julie Rose on the battle for control of Charlotte’s airport won for continuing coverage; Rose’s series about film industry tax incentives won for news series; and “Morning Edition” host Kevin Kniestedt won for newscast with contributions from Michael Tomsic, Tasnim Shamma and Ben Bradford. WCNC (Channel 36) won two awards: one for continuing coverage by staff on the disappearance of Erica Parsons and one for Stuart Watson in investigative reporting on a mansion being built by Elevation Church pastor Steven Furtick. WBT-AM’s (1110) Jeff Sonier won for breaking news on coverage of winter storms. …

WRCM-FM (“New Life” 91.9) has begun simulcasting its broadcasts on 88.3 FM, bringing a clear signal to Boiling Springs, Shelby and upstate South Carolina.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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