What started out as a unique, voluntary professional showcase has developed into an elaborate Quality Enhancement Program (QEP) project for students across Western Carolina’s colleges and departments. Three Western Carolina faculty members are engaging students in such a unique manner that they have coined their own phrase for it: academic-based entertainment.
Five years ago Don Connelly, the head of the Department of Communication, had an idea. Wouldn’t it be incredible to historically recreate to the exact day and time the famous War of the Worlds broadcast on its 70th anniversary in 2008? Better yet, do it in the Fine and Performing Arts Center theatre before a live audience and broadcast it simultaneously. Connelly spent 23 years in broadcasting before coming to Western Carolina and could not get the idea out of his head.
Connelly knew he could not do it alone and placed a call to Steve Carlisle, associate
dean of the Honors College. Before coming to academia Carlisle was a professional
actor/director/teacher in New York and Los Angeles for over 30 years. Would his honors
students be interested in doing some research and would he direct? The show had to
have a live orchestra. The next call went to Dr. Bruce Frazier, the Carol Grotnes
Belk Endowed Professor in commercial and electronic music in the School of Music.
Frazier, an orchestra conductor and arranger, spent many years in Los Angles in the
motion picture and television industry. Could he recreate the musical score from
the original show and did he have students that could be involved? Susan-Brown Strauss
in the Department of Stage and Screen answered her phone. Brown-Strauss is a professor
of theatre and costume design. Could she and her students put everyone on stage in
1938 period dress? What was occurring in western North Carolina the night of the
infamous broadcast? Would Carlisle’s honors students like to get involved and create
a lobby display featuring their research? The last call went to Clear Channel Communication
in Asheville. WWNC - Asheville has been on the air since 1927. Would WWNC like to
broadcast this historic recreation live?
Director Steve Carlisle tagged Connelly as the executive producer and called two-time Tony Award nominee Terrance Mann, the Carolyn Plemmons Philips & Ben R. Philips Distinguished Professor in musical theatre. Would he play the lead role of Professor Pierson and work with some students? To a person, everyone responded with an immediate yes! Suddenly, there were four departments (communication, music, stage and screen, history) across three colleges working on a project engaging students, faculty, and professionals from a number of different fields. Proceeds from the event were to go to the scholarship funds in the participating departments.
The War of the Worlds played to a sold out audience in the Fine and Performing Arts Center and was broadcast live on WWNC - Asheville on the exact day at the exact time of the original broadcast. Before everyone left the theatre that night the consensus was “This was fun, what can we do next year?”
The core concept behind the original production was to engage students with faculty, staff, and professionals from a number of fields in a project to educate and entertain an audience. Students from four departments and the Honors College worked with faculty and professionals. Music students ran the house sound for the theatre audience and broadcasting students created the digital audio feed for WWNC – Asheville. Stage and screen students did the lighting and costumes. A graduate music student prepared and ran the large rear-screen projection system displaying photos and images behind the actors to set the scene for the event. Communication students created the program and Honors College students did research and lobby displays for the event. Public relations students handled all of the publicity for the show and greeted guests. “There is a lot of pure academic research that goes into a production to prepare the project for performance, and the students get to see their research come to life,” says producer Don Connelly.
Director Steve Carlisle emphasizes “It is one thing for students to learn something in a class, it is entirely different to ask them to apply that knowledge before a live audience in the theatre and on the air; they have one opportunity to get it right. The knowledge these students gain working with faculty, staff, and professionals is on display for everyone to see and hear on the radio broadcast!”
In 2009 Carlisle, Connelly, and Frazier once again teamed up with students, faculty, staff, and professionals to present a historically accurate recreation of a World War II Armed Forces radio show. The crew from War of the Worlds was back and grew as more people wanted to be involved in this unique form of entertaining education. Rather than use an existing script, Connelly researched the many different types of WW II armed forces radio shows and wrote On the Home Front, Nov. 1944 (OTHF). The show was staged on Veterans Day 2009.
Music Director Bruce Frazier spent his summer researching popular music to match the shows timeframe of November 1944 from the touching ballads to the comedic Spike Jones number Der Fuehrer's Face!
Again, students and faculty from four departments across three colleges worked together on an incredible project to honor veterans. While War of the Worlds was focused on recreating the studio atmosphere of the original radio broadcast, OTHF was done as a typical USO style WW II stage show that was broadcast live. In addition to all of the student involvement from the prior show, there were new additions in OTHF such as a larger orchestra that grew to 16 members; dancers from stage and screen highlighted several of the musical numbers. Communication students from television became involved producing the archival video for the departments involved.
Several student projects associated with OTHF were supported by a Quality Enhancement Development grant. QEP grants provide opportunities for students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply those concepts, theories, and skills in a real-world application like On the Home Front.
The program for the performance is an excellent example of the diverse nature of the students, classes, and professionals involved in the project. Public relations students worked with Stars and Stripes, the Sylva Herald, and history students. Stars and Stripes provided the program’s front cover from the London edition of the paper for November 11, 1944. The back cover was the front page of the Sylva Herald from the same week. History students wrote articles for the special edition program on what Jackson County was like during WW II. The Sylva Herald printed the multi-page program on full-size newsprint.
On The Home Front was nationally recognized with the Best of Competition award from the Broadcast Education Association Media Festival and was also awarded the BEA Best of Festival Award by the King Foundation, founded by Charles King of King World Productions.
Before On The Home Front hit the stage and airwaves students and faculty had been asking, “What are you going to do next year?” For 2010 Carlisle, Connelly, and Frazier wanted to do something for the holidays. In 1935 Campbell’s Soups began an annual tradition of sponsoring the presentation of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. The Campbell’s Playhouse radio version of A Christmas Carol was such a hit that it continued until 1953. For the first time in 72 years Campbell’s gave permission for the show to be produced using the show’s original Campbell’s trademarks and commercials.
Just as On The Home Front had grown in scope and size from War of the Worlds so too did A Christmas Carol. It became Campbell’s Playhouse: ‘A Christmas Carol’ 1938 a 90-minute presentation and live radio broadcast. The orchestra grew in size to 21 pieces, eight carolers and two solo vocalists were added, along with a string section.
The music for Campbell’s Playhouse: ‘A Christmas Carol’ 1938 was a concerted undertaking. Music director and conductor Bruce Frazier worked in collaboration with faculty and student performers from the School of Music. In early 2010 after the decision was made to produce the show, Frazier spotted thirty-eight musical cues that were in the original Campbell’s show. Some of the cues were carols, dances and other "source" music dating back the English Renaissance that the show’s musical director Bernard Herrmann chose. Other original cues were music composed by Herrmann to underscore the scenes. Unfortunately, the original scores no longer exist and Frazier composed, arranged and orchestrated most of the music for the show maintaining the dramatic tone of the original. Theatrical moments highlighted in the production with music included the eerie appearance of the three spirits, tender moments with Tiny Tim, old Fezziwig's festive jig and both the cantankerous and the joyful Ebenezer Scrooge. Sketches for the music were done over the summer with orchestration completed in the fall when the final instrumentation for chamber orchestra was determined. Rehearsals began in August with a combination of faculty and graduate students who graciously volunteered their time and talents to the project. String players were contracted with grant funds from the Carol Grotnes Belk Endowment with additional support from the School of Music.
Background singers for the choir and vocal students at the School performed as Christmas carolers in the play and contributed spooky oohs and ahs to the ghostly scenes. Music for Act One of the production featured Christmas songs of yesteryear and displayed the talent of School of music faculty vocalists Mary Kay Bauer and Dan Cherry.
The music students working on the large rear-screen projection system got to work with Hallmark Cards of Kansas City who provided original 1938 Christmas card artwork from their archives to be used to highlight the beginning of the show for the live audience.
It was only natural the English Department had to join the group. English was teaching a senior seminar class in 19th Century English Literature and one of the topics was Charles Dickens! Communication students created the program for the evening’s performance working with the English students. The English students wrote a series of articles/essays about Dickens and the impact of the original A Christmas Carol to be featured in the program and prepared lobby displays of their work. Thanks to the English Department, those attending the performance got a very rare treat. In the lobby before the show the Biltmore House of Asheville displayed the first edition copy of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol from the library at the Biltmore House.
Several student projects associated with Carol, such as the publicity materials and
the unique program for the evening, were supported with QEP grant funds that helped
students see classroom work and projects turn into valuable elements of the production.
The star of the evening’s performance though was 88-year-old Arthur Anderson from New York. Anderson was cast by Orson Welles to play the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past in the 1938 broadcast of the show and came to Western Carolina to recreate his role from 72 years ago. Many in Carol could not believe they were working with Anderson. As one person said, “He was in the CBS studio that night doing the broadcast!” In addition to his performance in the show, Anderson did an afternoon presentation to nearly 100 students about his over 75-year acting career. He spoke about his long relationship with Orson Welles and transitioning from theatre to radio to television and motion pictures. Mr. Anderson’s appearance was made possible by a Visiting Scholar Grant from the Office of the Provost and supported by the College of Arts and Sciences.
Carlisle says, “Carol became a living thing. There were 62 performers in Carol; at
any given time at least 50 were on the stage. It took a technical crew of 37 to support
the stage production and radio broadcast. What the audience never knew was that all
of these people prepared for the show in units. The units came together for the first
time on Monday, had the costume parade and rehearsal Tuesday, had a dress rehearsal
Wednesday and performed the show Thursday! The students did an incredibly professional
For the second consecutive year, the Broadcast Education Association honored the group with its Award of Excellence. Campbell’s Playhouse: ‘A Christmas Carol’ 1938 was selected from among 900 entries in the 2011 BEA Festival of Media Arts to receive the award.
Campbell’s Playhouse: ‘A Christmas Carol’ 1938 was selected by the Catholic Academy of Communication Arts Professionals to receive the prestigious 2011 Gabriel Award for outstanding achievement in local entertainment.
And what will the 2011-12 year bring? Carlisle, Frazier, and Connelly quickly point out that each show has taken them in an entirely different direction and 2011-12 will be no different. Working from the original 1897 novel, Connelly has written an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the style of the golden age of radio. Says Carlisle, “This is not a jump out from behind a tree and scare you Dracula. This is true to the original work and slowly draws you into a very compelling drama. “
The theme music for Dracula is already in the works. The setting conjures music from the realm of darkness -- Valse Macabre, Night on Bald Mountain, the Sorcerer's Apprentice -- with haunting melodies, strange harmonies, eerie instrumental colors and textures scintillating the senses. It evokes the majesty of ancient castles on Romanian peaks, chilling cries of beasts in the night, the smell of damp earth in wooden coffins, the taste of… well, you get the picture. The music of composer Bernard Herrmann is again the inspiration for the dramatic musical underscore.
Dracula will be presented one night only, January 24, 2012 in the Bardo Fine and Performing
Arts Center at Western Carolina University.