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Civil rights struggles past and present meet in student production

Aaron Selbig

A group of Interlochen students is reviving the radio drama. Their production is called “Until We Can All Sit Down.” It recalls the lunch counter sit-in movement of the early 1960s.

But their radio drama also ties history into the present, relating the Civil Rights Movement with what’s happening today in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.

The radio play has a little bit of everything. There’s singing. There’s a viola and a flute. And of course, lots of sound effects.

"Until We Can All Sit Down" was written by four students during the two-week winter semester at Interlochen Arts Academy. It tells the story of three teenagers who decide to challenge the “whites only” rule at their local lunch counter. The story weaves the Civil Rights Movement in with more recent history, reaching its climax with news headlines over the last year.

"It’s the only theatre form where you use the back of somebody’s head as theatre space." - George Zarr

“I think that history happens for a reason," says Ruben Melendez, a music student from Caracas, Venezuela. “Once something bad happens, you get used to it.  Or if a change happens, you get used to that. And then slowly, by getting used to something, you start not caring enough and forgetting the meaning. And maybe that’s why it needs to happen – to remind ourselves.”

The students learned the finer points of radio drama from George Zarr. Zarr teaches at Columbia College in Chicago. He’s produced for NPR, the BBC and Sirius satellite radio.

“My aim is to empower these guys to display their creativity," says Zarr. "So the voices you hear in this – the whole tenor of it – that’s them.”

The whole production came together quickly. The writing was done over a weekend and rehearsals started Monday. 

Zarr says selling the kids on radio drama was easy. He says that thanks to podcasting, the medium is currently experiencing a resurgence. Shows like “The Thrilling Adventure Hour” and “Welcome to Nightvale” are finding an audience, particularly with young people.

“It’s the only theatre form where you use the back of somebody’s head as theatre space," he says. "I told the writers, at the beginning, ‘you have an unlimited budget. If you want a heard of elephants, bring them on.’ Try that in film.”

Theatre student Alexandria McCauley is a big fan of radio drama. She says she likes to hear what can be done theatrically with the human voice.

“They always say the eyes are the center to the soul – that you can tell feelings by looking at someone’s eyes," says McCauley. "But this is the voice being the eyes. That’s what I find really interesting about it.”