Tune In to Throwback Virtual Reading Sessions for Vintage TV Live

Scooby Doo, where are you? Online, in this new Vortex series

The COVID-19 pandemic may be keeping many theatre artists away from performance, but not Benajah T. Baskin. He’s spent the summer immersing himself in several classic roles as part of the Vortex’s Virtual Programming. Just last week, Baskin could be seen online in a furry vest, clown nose painted black, and dog collar uttering the immortal line “Ruh-roh!”

The Mystery Gang in Throwback's Scooby Doo, Where Are You! episode: (clockwise from upper left) Savanna Cole as Velma, Benajah Baskin as Scooby Doo, Julieanna Stolley as Daphne, Donalvan Thigpen as Fred, and Matthew Kennedy as Shaggy

Yeah, he was Scooby Doo. And before that, he was Scotty on Star Trek, the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, Bam-Bam on The Flintstones, and Egghead on Batman. Okay, so not classic roles from theatre. But still classic in their way, and he played them as written in actual scripts from the original TV series. His Scoob, for instance, came from “Don’t Fool With a Phantom,” the eighth and final episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You!’s second season, first broadcast on Halloween, 1970. Baskin recruited six other actors – all with Austin ties – to join him as Shaggy, Velma, Fred, Daphne, et al., and their Zoom reading was streamed last Thursday as one of the Throwback Virtual Reading Sessions. The previous sessions each featured a different TV series with a different cast reading an episode hand-picked by Baskin.

If you think this must be some Baby Boomer’s fantasy project, prepare for a shock: Baskin is fresh out of high school. In his case, these TV shows qualify as ancient history. But when he was younger, he logged many hours on MeTV, watching vintage sitcoms with his dad, and so came to love lots of Sixties television. Still, having contemporary actors read old Boob Tube scripts online wasn’t a thing he’d dreamed of doing – that is, until he had a dream about it. The dream came as Baskin’s plan to launch a new commedia troupe, NeoComedy of Austin, was scuttled by the coronavirus lockdown. As he wondered what to do instead, he recalled the sage advice he’d recently received from a theatre mentor, Nick Mayo: When you’re in doubt, you have to look to your childhood, look to your beginnings. Baskin realized how big a part of his childhood TV was, so he decided to take this literal dream he’d had of actors reading TV scripts aloud and turn it into a coronavirus-era reality.

Baskin’s approach to the sessions is more than nostalgia. He takes care in selecting scripts, often seizing on their relevance to today, as with the episode “President Gilligan,” in which the castaways vote for a leader and, shockingly, the goofball is elected president, or Star Trek’s “The Naked Time,” in which Captain Kirk and crew are exposed to a virus and go kinda crazy. His casting is equally deliberate. Rather than choose people who can mimic the original actors, Baskin casts people who might give the material an interesting spin, as with Savanna Cole, who played the slapstick Gilligan totally straight, and Helen Merino, who gave cartoony Wilma Flintstone a grounded naturalism. Opposite Merino, Baskin cast Marc Pouhé as Fred, in part to see how his stylized, broadly comic characterization would play off her naturalistic one. Baskin loves actors sparking off and surprising each other and will help that happen by mixing together people who know one another and people who don’t, actors of his generation and actors, let’s say, with a few more credits on their bio. (Along with Pouhé and Merino, his ringers from the local stage scene have included Kate Meehan, Rudy Ramirez, Toby Minor, and Scott Poppaw.)

For Scooby Doo, Baskin wanted the Mystery Gang played by actors close in age to the characters, and he had four in mind: Donalvan Thigpen for Fred, Julieanna Stolley for Daphne, Savanna Cole for Velma, and Matthew Kennedy for Shaggy. For the grown-ups, he got grown-ups: Chuck Winkler (who'd have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids) and Baskin’s mentor, Nick Mayo. (That left the role of the titular Great Dane to Baskin by default.) The episode was chosen not for its timeliness – a phony phantom in a wax museum not having much metaphorical oomph right now – but for its timing. Throwback’s first four shows came from Sixties TV, and Baskin was ready to “move on up” to those Seventies shows. (The first is The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and the Throwback cover airs this Thursday, July 16, with Jill Leberknight as Mary Richards and Zac Carr as Lou Grant. Baskin plans to eventually cover TV in every decade leading to this one, because, he says, "I want to show how far we’ve come in one swipe.") Having run from '69 to '70, Scooby Doo made a nice transition to the second phase.

But more importantly, the show was fun. Make no mistake, however slapdash and fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants they may appear, these “ramshackle readings,” as Baskin calls them, require a lot of work. Most of the scripts aren’t available online, so he has to transcribe them himself. He has to organize the readings, and he also has to edit them before they go online. But Baskin wouldn’t be doing the Throwback sessions if they weren’t fun. Baskin says he’s been paid for theatre work he’s done in the past, “but I don’t consider myself a professional, because I have fun. We’re all taught we have to be professionals, [but professionals] go in, and they do their work, and they hate it. I consider these to be unprofessional readings because everybody’s having fun.”

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Vortex, Benajah Baskin, Nick Mayo, Donalvan Thigpen, Matthew Kennedy, Savanna Cole, Jill Lebernight, Zac Carr

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