Dawson radio dramas bring theatre to the airwaves during COVID-19

<em>Encounters of the Yukon</em>, a series of six 20-minute dramas, were broadcast twice a week from CFYT 106.9 FM, the community-owned radio station in Dawson City. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)Encounters of the Yukon, a series of six 20-minute dramas, were broadcast twice a week from CFYT 106.9 FM, the community-owned radio station in Dawson City. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Mike Erwood voiced a number of characters in the plays and provided music for <em>Motherload</em>. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)Mike Erwood voiced a number of characters in the plays and provided music for Motherload. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Voice actor Kelly Vittrekwa, from left, writer Maria Sol Suarez and producer Robin Sharp pose in front of the CFYT Community Radio Station. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)Voice actor Kelly Vittrekwa, from left, writer Maria Sol Suarez and producer Robin Sharp pose in front of the CFYT Community Radio Station. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

Does a pandemic mean a COVID curtain call for theatre?

It was a question being asked when the pandemic shuttered the doors of the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City last spring. The town’s non-profit theatre company had to decide what to do with an arts grant intended for a live production that no one was allowed to attend.

“We’ve always done things live on stage. It’s the whole raison d’etre of the non-profit, to put something into the old theatre here in town,” said Robin Sharp, a director and producer with the Friends of the Palace Grand Society.

The board sat down to discuss options, and the idea came out of creating radio plays instead. Actors could record the shows socially distanced, and writers could be commissioned to create the scripts.

A series of radio dramas — a theatre format that reached its apex in the 1940s — seemed like the perfect solution. The result was Encounters of the Yukon, a series of six 20-minute dramas broadcast on community radio.

In the summer the non-profit put a call-out looking for writers in the Yukon to submit short pitches for plays. Based on the proposals the board chose three writers from Whitehorse and three from Dawson to be partnered with a mentor in the script-writing process.

“They’re all written on the theme of encounters of Yukon,” explained Sharp, who was also one of the three mentors.

With that broad theme, the ensuing scripts came from many different genres and time periods.

The Young and Rent-less, written by Dawonsite Maria Sol Suarez, is a “telenovela-inspired romp set in our own Dawson City” that includes twists, turns and paranormal activities.

Another show, authored by a 16-year-old and titled When Lost Love Returns! involves a fantasy romance set in Whitehorse between a vampire and a werewolf who are struggling to get their families to understand their relationship.

Other shows include a harrowing survival drama set in the 1930s, a couple who kidnap a golden-egg-laying crow in Motherload and another story about a northern UFO encounter. All are set in the Yukon.

The society auditioned actors in town for the script reading — many who would normally participate in stage shows — and even had original foley, or sound effects, recorded for each story. Local musicians provided the soundtrack.

All six shows were then recorded at the Yukon School of Visual Arts and broadcast twice a week during October and November from CFYT 106.9 FM, the Dawson City radio station.

The funds for the radio dramas came from the Yukon Arts Fund and Culture Quest. Sharp said there is also a plan to turn the dramas into podcasts.

“I think it’s been great because people can listen to them and enjoy them on the radio. It’s been a way to make some theater during the pandemic,” he said.

“It’s been a lot of fun. It’s a little bit of a learning curve for all of us, too, because a lot of us come from either a theatre background or a film background, but this is kind of like the strange valley in the middle,” Sharp said.

Voice actor Kelly Vittrekwa was one of those people with theatre experience from a previous season, but who had never tried voice acting without a live audience.

“I actually really, really loved it, I want to do more. I love stage acting but with voice acting, you don’t have to worry about how you look or remember your lines, just because you had the script right there in front of you. We had so much fun just recording it,” she said.

Without costumes or body language, all the artistic work comes down to voice and connecting with the character, said Vittrekwa, who adopted a British accent for one character during the recording sessions. Having a recording aired also meant she could go back and listen to her performance.

“It’s really weird to hear yourself because it’s like, is that me? Or is that what I sound like?” she said.

Vittrekwa’s eight-year-old daughter seemed to think she did a good job — listening to her mother’s performance in the play, she’s now decided she’d like to be a voice actor as well.

The Dawson resident and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizen had been considering attending the Vancouver Film School before the pandemic interrupted.

She said she was disappointed when COVID-19 dashed many existing theatre plans in town, but in addition to the radio dramas she’s been able to find outlets for play readings and burlesque performances online.

“I’m really happy and excited to have this acting career, trying to get going. I’m looking forward to what’s going to happen in the future, even during this second COVID wave,” she said. “After COVID happened this year and they didn’t have a play again, that was really disappointing. I had so much fun, because I never thought I’d ever act in my life. And I love it. And so I’m always looking for more opportunities to do that.”

Contact Haley Ritchie at haley.ritchie@yukon-news.com

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