As Saratoga Shakespeare Company’s Marcus Dean Fuller has found, there’s a first time for everything.
Saturday will mark the premiere of “Testament,” the first commissioned work by the company and the first audio performance Fuller has ever directed. Produced in partnership with the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the production will be available online for just over 24 hours this weekend, as part of SPAC’s Beethoven 2020 Festival, celebrating the composer’s 250th birthday.
SSC had originally planned to present a live version of “Testament” during the festival, however, due to the safety restrictions surrounding COVID-19 the format and the story had to be completely reimagined.
“We looked at all the other platforms that people were using,” Fuller, the executive and artistic director of SSC, “But I wasn’t really satisfied with any of the platforms that were being offered and ‘Testament’ specifically was designed to be this balance between the actor performances and the music, and because of the subject matter, you can’t separate those two.”
“Testament,” written by Damian Lanigan, follows Beethoven as he’s dealing with a crisis; he’s grappling with the loss of his hearing and is working through that to write what’s considered one of the greatest symphonies of all time, the Eroica Symphony (Symphony No. 3).
To tell the story in an audio format rather than on a stage, Lanigan and Fuller had to make some changes to the plot.
“We created an entirely new character, the narrator. One of the issues in changing it from stage to sound was simply that you lose the luxury of visual performance. Anytime there’s an emotional beat on stage you fill it with actor’s performances. In an audio recording, there is a dead space. So we have to keep it moving forward,” Fuller said.
The narrator, played by local actor John Romeo keeps the story flowing, transitioning from scene to scene.
Fuller and the rest of the teamwork with Grammy Award-winning John Wager of Galileo Media Arts in Saratoga to create a cross “between an audiobook and a concert.” The audio format combines the actor’s performances with recordings of the Eroica Symphony from the Philadelphia Orchestra and period instrumentation.
“The idea of remote recording was never an option and I was pretty adamant about that because there’s something magic about that when you get actors together. So we refitted and redesigned John’s studio so that we could safely bring the actors together,” Fuller said. “They could perform together even though they were safely in their own booths and they never crossed paths, they could see each other and work off of [each other].”
The “Testament” includes six actors, most of which are local, including the lead Julian Tushabe, a Ugandan actor and third-year student at Skidmore College.
“Audio allows you to get right inside the minds of the characters, and at the same time speak quite deeply to an audience -- not least because the medium allows access to the characters' inner lives in ways that wouldn't work on stage,” said Lanigan, “The music becomes a more prominent part of the whole thing. If there was ever a subject suitable to an audio production, it's this one.”
While it’s not how Fuller and the team originally imagined the production, Fuller believes the themes found in “Testament” will resonate with viewers today.
“One of the questions that I posed to myself when I first approached this work is ‘Who are we when we are afraid?’ . . . As humans, as artists, as communities, we are able to take that suffering, that fear and turn it into these instruments of love and joy and happiness; [to] move through that fear to a place of hope and faith. I see that reflected in the play in Beethoven,” Fuller said.