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Starting a Radio Drama / Audio Theatre Troupe


Tony's radio-on-stage version of It's a Wonderful Life featured Michael Richards ("Kramer" from Seinfeld), Sara Rue, Susan Sullivan, and Orson Bean.

It's a Wonderful Life script & SFX for radio - Details about how you can produce my radio adaptation of Frank Capra's classic film.

Advice from Tony Palermo

Here are some notions about how to start a radio drama troupe. I jotted these down in response to a question from the Modern Audio Drama listserv. These remarks are not polished. Check back in the future for a better version of this page.


First, think of radio drama as just another type of theatre. Don’t let the technical aspects make you think you’re new at this. Storytelling-with-sound is Mankind’s oldest art. Theatre audiences LOVE seeing the pretense of radio drama live on stage. The “winking” collaboration of the artists with the audience is a selling point--play it up.

Radio drama can be far more imaginative than traditional stage-plays--because of the abstraction of sound and the willingness of the audience to suspend dis-belief. With that in mind, seek to present material that exploits the medium’s strengths--(You can do ANYTHING) and lets the audience in on the gag of the  medium’s weakness (the fakery of actors reading from paper scripts while sound effects artists trick the audience into believing something.)

Because radio drama performers can work from scripts in hand, there’s no need to memorize dialogue, hence rehearsal isn’t as time consuming. Radio troupes can work very fast in mounting a show. I work in the “live” style--the way old time radio programs were done, going out over the air with all the voices, sounds and music in real time. I have often done an entire 30 minute show--from auditions to rehearsal to recording/broadcast--in the course of two hours. You must be very organized to pull this off, but there’s a great strength to working fast. The lack of rehearsal means less chance for actors to ham it up, more control for the director, and more “life” in the ensemble work.

That said, here are some notes on what’s necessary.

Talent

Of course, you will need capable performers, but they will be unsure of themselves in this new medium. I’ve worked with top TV and film stars--and found most of them have some initial trouble “translating” their talents to working in the radio style. This goes for actors, writers, directors, engineers and sound effects artists. There is a special clarity necessary to  radio drama--whether it is in the studio or on stage. Always ask yourself: Is this CLEAR? If you confuse audiences, you fail. Confuse them on-the-air, and they’ll tune out; Confuse them in the theater, and they’ll scratch their heads--and some will leave during intermission. Clarity comes first.

Actors will need to learn HOW to perform radio material. They will NOT know how to work a mic for drama--(using distance, sharing a mic, whispers, shouting, the “proximity effect,” etc.) They will need to learn to wait for music or sound effects to “clear” before beginning a line. (This is why a live director/conductor/traffic cop approach is so useful.) Actors may not understand remaining in a scene past their written dialogue (Hint: If the character is still in the scene--even if silent--the actor should remain at the mic--otherwise it'll disrupt the suspension of belief, as the theatre audience thinks the character is gone too.) 

Actors will wonder if they can use costumes or gestures. The BBC frowns on visuals. My advice is to let actors use the "tools" they employ everywhere else. Let them do what they are familiar with. Let them use their bodies--but stay on-mic. Let them use their faces, and look each other in the eye--but stay on-mic. Assure the actors that their gestures can be heard in the performance--even over the air. We are creating a reality and whatever contributes to that reality--and enhances clarity--can be heard--and felt--by the audience.

It will take several performances for stage or film actors to get comfortable with this form of theatre--especially with the blocking and mic technique. I suggest you conduct “Radio Skills school” before you begin rehearsal. Otherwise, you’ll waste lots of rehearsal time in giving “notes.”

You will probably have to train someone as your sound effects artists. I suggest you find a musician, ideally a drummer, as they are used to "playing" sounds on cue. Drummers will have an understanding of timing, and the ability to manipulate devices expressively and consistently. Much of SFX work is based on mimicking rhythms--door knocks, footsteps, machines, etc.--so a drummer can quickly adapt to sound effects. If they have carpentry backgrounds, so much the better--as many devices have to built--small doors, wind machines, creaker boxes, telephone ringers, etc.

If you want live musical accompaniment, look for keyboardists who work in musical theatre or with improvised comedy troupes. They will have to learn how to work in the radio style, but I offer advice about scoring for radio. Those pages will also aid troupes using pre-recorded music cues.

Gear 

MICROPHONES:

You’ll need several microphones--2 or 3 or 4 for actors. For clarity’s sake, radio generally does not have more than 4-5 characters on-mic at a time--more than 5 characters often confuses the audience as to who is speaking--even if you continually “tag” each other with “Yes, Frederick, I know you detest butterflies...” etc.

I suggest you designate mics for tall, medium and short actors. Number them 1-2-3-4. Each actor is assigned their “home” mic--and on occasion they will use other mics--as the drama and traffic patterns dictate. In rehearsal, have actors write on their scripts which mic they need to be at (I use a number inside a diamond <4>) for a particular cue.

Teach your actors how to work a mic--not too close, not too far, not sideways. Regarding theatrical radio shows, NO ONE is used to speaking into a microphone and having their voices amplified--not for drama. This will mess with their performances.  Tell them to play the scenes as if they are on-stage in a play. Ignore the P.A. system.

But still, you want them to understand how to play to a mic. I suggest you have them wear headphones for a mic lesson--to experiment with their positioning for various effects (entrances, exits, distance, fading, ad libbing under, whispers, screams, working WITH another actor at the same mic. etc.) However, I never allow actors to use headphones during performance or recording.

Have them play scenes together at the same mic (a very effective bit of blocking, depending on the dramatic scene).  Some troupes will have a separate mic for each actor--engineers may like that. Actors may like that, but don’t let the technology rule over the drama. Humans speak near one another. Conversations are  in “two-shots,” “threesomes,” groups. Make use of these groupings to bring clarity and drama to your material. Both the actors and the audience will respond better to intelligent blocking.

Nearly every stage is hollow and so you have to cope with the transmission of actors’ footstep vibrations up the mic stand and into the mic. I use shock-mounts on all the mics for stage shows--and studio recordings. These insulate the mics from the sounds of actors clomping across the stage, stepping on the mic stand bases, or bumping into the stand with their scripts.  I highly recommend using shock-mounts if you do radio drama. You can find some inexpensive, universal ones at www.shockmount.com (While a 3" diameter is the standard size, shockmount.com will make custom 4" versions for bulky mics.)

SOUND EFFECTS:

(see my pages about sound effects for more info)

You’ll use a combination of manual and pre-recorded sounds to render both the settings (forest, desert, Moon, restaurant, boardroom, car, etc) and the action (entrances, fights, plane crashes, etc.)  You may wish to have 1-2 SFX artists (don’t call it “Foley”--this is a much bigger and busier job than film-style Foley.) My own  scripted shows employ as many as 5 sound effects artists for layered ensemble work. I often have actors who are NOT speaking lines in a scene come to do SFX.

For theatrical shows, I suggest trying to render as many sound effects as possible with mechanical means--even if the result is not perfectly real. (I often say "Reality is not what it's cracked up to be." We need to expressively convey meaning, not offer documentary-style realism.) Also, theatre audiences consider the SFX artist as a magician; one who is letting them look into his magic hat. See my extensive information on assembling/making a basic sound effects kit. 

You will need 2-3 mics for the sound effects--at least one for feet and one for the SFX table. I use a boom over my table--which I position and re-position continually in order to control volume and the “placement” depth-wise, of a sound within a scene. I use shock mounts on these mics to allow me to silently move them during a show. I also wear headphones while performing SFX.

ENGINEERING GEAR:

(see my pages about engineering and gear for more info)

You’ll need a mixing board to handle the mics and inputs for voices, sound effects, live musicians or pre-recorded tracks (of music or sound effects). You may need a device for playback. I prefer dual SD chip players, but other people use dual CD players, MP3 players, notebook computers and  keyboard samplers.  See my column for the NATF newsletter about pre-recorded playback options.  The engineer also wears headphones, as it is important that they hear the dialogue clearly so they can adjust levels and trigger pre-recorded tracks on cue. I often have the engineer on--or near--the stage. On shows where I don't direct,  I often engineer AND do sound effects from my custom built "sound truck" beside my SFX table. 

Having eye contact between engineer and director is very useful. Adjustments can be made instantly, with a gesture. See my page about how to set up on stage for radio drama for more details on positioning cast and crew.

As for getting the audience to hear your show in the theater, fully employ the microphones--don’t use them as silent props.  While actors may be able to project their voices loudly to fill the theater, some sound effects--like a gun being cocked--won’t “read” unless amplified.  A public address system can allow actors to use a variety of vocal timbres and to make sure quiet sounds and ambiences are well balanced for the audience. Try to imitate life--not movies, not stage-plays.

I’ve done radio-on-stage shows in  everything from 80-seat theaters to 2700-seat performing arts centers and I’ve found that you must strive for an intimate sound. Radio drama is not a rock band, so the typical arrays of speakers stage left and right can--in large spaces--seem un-natural. The disconnection of seeing an actress speaking into a mic center-stage and her voice coming from the sides will decrease the sense of intimacy we seek.

When I can, I try to have several small, “wedge”-style speakers at the foot of the stage pointed at the audience. The level of these can be balanced with whatever arrays are on the sides of the stage to present a more natural sound. In very small theaters, where the actors' voices can be heard without mics, just lower the volume on them to what appears natural.

Monitoring on stage should be avoided. First, it can mess with the actors’ sense of their own voice--they’ll start to “play to the P.A.” and not with the other actors. Second, it introduces “monitor spill” by being picked up by the mics. This is NOT the dreaded squealing feedback, but rather the introduction of a boxy kind of room-tone--and is particularly awful-sounding on recordings. Monitor-Spill removes the entire show from reality. It calls attention to itself and away from your drama. When it comes to sound reinforcement, be as minimal as possible. Actors will have to trust you that they are being heard by the audience.  Keep them comfortable with their performance by thinking they are doing a stage show--but with microphones to “document” their performance. On some shows, I've had only the sound effects come at a very low level through monitors--so actors can hear the SFX in order to coordinate their cues.

Material

(See my pages on writing for audio theatre for more info)

Radio drama is a special medium. It has great imaginative potential and you should exploit this feature. Theater audiences are startled by the settings and action that radio drama can easily depict. They marvel at the imaginative range of this medium.

If you are not experienced at writing radio plays, then I suggest you begin by performing classic radio pieces in a variety of genres. I offer some links to scripts on my RuyaSonic page about writing for audio theatre.  I also sell my own scripts which demonstrate the conventions of the medium. These are primers in radio production technique. You may want to look over the free soap opera demo script I offer (Life's Little Ups & Downs), to see what a well-prepared radio script looks like. My other scripts cover many genres and employ sound effects and music extensively.

Branding can be very useful in putting together a successful radio troupe. If you can establish an identity, you can more easily get return business. For an evening’s entertainment, you may wish to mount 3 or 4 short plays--15 minutes each--and have them be from different genres: Comedy, Detective, Western, Sci-Fi, etc.  If you have a (well-written) recurring show--say Dentist, the  Menace or Sandra of the Sahara--you can create new episodes for subsequent performances and attract a fan base that comes repeatedly.

Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion has used their detective show parody, “Guy Noir” for 40 years and audiences love it--and love its return each week. Whereas, if next month’s run of your program features four totally new shows, audiences may not be as willing to come. Attracting an audience from scratch each week can prove financially disastrous. It is smarter to create a series of shows and return to them. Mix classics with new works. Build an audience to be a faithful audience. It’s harder to survive economically if the troupe is the “star” and not the material.

Performance Logistics

(See my page about producing radio-on-stage and especially, sound effects rigging on-stage for more info)

I suggest you venture beyond the typical way in which stage shows are presented, such as the curtain closed, or empty set, while the audience files in; the program listing the various scenes and settings; the play beginning with music or some ambience; and then the first entrance of a character. Break down the whole fourth wall dichotomy that pits US (the troupe) versus THEM (the audience). You are performing IN a theater, but you don't have to present your show as if it IS theatre.

You can easily model your show on an evening's "prime time" radio line up, with short genre plays, commercials, contests, musical acts and other variety bits. A Prairie Home Companion is the most popular U.S. radio program that features radio drama. However, it is 2 hours of mostly music, with breaks for radio-drama style comedy sketches, silly adverts (for the "Ketchup Advisor Board" or Duct Tape, Xanax Salad Sprinkles, etc.) and Garrison Keillor's bravura 15-minute improvised storytelling routines called "News from Lake Wobegon." Prairie Home is recorded in front of a live audience. They sell tickets ($30-$50) that fund the production of their shows and then sell those recorded shows to public radio stations for broadcast. Their economic model, plus the use of comedy material and even the short lengths of the sketches are a model for successful, entertaining radio fare.

Presentation Ideas

Most audiences are new to seeing radio drama live on stage. You can use this to your advantage, adding a human face to your presentation by having the director step up to explain what they’ll be seeing (scripts in hand, actors playing several characters, the “theater of the imagination,” how the director will be “throwing cues” at various times, etc.)  I actually “audition” the crowd for the role of “studio audience.” They applaud several times--to my feigned dismay--and then I teach them “How to sound like a professional studio audience.” This is a great ice-breaker. Later, I cue them to applaud at the end of an act. They love being part of the show--and they enjoy themselves more.

Also, have the sound effects artist demonstrate a few sounds--partly to break the ice, but also to lessen SFX stealing focus during the drama. (If the audience sees in a pre-show demonstration that an egg carton being squeezed is the sound of a squeaky wheel chair, they won’t turn their curiosity to the SFX table when “Old Mr. Potter” is wheeled in for Scene Two. They’ll pay better attention to the drama.)

Lastly, unlike typical stage-plays, make the curtain calls part of the show--have an announcer “direct” the applause as each performer is high-lighted: “Appearing as Sherlock Holmes was... Martin Jarvis!” Cue applause, etc. This way, the audience is able to make “their” professional sound effect--clapping--and join in the show. 

Many radio troupes dress up in 1930s-1940s garb. Audiences like this. I have actors employ costume accessories (hats, aprons and shawls, etc.) to “become” the various characters--and keep things clear for an audience not used to seeing one actor play several roles.

Live music allows for great expression in your drama. The musicians can also play before the show or during intermission. Plus, live musical commercials can be wonderful ways to break up the show. However, please note that spoken commercials tend to sap the momentum of drama. Be entertaining--and brief--in all non-dramatic stage work.

Production Method

(See my pages on Producing Audio Theatre  for more info)

How you rehearse and produce your program can make the experience tedious or a lark. It will take some adaptation as you translate from your past experience in stage-plays to doing radio drama. Avoid "converting meters to feet." Plunge into the radio drama medium and learn it from its own point of view.

A radio drama is similar to a movie being created in real-time. There is a good deal of coordination needed to keep the voices, music and sound effects working together. The imaginative range of radio drama--and often just the number of scenes and locations--far exceed most stage-plays.

Also, the linear nature of a radio drama--as we seamlessly go, in real time, from bedroom to spaceship to monster's tummy--often boggles the film and stage directors I’ve seen try their hand in the medium. I've witnessed many talented non-radio pros try to use stage-play methods and get mired in endless “notes” due to “train wrecks” of bad timing, messed up blocking, and lack of clarity. It's not hard to do radio drama--but you complicate things by approaching it as if it's "a play with lots of sound effects." Radio drama is a special kind of theatrical medium--more like opera than straight drama. Learn to speak its language.

I’ve been directed by the greatest talents in radio--Norman Corwin, Peggy Webber, Dirk Maggs, Yuri Rasovsky, Roger Gregg and others--and I’m an accomplished director on my own. You must let radio BE radio. You’ll have to find your way into the medium.

I employ a musical metaphor to approach radio drama production. I see the radio drama troupe as an orchestra, with a chorus (actors), a percussion section (sound effects) and string/brass sections (music). We all work from a score (a precisely laid out radio-style script). And we are conducted (directed) throughout the performance. “Notes” are given with gestures--(bigger, faster, farther away, on the nose, more intense, etc.) in real time. This is how Orson Welles directed for radio. It’s more like silent-film-directing than stage- or cinema-directing.

Compared to most radio troupes, I have a very unusual way of producing radio plays--because it sprang from having to work under strict time limits for workshops or broadcasts. I’ve directed about 1200 radio dramas in the last 20 years and my methods have been refined to work efficiently with a maximum of expressiveness and minimum of ego.

Quickie description: I eschew the typical ways of play production. From casting (I use custom-written monologues--that are part of my script packages); to skipping  “table reads”, (instead, I TELL the troupe the story); to having the cast begin working up the “mechanicals” of only their own speeches--out of context. I conduct “Radio Skill School” before putting actors in front of mics, so they don’t have to search for technique--and feel insecure--during rehearsal. I rehearse with all elements--voices, music, sound effects--in real time, but at a slower-than-normal tempo--stopping, scene by scene, to adjust and restart. I “conduct” from on-stage--in front of the troupe--coordinating cues, setting the tempo, leading the walla/crowd voices and playing the audience.

The specifics of my method can be found at my RuyaSonic site’s section on Producing Audio Theatre

See You Next Time, Folks

That's all the time I have for advice at this time.  I suggest you also read over my other information about Audio Theatre beginning with the Radio Drama Resources page. You'll find plenty there on the nuts and bolts.

Good luck! Or as we say in the radio biz, "Break a LIP!"

Tony Palermo

NOTE: I am available for hire as director or sound effects artist. I also travel to conduct workshops for troupes, schools and professional productions. Contact:


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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