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HT: With April comes Cardinal Stage’s newest mystery walkabout radio plays

Connie Shakalis | HT Columnist

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Liam Castellan Radio Plays

The artistic director of one of your town’s professional theaters asks you to write a play. Very cool. Except the play must revolve around Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and although you have drunk deeply from other novels and theatrical works, you have read nary a tale of Doyle’s. Nor have you ever directed an audio drama, or written a mystery.


Do you panic? Not if you’re Bloomington’s director, actor and playwright Liam Castellan. He started opening Sherlock-centered books and scripts, as he mentally outlined his rapidly developing mystery.


The key is to remain true to Doyle’s characters, Castellan told me.


“And, if the audience really knows Doyle’s stories well,” he said, “they might recognize some of the lines (in Castellan’s play).


“What’s the heart of this (Sherlock Holmes) character that makes it so popular?”


There is hardly anything more fun than a well written mystery. I start thinking of Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Frederick Knott ‘s “Wait Until Dark” and Doyle himself.


“The best mystery fiction gives the audience a chance to solve the case,” he said. “For instance, where is the clue? When is it revealed?” Castellan said.


The audio play structure differs from a stage play’s; one feature is that Castellan must come up with action that suits each of the stopping points along the walk. As with Cardinal’s walkabout plays last fall, audience members don earbuds and amble from scene to scene, along a predetermined and carefully mapped route. I for one, fidgety by nature, loved walking around campus or downtown as I listened and imagined.


“What!? You walked around during the play?” Castellan asked. No wonder I kept getting lost — I have no sense of direction. He explained you’re supposed to stay at each spot long enough to hear that particular scene. Then move to the next.


From the look on his Zoomed face, Castellan is having a ball with his Sherlock and Watson. He is writing a two-episode play — a second Cardinal playwright, Bruce Walsh, is writing another one but with Walsh’s own take on Sherlock and Watson. The two Indiana University grads’ differing concepts of the characters should increase the adventure.


To me, a director’s job sounds fearsome. I’ve acted and play written but never directed. The responsibility of shaping the entire production — casting the right people, honoring the playwright, getting the tone right, coordinating lights with sound, costumes and egos — scares me.


I always make it a point to observe the director, if possible, during opening nights, and I tell you: I’ve seen petrification.


Castellan, however, appeared undaunted. His play has six characters, and the actors had recently did their first reading.


“I’m thrilled,” he said. “All six are so strong, and it went very, very well. They’re already playing off of one another.”


He mentioned, too, the unique thrill playwrights feel — really there’s nothing like it in the world — as you hear good actors reading your lines.


But, I alway want to know, how does the director — who has coddled the script, who has come to know its every nuance, who has watched this natural childbirth of his or her vision — let it all go on opening night? That ripping cut off. No more notes to actors may be given. No big changes made. Often, the director at this point is away in another state, sipping a scotch, absorbing the next script, looking for a perhaps vastly different group of performers to audition.


“The tech rehearsals help with the letting-go part,” Castellan said. By those last few days, the director has been so taken with operations management and other details, that the play itself has already begun to lessen its claim on his concentration.


The recording of Castellan’s mystery will occur in person, although the actors have been rehearsing separately from their own homes, virtually.


He also hinted at a spring bonus, which will include specific dates and times when people can gather in small, distanced groups, to experience the audio play together. And, good news for the east-west-challenged like me, a docent will sometimes be on board to guide people from scene to scene.


“A director who enjoys acting and writing,” Castellan earned his undergrad degree at Northwestern and his MFA in directing at Indiana University.


“We plan to make a more formal announcement including the cast, ticket information and other details later this month,” said marketing manager Cassie Hakken.