Wednesday, 1 March 2017

State of the Art: Radio Drama

This week we're talking shop with radio drama afficiando, Peter Church, who last performed on the Rosebud stage in 'Miracle on 34th Street' and returns in the upcoming 'The Skin of Our Teeth'. In-between, we sounded him out about the current state-of-the-art of radio drama, his passion for it, and his recommendations in the genre. This 'older' fashioned art form seems to be making a comeback, and Peter talks about why! 

Peter Chuch, performing live in a staged radio drama. Photo by Kevin Jacob 
In your last interview, you said, “Radio drama, to my mind, is one of the purest kinds of Theatre.” Can you first define "Radio Drama"? Is it any story on the radio, or is it also theatre plays presented in a radio ‘style’? 
“Radio Drama” is technically a misnomer. Most modern audiences are listening on their iPods or computers, so “Audio Drama” or “Audio Entertainment” would be a more accurate term. That said, I personally prefer "Radio Drama" because, even now, it still conjures the image of an actor in place behind a microphone and the listening audience huddled at home, sharing the experience around a little wooden box.
Theatre productions using the radio style are trickier to categorize. These hybrids are having a bit of a Renaissance right now. The audience usually watches a company of actors performing a play around microphones. Is it live theatre? Yes. And no. Is it a Radio Play? No. And yes!
I’ve written a number of stage shows in this style, and have waffled quite a bit on what to call them. How can I help an audience member understand what they’re in for? “A live radio-style stage show” is clunky. “An audiophonic experience”, is confusing at best (and pretentious at worst). For now, I think I’ve settled on “A staged radio drama”. 
Thankfully, this kind of theatre is gaining enough exposure that I find myself having to explain it less and less.

Why do you think this style is gaining popularity? Is it just a throw-back to a simpler time?
The convention certainly seems to be taking off! It can seem like a strange mix at first, [Theatres producing shows about radio performers telling a story] but I think it’s gaining traction for a number of reasons:
  • It’s affordable for theatres to produce. In keeping with the tradition of the radio plays of the 1930’s - 50’s, actors stand around the microphone and read from the script. There’s no memorization period for the cast, and minimal staging required, so you can cut the expensive rehearsal process in half.
  • It worked then, it works now. Before we had the technology to record radio plays, the shows were performed [and transmitted] in front of live audiences.
  • Audiences enjoy a creative workout. Our imaginations are becoming lazy. We’re saturated in visual forms of entertainment that do most of the work for us. Or as Vincent Price said, “We’re trained not to use the imagination, but if you stick with it (radio drama) for a couple of hours those imagination buds start working.” Younger theatre-going audiences are generally more open now to experimenting with new formats like Radio Drama on stage, and older audiences remember the radio shows from their past and come to the live stage shows out of a sense of nostalgia.

What is it about radio, specifically, that you find so essentially pure?
Radio Drama is aptly referred to as “Theatre of the Mind”, and I think therein lies its great power. I deliberately write my staged radio dramas with the intention that audience members should be able to close their eyes at any point and still be absorbed in the story. The better your imagination, the better the story! Like ancient reciters of the great epics, an audio drama suggests the action to the listener and from there imaginations should take over.

One of the most popular mystery dramas of its time, The Whistler was an American radio program from 1942 - 1955.

Do you have a favorite radio play? Or is there a specific genre you’re drawn to?
Oh, gosh. That’s like asking a Librarian to choose a favorite book!

My favorite shows tend to be those “Real Thriller-Dillers!” from the 1950’s. While I love old time comedies like The Jack Benny Show or Our Miss Brooks and science fiction series like Dimension X, nothing quite beats the more lurid tales like Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, The Witch’s Tale, or The Whistler. Part of my preference, no doubt, comes from the psychological element of radio (the unseen will always be scarier than the seen), but I think it’s also because it’s really exciting to be shocked and surprised by a supposedly dead medium. At the height of the Golden Age of Radio, NBC and CBS were filled with sophisticated and harboiled programs that continue to represent the very best of the art form: shows like Suspense, Gunsmoke, and Escape still provoke and engage.

It's a Wonderful Life: On the Air at Pacific Theatre. Photo by Damon Calderwood.

Listening to a story on the radio tends to be strangely intimate, as it takes a certain focus to process purely 'aural' information and create the world in which it makes sense. Do you think theatre can distill the vulnerability that comes when people listen so acutely? Or is it the magic of the medium of radio?
I think it’s possible to have moments in the theatre with that kind of power or vulnerability, but I’m not sure that we can “capture” or control it. When done right, radio is able to hardwire itself into the listener’s imagination. 
In traditional theatre, a particular moment or a particular production can sometimes transport you. When it happens, it’s glorious, but I find it fleeting and capricious. There are so many factors that can pull an audience member out of the story on stage. In radio, the Storyteller is at the wheel and the brain can’t help but imagine what it’s hearing.
Visual entertainment is passive: put-upon the viewer. Reading a book is almost the opposite; it takes full effort from the reader, but they can shut that effort off on a whim. Radio Drama lives somewhere between the two.

I was once editing an Audio Play and accidentally dropped a sound effect into the wrong part of the track (it was a phone hitting the floor). I put the sound cue in a few seconds too early, and when I played it back, my brain was instantly convinced that the female character had just been hit across the head with a phone! The actor and the sound effect worked together to trick my brain. I wrote the play. I recorded the play. I acted in the play. And yet, with a simple insinuation from a sound effect, for a second… I believed.

Peter next to the Foley (Sound Effects) Table. Photo by Rick Colhoun.

What elements make a great radio drama, in your opinion?
The best radio plays aren’t just screen plays with sound effects slapped on them. Instead, they are carefully woven for a blind audience. Whether it’s comedy or drama, the best plays exploit the listener’s handicap and use it against them.

Here are a few clips from series that I think do it well. Hear how well the writers use our lack of vision to make the stories come alive:


Jack attempts to get his debauched orchestra members to clean up their act at the start of the New Year.


School Teacher, Miss Brooks, plays hooky to go skiing with handsome co-worker, Mr.Boynton. Suddenly the Principal, Mr.Conklin, shows up to catch her with her skis on.


The classic scenario of a young couple stopping at a spooky old house after their car breaks down. Pay attention to just how dark the setting is, and how the actors use their proximity to the mic to help get inside your head. The sound quality is a bit poor on this one, so I suggest listening with the volume up and the lights off.


Marshall Matt Dillon rides into a small town only to find out too late that the whole town is being held hostage in a barn by a gang leader looking to avenge the recent death of his brother. They capture the Marshall and are threatening to execute hostages if the identity of the hero who shot the outlaw’s brother isn’t revealed.

Is there a modern day equivalent to what was happening with radio in the 20th Century?
That’s a fantastic question. Hopefully it doesn’t seem like too obvious of an answer but I strongly believe that the Internet can easily be likened to radio in the 1930’s. It’s a relatively young medium that is radically globalizing our communities, and is simultaneously being used for news and for entertainment… It's interesting, however, that while the web has drastically changed how we consume our entertainment, it hasn’t much changed what we’re consuming.

Peter Church performs in A Christmas Carol: On the Air at Pacific Theatre. Photo by Damon Calderwood.

Lastly, any 'new' radio projects in the works?
I'm currently working on an exciting project with a producer in the Netherlands who has me scripting offstage dialogue for her modernization of Medea. The idea is that the audience is sitting in the theatre watching a young child alone in their room, while the (soon-to be-tragic) argument that leads to the child's murder is unravelling in the room next door. Not a traditional radio play at all, but we're using the same techniques for the listening audience!

Peter Church is performing artist currently residing in Airdrie, AB. His Audio Drama credits for the stage include 'It's a Wonderful Life: On the Air', 'A Christmas Carol: On the Air', 'Christmas Radio Double Feature: Gift of the Magi by O. Henry & The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde', 'Old Time Gospel Radio Hour' (co-written with Ron Reed & Kenton Klassen), 'I Love a Mystery!' (Original Radio Series Pastiche), and 'Radio Project X', a monthly radio cabaret in Toronto where he's co-founder, producer, writer, and director. His Audio adaptations include 'The Ghosts of Mariposa' by S.C. Pinney, 'The Wooden Angel' by Jason Hildebrand, 'The Other Celia' by Theodore Sturgeon, 'Black Ice and Hockey' by Peter H. Church (namesake and uncle), 'The Trail of the Flicker Flea' by C.H.M. Church (Grandfather), and 'Radio's Revenge': an anthology podcast of which Peter is also co-founder, producer, writer and director.

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