Centerstage Swanson Amphitheatre buzzed with improbable alien activity for three weeks in October as the theatre department’s community theatre project opened with their first show of the school year, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Plays,” based on the iconic space comedy written by Douglas Adams.

Andrew J. Laniohan (left), Nakeala Hunt, Tyler Burdett, Angelica Badillo-Lillard, and Epiffany Gombart (right) perform episodes three and four of their radio play.
Photo provided by Christina Allaback.

The production opened just two weeks after school began in person.

“We usually do a show in week seven or eight each semester,” UCC Director of Theatre Christina Allaback says. Most plays take a couple of months of preparation, from casting to rehearsals, to live memorized performances, but the seven-person team of cast and crew of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” did their first performance two weeks and two days after the auditions, which were held Wednesday, September 29 of the first week of fall term.

Just before the start of the fall semester, Allaback was informed that although Centerstage would be doing live performances they had to be outside due to rising COVID numbers in Douglas County. Allaback had an obstacle; she had to choose a play that could be performed in two weeks before the weather turned bad. “I thought radio plays can be done fast because the lines don’t have to be memorized, and then I thought of ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’” Allaback said.

Starting at 4 p.m., the weekend of Oct. 8, the cast performed episodes one and two, Friday through Sunday. The next weekend of Oct. 16, the cast performed episodes three to four, concluding on the weekend of Oct. 22 with episodes five and six.

Each weekend of the show, the stage was spaced with five black-clad, quietly-seated actors on folding chairs with simple music stands, looking as though they were musicians about to play a concert. Then, veteran Centerstage performer and Douglas County resident Andrew J. Laniohan stood up and with a clipped British accent said, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the standard repository for all knowledge and wisdom for two important reasons. First, it’s slightly cheaper, and secondly it has the words ‘don’t panic’ in large friendly letters printed on its cover.”

Epiffany Gombart practices one of her many voices at Swanson Amphitheater.
Photo provided by Rachel Arceo / The Mainstream.

UCC freshman Tyler Burdett, who voiced several lead characters said, “What I love about the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ is it leans heavily on sci-fi tropes, but kind of makes fun of them. There are evil aliens, but they are not actually evil. They’re robots, but they have personalities.” Burdett played “ape-descendant” Arthur Dent and Marvin the paranoid android.

Radio plays are plays specifically written for broadcasting. The actors are not watched, so they are often required to make very distinct voices. The five-person cast of “Hitchhiker’s Guide” found themselves voicing several different characters, playing with accents, pitches and a few character props such as a towel or a robot helmet. With the small cast, they each faced the challenge of voicing multiple characters within the same show, sometimes within the same scene.

“This was kind of a weird play, so I was just doing a lot of voices and having fun,” said Epiffany Gombart, radio voice actor of Deep Thought, Benjy Mouse and several characters throughout the show.

Even with all the fun of silly voices and the scripts in front of them, the actors had to practice hard, with a tight schedule of Sunday through Thursday rehearsals and only a Tuesday rest day. The cast rehearsed two new episodes each week until Thursday, performing them Friday through Sunday.

“In a radio play, the whirlwind thing is to our benefit. You are here for your voice capabilities, and you are here for your ability to play off each other. I like that it was fast because I appreciate that radio should be fast,” Angelica Badillo-Lillard, the voice of Ford Prefect, said.

The cast of “Hitchhiker’s Guide” consisted of a mix of Douglas County community and UCC students. Tyler Burdett, the voice of Arthur Dent, Nakeala Hunt, the voice of Trisha McMillan and Anthony Gordon, Centerstage’s freshman sound engineer are current UCC students. Angelica Badillo-Lillard, the voice of Ford Prefect, and Epiffany Gombart, the voice of Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, are former UCC students, and Andrew J. Laniohan, the voice of the narrator and Zaphod Beeblebrox, are all Douglas County residents who responded to the open call auditions.

UCC’s community theatre sustains itself independently from UCC’s theatre budget, relying on ticket sales, grants and donations. Although Centerstage Theatre Production is financed mainly from ticket admissions, Allaback chose only to accept donations for the radio play. “Our outdoor musical, ‘Arena Gorn Superstar,’ in spring of 2021, was a Star Trek musical that made a lot of money which goes directly to more performances,” said Allaback.

Andrew J. Laniohan (left), Tyler Burdett, Nakaela Hunt (seated) and Epiffany Gombart (right) run lines at Swanson Amphitheater.
Photo provided by Rachel Arceo / The Mainstream.

“You do something fun and whimsical and popular, and people will come out to see it. That’s why I chose ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’” said Allaback. “It’s an extremely popular novel.”

Unfortunately, maybe because of the speed at which it had to be produced and publicized, the radio play did not generate the audience of previous Centerstage performances. Allaback explains, “It was difficult trying to get publicity in a week.”

Even without the turnout of previous outdoor shows, the cast expressed having lots of fun and believe in the work they do with Centerstage and live theatre. “I would love to see more performances live this year to give our community something to connect with,” Hunt, ASUCC business manager and voice of Trillian McMillan, said.

“Theatre is so important for everyone both psychologically and emotionally. It is there to add light in the darkness. During the depression, folks used to pay a nickel to see moving pictures to escape,” Laniohan said. “Plus the show is just fun and worth the watch.”

“Support live theatre,” Allaback said. “It’s important for our mental health.”

The recorded live stream for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Plays” can be viewed on the Centerstage Theatre at UCC Facebook page. For more information or to help support Centerstage Theatre, write to Christina.Allaback@umpqua.edu