Daughter of broadcasting veteran revolutionizes theater during pandemic

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CRANFORD, NJ — You may know Bob Wischusen as a voice announcer for the New York Jets, college football and basketball for ESPN. As a sports commentator, the broadcasting veteran critiques and comments when some of the nation’s biggest teams are playing. While he helped revolutionize sports analysis with his booming voice, his daughter, Katrina Wischusen, is carving a landscape all her own.

A lifelong Cranford resident, 19-year-old Katrina Wischusen, is a double major in theater performance and arts administration at Wagner College.

“I definitely have always loved theater,” Wischusen said on Aug. 17. “I’ve been involved in about 40 different productions in the Cranford and surrounding area over the past eight years.

“I knew that I wanted to direct a show this summer with Stage Craft Studio, but when the pandemic hit, I didn’t think it would be possible,” Wischusen said. “In the spring, I read the script of ‘From up Here’ and decided I wanted to try and direct a workshopped version of it over Webex. My best friend from Wagner, Matt Storti, came on as my assistant director, and we watched the production blossom from what we hoped would be a staged reading at some point into a full-scale production with a sound system, stage lighting, body mics, costumes and a set.

“We rehearsed online for about two months, and then we had eight in-person rehearsals with masks on before we had a show,” she continued. “We couldn’t be prouder of our actors and all of the effort they put into this process.”

The performance, drawing in an audience made up of the cast’s family members and friends, who wore masks and practiced social distancing, transformed what Wischusen normally knows as home into a theater in the backyard.

“The play was called ‘From up Here,’ written by Liz Flahive,” Wischusen said. “The main character is a teenage boy named Kenny, who brings a gun to school and is arrested because of it. The story follows his family as they deal with the consequences of his actions and figure out how to heal. The play takes place in a suburb of an unspecified city and is set in modern day.”

Wischusen originally intended to direct a Stage Craft Studio show alongside her mother, who had a hand in this production.

“Stage Craft Studio is a performing arts studio in Scotch Plains that is co-owned by my mom, Julie Wischusen, and Maggie Graham, who coaches voice and acting,” Wischusen said. “Stage Craft works with performers of all ages and levels of experience, so all are welcome! There is training offered in dance, acting and voice.”

Assembling a cast for any production can be difficult, but imagine getting the job done during a pandemic.

“To assemble a cast, we put out a public casting call online, which was open to any high school or college-age actors,” Wischusen said. “They submitted self-tapes of monologues from the show, and, after reviewing those, we created smaller callback groups that we met with at different times to see how people would read together. It was a competitive process, but we couldn’t be more pleased with the cast we chose.”

According to Wischusen, COVID-19 made presenting the show a real challenge.

“Putting the show together was difficult,” Wischusen said. “Matt Storti, our assistant director, and I were the only two people working on the production throughout the rehearsal process, because we wanted to keep the group we were interacting with as small as possible because of COVID-19. This meant that we had to do most of the rigging, lighting, sound design, building/painting and etc. on our own, which neither of us have much experience with.

“Matt ran sound on his own for both shows and flawlessly balanced the sound cues, music tracks and body mics, after only learning the system four days before,” she continued. “Our other biggest obstacle was obviously COVID-19. The audience sat outdoors, socially distanced with masks on, and their temperatures were scanned upon arrival to ensure nobody who was showing symptoms would be in attendance. The cast wore masks throughout the whole show as well. The experience was definitely challenging at points, but beyond rewarding for all of us.”

In addition to her most recent accomplishment, Wischusen has extensive experience in her chosen field.

“I have been the assistant director and choreographer of a few children’s musicals in the Cranford and surrounding area, but this was my solo directorial debut,” Wischusen said. “Now that the show has ended, I’ve been gearing up to go back to school, where I will be getting ready to perform every day again. I’m looking forward to that so much.”

Ready to push her career forward, Wischusen has huge plans for herself.

“My plans moving forward are to graduate from Wagner College and then hopefully be a strong female role model in the theatrical world,” Wischusen said. “I’m not sure exactly what path I’m going to end up on in theater, but I know that I want to work with children, and I know that I want to be a positive influence on others, not only as performers, but just as people.”

The pandemic has taught Wischusen a great deal about herself.

“I have learned during the pandemic that you shouldn’t expect anything to be 100-percent certain,” Wischusen said. “I have always been a bit of a control freak. I like to have a plan, and I like to stick to it. Before coronavirus hit, I was an 18-year-old girl who thought she had every aspect of her future figured out, and now, six months later, my life is completely opposite of what I thought it would be.

“I never would have expected to lose the people I lost or gain the experiences I have,” she continued. “I never would have expected to have directed a play. But I am definitely learning to find happiness in the unexpected.”

Photos Courtesy of Katrina Wischusen