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Producing Radio Drama Live, On Stage

Advice from Tony Palermo


 My advice to a first time director on how I go about producing radio drama for a live audience.


Subject:  Producing Radio Drama Live, On Stage

Dear Peter,

Since you're doing this on-stage, I assume you'll have an audience in attendance, which calls for a few extra considerations.

Here's an excerpt of my tech memo to an engineer for our first time working together on a western, several years ago:

Marty,

I will supply the 20 actors’ script copies and the five SFX books--all hi-lighted and ready to go. I will also bring the appropriate sound effects from my SFX own kit. Katrina will serve as SFX chief, training the artists and coordinating their cues under my direction.

Here’s my list of equipment I need you to bring:

1) Three or four uni-directional microphones with stands (I prefer mini-booms to straight stands.)

2) A couple of uni-directional mics for the sound effects. One or two over the table and one for the door--at doorknob level--which can also pick up footsteps on wood, tile and in gravel boxes.  I often use an omni-direction mic for the sound effects table--and "sits" in the mix more realistically than uni-directional mics, but there may be issues with feedback.

3) You can get by with home CD players or even walkman style players. I use a professional dual-CD player, like those used in discos. American DJ Audio makes some nice ones. Here's one: http://www.adjaudio.com/product.asp?ProductIDNumber=1246&cat=CD_Players

4) Some recording device, MiniDisk, standalone CD recorder, MP3, laptop computer, analog cassette, etc.

5) A mixer with multiple inputs (one for each mic and Left/Right for the CD players.) Behringer makes inexpensive mixers that are very flexible. http://www.behringer.com/ I use a UB2442FX-Pro that (unlike similar Mackie mixers) has XLR outputs--perfect for tying into house P.A. systems.  http://www.behringer.com/UB2442FX/index.cfm?lang=ENG

6) Three sets of headphones (Director, Engineer, Sound effects chief) with 25 foot extender cords.

When we get to the stage we’ll layout where the mics, SFX and mixer will go. I often use a triangular setup where (from the audience's POV) the actors are on the left, I am at the center (in the back), the sound effects table is on the right and the engineer is on the floor facing me. I use this layout to keep the actors from staring into the audience and getting mic fright.

1) Stage Set Up

On many of the stage radio shows, the actors are arrayed in a front line across the stage, with the one or two SFX artists stage left (left as they face the audience from the stage). The director often sits at a table on the floor in front of the stage and the engineer's table is somewhere back in the audience. Chairs are provided for when the actors are not on-mic.

I've worked this straight-line style for years, but I prefer using a triangular setup that guarantees good eye contact between actors, engineer, sound effects and director.  I have several reasons.

To keep the actors focused and guard against stage fright in amateurs, I don't let them face the audience directly. They face me--on stage, center stage. The SFX artists are at a table opposite and facing me. This way, everybody can see everybody else--and interact better. The audience doesn't seem to mind that we are not "playing" to them. They know it's radio and allow for the difference. You may wish to cheat everybody a bit more towards the audience. Here's an attempt at a diagram of my standard set up:

                                                             Director
                        Actors--> (mics)                                                  <--SFX Chief
                                                                                      (mic)
                        Actors--> (mics)                                                 <--SFX Artist

========================= edge of stage ===========================
                                                                                   Engineer
 

                                       AUDIENCE                  AUDIENCE

Now, most radio directors I've seen, including the greats, Norman Corwin and Peggy Webber, sit at a table facing the stage and simply "throw cues." In the days of old time radio, many directors worked from inside a glass walled control room. Orson Welles directed in the studio itself, among his actors from a raised podium. Whatever works for you.

Just as in a studio, I direct right in the actors' faces. I have better control at this distance. I can jump in if somebody misses a cue or I can easily grab a sound effect to help out. I use broad gestures and mug along with the dialogue to "extract" the readings I have in mind. I also lead the walla walla. Over the years, I've found that the wild physicality of my directing style is very entertaining to audiences, so I've made it part of the show. However, it may detract from the live audience's focus on the story. It's up to you. I think it adds to the audio performance, so I continue to ham it up. It's great fun, too.
 

2) The Visual Aspects of Radio Drama

The radio drama list has had many discussions over the years regarding the use of costumes and props for radio productions. Many abhor the use of anything that cannot be heard--even if there is a live audience in the studio. I believe that such visual aids such as costumes and my own directorial performances add to the energy of the production. And that increase in energy can be heard in improved performances. I've found that you can hear the costumes and props.

Also, for stage or film work, actors always work in costume. Some rely on them as crutches or as ways of "becoming" their character. I think it's absurd to take away an actor's tools because this is an audio production. If the wig or trench coat helps improve the actor's performance, let them use it! It also provides the live audience with something to watch. By the way, I always have the actors wear sticky name tags with their character's names on them. It helps me to cue the right person.

In adding to the visual experience, I also go out of my way to find manual sound effects that DO NOT look like the thing they are imitating. For example, I never use cap guns for gunshots. First, they don't sound right (too small); Second, they often misfire or jam--just when you need them; Third, I'd rather jar the live audience with the visual trump of seeing a clip board snapping produce a reasonable approximation of a gun shot. (Actually you'd need some sort of resonator box or small metal trash can attached to the clip board to render a somewhat realistic gunshot sound.) My RuyaSonic Radio Drama Resource website's sound effects catalog lists plenty of easy-to-find devices that don't look like the real things.

Also, audiences are especially interested in the sound effects. I suggest you have your SFX artists conduct a brief demonstration before the play begins. And of course, make sure the SFX artists can be easily seen during the performance. [I guess you know the difference between "foley" artist and SFX artist. My OTR friends hate the term "foley"--they consider that film sound effects, not radio. Plus, foley is usually human sounds, whereas radio sound effects teams had to recreate airplanes and storms and cars and everything--even if they sometimes used records.]

Of course, if you are using recorded sound effects, there's nothing to see. I don't use sampled SFX live, but most productions I've seen who mix manual and sampled SFX have an extra technician trigger these at the engineer's table. They often use the 360 Systems' "Instant Replay" device, which may be fine for the occasional isolated background or sound effect, but is fairly useless for most radio drama because it can only play one sound at a time. If you need a background of rain and then need an airplane--you can't have both. It is also terrible for gun shots, because one shot will cut off the other--and it's reverberation. Instead use a dedicated hardware sampler like a Kurzweil K-series or E-Mu or Akai instrument or a laptop computer running either the inexpensive V-sampler program or Gigasampler. These will allow you to trigger many sounds at once--as well as easily loop long backgrounds (crickets, waves, birds, factory sounds, etc.) .

3) Sound Reinforcement

I've staged radio dramas in many theaters and auditoriums, including a fancy 600-seat cinema in Hollywood. There, instead of using the house P.A. system, we brought in a full fledged rock/disco system. There were problems with feedback and monitoring for the performers. In studios I try to avoid giving actors headphones and feel the same way about providing them with stage monitors. If the actors can easily hear their amplified voices, they tend to "play to the P.A." and not the microphones or other actors. It also adds ringing and feedback.

Here's a handy article about controlling feedback in churches, which better resemble an audio theatre performance than does the typical rock band scenario of most amplification.

Beyond the annoyance of the whistling feedback is "monitor spill"--where the amplified sound system is heard in the microphones and recordings. This adds a terrible dimension of "room tone" to your program. You can avoid this by placing speakers a proper distance in front of the mics and keeping the general amplification level in the theater low. Remember that most theaters are meant for actors speaking without microphones. Don't rely too heavily on amplification.

To hear a radio drama recording that suffers greatly due to "monitor spill" listen to NPR's 2002 production "I'd Rather Eat Pants." http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=879478 This was recorded on stage in a 155-seat theater at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills. The engineers didn't think to kill the front-most P.A. speakers and so the mics picked up monitor spill.  Had they turned off the front speakers in the theater--so the amplified sound wouldn't be so loud and bleed into the mics on stage, they would have gotten a cleaner, more intimate sound. I've worked that room for years and this little trick always got the best sound. Always adjust to the conditions you find yourself in. Listen closely and react.

I hope this helps you further.


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TONY PALERMO is an audio theatre producer, performer, and educator living in Los Angeles, California.
He performs professionally, conducts workshops, and produces programs for hire.
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