Theatres across the country are shut and Eton’s Farrer Theatre is no different. It has now, however, been transformed into something marvellous, a high-tech recording studio. Instead of their annual in-house play, students from JMO’B (Waynflete) are producing two short radio plays based on Ovid’s tales, entirely through the medium of sound. Press Officer Oscar Lawson went along to see how their radio play was coming along.

The dark curtains are drawn across the vast stage and makeshift booths have been created by the talented team at the Farrer. In the dim blue light, six sound-proofed areas absorb the noise to avoid any distortion as budding voice actors project into their microphones. Scripts are all on iPads to eliminate unwanted noise, creating an atmosphere of high-tech professionalism. Hundreds of buttons on the sound desk and a maze of wires trailing across the stage demonstrates the complexity of this new technology.

Dr Liviero, the radio play’s director, gives cues from behind a perspex screen facing the actors, who also wear headphones to hear him speak. Just last year, Dr Liviero was directing the the main school musical, The Producers, so I was keen to know how he found the transition to an entirely auditory performance.

“I did lots of radio work as as a teenager in Italy and I’d forgotten how fascinating it is. It puts you on the spot in terms of how words have to really paint a picture for the listener, especially when you don’t have anything to look at. The words have to do all the work.”

At the time of press, students in JMO’B were recording Orpheus and Eurydice and would move on to their second short play Philemon and Baucis later this half. They record a scene in full, and then return to sections or even individual lines to improve them. Hours of audio and hundreds of takes had already been recorded on the first day.

“It requires a lot of focus and discipline” the director says, “like shooting a movie, things aren’t done in order but you need to keep the momentum going and the overall sense of the journey.”

After speaking with Dr Liviero, I also had the chance to talk to Lucas, an actor in Year 13. Involved with drama at Eton in the past, he would normally be centre-stage in his house production. This year he is the voice of Eurydice in thier radio adaptation.

“It’s a much better experience than I thought it would be,” he says, “we’re not just standing around someone’s phone with a few pieces of paper – they’ve built a very cool studio. I do find it odd to act without facial expressions and movements but it’s given us a lot more to think about. Every noise can be heard in the microphone so it’s important to stay quiet when you’re not speaking but also to take cues. I quite like that you can re-record lines if you mess up which you obviously can’t do in a play!”

From the challenges of trying to convey inebriation using just your voice, to how strange it is to hear your speech played back to you, the whole experience has been a fascinating adventure. Both Dr Liviero and Lucas agreed that in a post-Covid world, they would be interested producing more radio plays, as well as returning to classical stage acting.

In fact, Dr Liviero thinks that this is the beginning of something really interesting, “it might help people who are too shy to act on stage to get to grips with Drama and nurture their talent through words. It could be a stepping stone to the stage.”

Lucas reflected that “the change in genre has taught me a lot more about using my voice and I’ve learnt things that I can use when I’m acting back on stage again. Every now and then it would be nice to have a radio play for people to listen to whenever they like. For people who are quite busy, it’s a good quick way to stay involved with drama, as well as something for the wider Eton community who maybe can’t attend plays regularly.”

Because of the quantity of editing to be done it could take a few weeks before the full performance is ready to be broadcast and shared. Once it is finished however, Dr Liviero is looking to take us “into the classical world and indeed the underworld through Ovid’s extraordinary storytelling.”

Many thanks to Dr Liviero, Lucas and the whole of the Farrer team for letting me observe the amazing work they have been doing.