Late November, over Westminster College’s Thanksgiving break, accented voices rang clear over a background of red patterned velvet for a performance of “Gaslight.” Even without imagery, the emotions were clear in their speech as Patrick Hamilton’s characters put a name to emotional gaslighting over 80 years ago.
The performance was yet another clever adaptation of a play typically depicted on stage, with a live audience, as Westminster’s Theatre department crafted it into a radio show safe for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the school had to cancel spring performances when the pandemic first hit, the Fall semester has featured a variety of new performance mediums, including Zoom live streams, outdoor projections and now a radio show.
“Recording ‘Gaslight’ was such a unique process because it’s so different than putting on a stage play,” said Ryeleigh McCready, Westminster senior and one of the lead actors. “When it came time to record, it almost felt like we weren’t ready because we had no blocking/movement, set or costumes […] We all had to rely completely on our voices to tell such an important story.”
The play, originally written in 1938, follows the story of Jack and Bella Manningham in 1880 London as overbearing Jack attempts to convince his wife that she is losing her sanity to cover up some of his own more criminal acts.
Now a common psychological phrase, gaslighting is “a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment.”
Less commonly known, though, is the fact that this phrase wasn’t used until after Hamilton’s play and its later film adaptations became popular.
This production may serve to increase awareness of the all-too-common phenomenon of emotional manipulation. Even some simple asides from Jack Manningham — played by Jaden Richards — could sound familiar to victims of gaslighting.
“It’s you who read meanings into everything, my dear,” he told Bella within the first 20 minutes of the show. His tone of voice increasingly varied throughout the performance, often suggesting that she was the only one feeling the impact of their arguments.
Despite the strong emotions running throughout the show, McCready — who played Bella — said she did not feel a significant emotional toll.
McCready credited the director, Liz Whittaker, and her experiences as an intimacy choreographer as what “helped [the cast] navigate the heaviness of this play.”
In fact, McCready said rehearsing and recording the show was a welcome change from the emotional stress of the end of the semester.
“It just felt wonderful to do theatre, it helped rather than added to the stress from this semester,” she said. “Working with such a lovely cast also helped create such a fun process that aided in dissipating the loneliness of this time.”
The show, available to stream through Nov. 29, offered listeners a break from video-based entertainment.
It provided “an intimacy and mystery from just listening that one might not get from watching,” McCready said.