“Exit, pursued by a bear” is a bit of a stretch for most theatres producing The Winter’s Tale. But on radio, this stage direction stretches imagination rather than resources: A bear’s roar, a man’s terrified scream and off? Maybe a narrator stating it simply and chillingly? Or with a smile in his voice, as with an oft-told joke?
Non-radio people get tired of radio types extolling the “endless possibilities” of radio drama, but until you’ve experienced it you can’t imagine the kick of that kind of freedom.
My experience with radio began two years ago when my play Truckin’ Maggie won the BBC World Service Drama Competition and I went to London for the production.
Our schedule had to be shortened from the usual three days to two because the production coincided with the first strike by BBC employees in 50 years. The lead actor, Anton Lesser, was half dead with a cold and trying not to be concerned about how he’d manage not only our rushed schedule but playing Richard III at the RSC, which he was also doing at the time. One of the bit parts hadn’t been cast by the time we started but, no problem, Michael Hordern was passing by and was happy to give 10 minutes to a cameo.
This was heady stuff for a first-timer. I was hooked. When Gordon House, head of BBC World Service Drama, asked to do an adaptation of two of my one-acts, I couldn’t wait to go back.
There was the usual climbing down into the bunker to get to the studio (five levels below ground—a leftover from World War II broadcasting-during-the-Blitz days), and the stereotypically civilized tea breaks, provided by the BBC canteen.
But this time a strike was only threatened (by Equity), so we had the full three days for production. Three days may not sound like a lot of time to discuss, rehearse and record a play, but the BBC has it down to a science, and the director and actors, drawn mainly from theatre, come prepared to put meat on the bone quickly and effectively.
There are few distractions from the work at hand. No costumes, no sets and little blocking is needed in what has been called “the stage of pure sound.” Scenes are read, discussed, rehearsed and recorded one after the other, with one final take at the end.
Afterwards, the director edits the tape, working with the production team to add special sound effects or music, and the play is ready to be broadcast to World Service Drama’s audience of 120 million. (What playwright could resist that size house?) Often, BBC Radio 4 will pick up a World Service Drama production to be broadcast nationally, making for an even bigger audience.
The BBC doesn’t have a corner on this kind of production, of course. Radio drama in Europe is an institution, and a thriving one.
German radio is an active producer of new plays, as well as of adaptations—many in English—of writers ranging from Graham Greene to Dashiell Hammett. Radio in the Netherlands, though it’s become increasingly commercial the last few years, still manages to provide a forum for new plays. France, Italy and Austria all have systems of radio networks supported by public funds, broadcasting on a regular basis a variety of radio drama.
But perhaps it is in Great Britain that radio’s standing is most evident: It is not a fringe medium. Every daily newspaper carries the radio schedule right next to the one for television. Any newsstand carries at least one of the three national magazines—The Listener, Radio Times, London Calling—featuring articles about radio.
Costs for the five national networks and 50 local radio networks constitute a fourth of the total BBC budget. About 2,200 plays a year are produced by BBC Radio and BBC World Service Drama, with production costs running around £12,000 per hour, versus £300,000 for an hour of television drama. (This is not to say that BBC pays exorbitant fees to its artists. My bed and breakfast was hosted by a writer whose novel was being filmed by BBC television. We commiserated on the trade-off between the quality of work possible with BBC and large financial renumeration available elsewhere—and decided it was worth it.)
John Tydeman, a radio veteran of 30 years and head of BBC Radio for the past five, attributes radio’s success to the fact that, in the ’60s when the “bite of television” was being felt, BBC Radio did not panic and go for the elitist market. They continued to program entertaining fluff alongside Hamlet and found that their core audience stuck around for the classics. He also reasons that one explanation for the “health and liveliness of the British theatre is that it continues the tradition of radio dramas.”
The two media continue to feed each other today. Name a West End playwright or actor, and it’s more than likely that he or she also does radio. Radio isn’t a medium theatre artists use as a stepping stone to better things. It’s one they return to again and again for the singular qualities no other medium can provide. As Gordon House says, “When we do a play, we’re reinterpreting that play—not leaching off the other medium. Adaptations to radio can change the feel of a play completely.”
He uses the example of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays—several of which he has directed for radio—pointing out that an individual seeing these plays in a theatre is affected by the reactions of those around him and so, naturally, picks up on the comedy eliciting the laughter. But when that same individual is listening to the plays in the quiet of his own home, “the darkness in the plays is more accented and becomes much more a part of one’s reaction to that play.”
House also emphasizes how congenial radio is for writers honing their talents for a characterization and dialogue. Which is why most playwrights, given the opportunity, love to write for radio, as evidenced by the experience of Marjorie Van Halteren, producer/artistic director of “The Radio Stage,” a program of plays running on National Public Radio through March 22, 1992.
Van Halteren, a three-time Peabody Award Winner, had no trouble attracting playwrights like Adrienne Kennedy, Eric Overmyer, Migdalia Cruz and Wendy Wasserstein to adapt their plays or write new ones for the series. She points out the “powerful advantages for playwrights” in radio, among them the opportunity to see the play through from inception to production. “This is a valuable opportunity for writers who work in the American theatre, where so many new plays never make it past the level of a staged reading.” And radio is relatively cheap. Two dozen radio plays can be produced for about what it would cost to produce one play Off Broadway.
So why don’t we have the same thriving radio medium as Europe has? Mainly because American and European radio developed differently. Here, commercial radio came first, with public radio not coming on strong until 1970, with the advent of NPR.
“Radio in the U.S. is a business, not an art form,” says Van Halteren. “It’s basically a service to an advertiser. In commercial broadcasting, the product is the audience. In public broadcasting, the product is the program.”
But this stark reality hasn’t discouraged those trying to bring radio into the mainstream. Van Halteren admits, “I find a real strength in the kind of guerrilla atmosphere in which we work. Nearly everyone in radio drama in the States today is reinventing the wheel.” In a hopeful vein she quotes Brecht: “If you want to build a barn, you work with the beams you have.”
American radio’s “beams” are few right now, but growing in number and strength. Surely there must be room for a medium that allows both its artists and its audience to stretch their imaginations so inexpensively and innovatively. It’s just a matter of time.
Other Voices, Other Rooms
The “Radio Stage” Series is actually only one of several lively, largely unsung programs offering drama on the ariwaves. Perhaps the most ambitious, “SoundPlay,” began a year-long series of radio drama last September. Produced by New York-based Voices International and distributed by the Pacifica Program Service in Universal City, Calif., “SoundPlay” features new work by Tom Stoppard, Vaclav Havel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Ingeborg Bachmann, Peter Handke and the project’s directors, Everett Frost and Faith Wilding. Voices International has also put together a three-part program of dramatized myths and legends by Native Americans, “Stories from the Spirit World,” to coincide with the Columbus Quincentenary.
L.A. Theatre Works, headed by Susan Loewenberg, regularly produces radio plays, often with nearby Hollywood celebrities. Edward Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason, Hector Elizondo and Howard Hesseman have been known to participate from time to time, performing before enthusiastic studio audiences. LATW’s productions are broadcast on NPR affiliates across the country. The other main L.A.-based series, California Artists Radio Theatre, has also become a thriving place for original radio writing.
In Hartford, Conn., Company One initiated a series of specially commissioned radio plays in 1989; this past year it stepped up its radio activities, offering mini-festivals of radio drama in May and October. Erik Bauersfeld’s Bay Area Radio Drama (BARD) in Northern California has opened its studios to radio-drama directors for many years. One of its latest productions, a radio version of The Emperor Jones, is currently being aired around the country. Finally, the Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop has for 12 years been generating discussion and production of radio theatre at its annual conference held in Columbus, Mo. Masters and novices gather for an intensive week of training seasons, panels and presentations, culminating in a live performance of a radio drama broadcast across the state.
Still other institutions are transferring the excitement and immediacy of radio drama to the stage. Within the past two years the Blackfriars Theatre of San Diego has presented two of Todd Blakesley and Burnham Joiner’s radio-format satires, The Laughing Buddha Wholistik Radio Theatre and More of the Laughing Buddha Wholistik Radio Theatre. Comprised of comedy serials, jingles, musical interludes and sound effects, the shows give the audience the experience of being at a live radio broadcast. In Seattle, the Bathhouse Theatre’s radioesque revue The Big Broadcast has become a holiday favorite; and Walton Jones’s 1940s Radio Hour has brought wartime radio nostalgia to audiences at San Jose Rep twice in the past three years (in 1988, and again this winter).
More information on the burgeoning radio culture can be found in the current special issue of Theatre Journal (vol. 43, no. 3), guest-edited by Everett Frost. It includes essays by Carey Perloff (on recording Ingeborg Bachman’s Good God of Manhattan), Anthony Burgess and Jose Quintero, among others. Several collections of radio drama have also recently been published, among them German Radio Plays (Continuum), the English Best Radio Plays of 1991 (Methuen/BBC Publications) and the Canadian Airborne: Radio Plays by Women (Blizzard Publishing).
Diane Ney is a playwright who lives in Washington, D.C.
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