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Adapting Shakespeare for Radio Drama

Advice from Tony Palermo

Advice on adapting the plays of William Shakespeare for radio drama. This was for a workshop conducted by the Museum of Television & Radio. The info also relates to radio writing in general.

Putting "Shakespeare On The Air"

    Radio can be a brilliant way to involve students with William Shakespeare’s dramas. A radio-style adaptation brings the plays alive, but keeps them manageable as a class project, because radio removes the two main obstacles in producing plays;

         1) No memorization of dialogue is required.

         2) The sets and action are depicted through dialogue, music and sound effects.

    There are a few considerations for successfully adapting Shakespeare’s plays as radio dramas. These involve structure, clarity, sound effects and the use of music to translate the drama from the theater to radio’s stage of the mind.

    Shakespeare? Get me re-write!
    While it isn’t necessary for radio actors to memorize lines, the traditional “versification” of Shakespeare’s dialogue--breaking sentences into verse with each line capitalized--will impede many actors in interpreting the dialogue properly, as they read. One method would be to re-structure the lines to scan in a more natural way. This would consist of limiting capitalization to where a new sentence is begun and adding pauses. Another method would leave the dialogue as is and have the actors rehearse alone “out loud” until they can fully understand what they are saying.

     Regardless of the method used, the actors should always mark up their scripts for pauses and underline where emphasis is needed. The professionals do it and so should you. When the dialogue must pause to make sure a sound effect cue or music cue can be heard, mark the line with a large letter "Q" and have the actor wait for the director to "cue" them to begin speaking.

    When adapting stage dramas, since the action cannot be seen, it is sometimes necessary to add some brief narration to replace the stage direction and keep events clear in the minds of the audience.  This will generally be limited to the beginning of scenes, but may sometimes occur in the middle of a scene.

    Example:   ANNOUNCER:    From the cauldron arises a third apparition, a crowned

                          child, with a tree in his hand!

    You can also use narration to connect several scenes if you are presenting abridged versions of the plays. A Cliff notes-style booklet can be helpful in summarizing the missing scenes. It can also be useful to present thumbnail sketches of various characters to distinguish them from one another.

    There will often be some confusion when more than four characters are speaking in a scene. Unless the voices are very distinctive, the audience may lose track of just who is speaking.  On stage, it is easy see the speaker, but radio usually keeps only two or three characters conversing at a time. Every so often, radio plays will have a speaker call out the name of the character he is addressing. You may find it necessary to add these lines at times for clarity.

    Example:    MACDUFF:     Ross! Stands Scotland where it did?

    To Sound Effect or Not To Sound Effect?
    When selecting scenes for adaptation, keep in mind that radio drama is not merely a play with “lots of sound effects”. A good radio play is good drama, full of conflict and even action, evoked through dialogue, music and sound effects, in that order. Sound effects are an important ingredient, but by far, the least important. In radio, the dialogue and narration contribute roughly 75% to the drama, with music another 15% and sound effects a paltry 10%.  Sound effects merely sketch in the action or punctuate dialogue and don’t generally provide background in the way sets or locations do in plays and films. Sound effects suggest action, but they can easily be confusing or misinterpreted if relied upon too heavily.  Intrusive sound effects will make the dialogue harder to follow. Just the same, sound effects can turn a mere script into a real-time drama  as opposed to just a story being told.  Sound effects add realism, but should be used sparingly. In the production of radio drama, if a sound effect cue is missed, few listeners will notice. Use that as a guide and employ a minimum of sound effects. Only significant sounds are necessary. Sketch the scene, don’t perfect it.

    Music for the Eye and the Mind
    Music is much more important to radio drama than sound effects. In radio, sound effects are action and music is reaction; the difference between motion and emotion. Music can alter a scene’s mood as well as paint the setting, but should also be used sparingly. Try to introduce or close major scenes with music "cues", but avoid overusing music as a “bed” beneath the dialogue lest you “steal the thunder” from those speaking.  Also, delivering dialogue to coincide with portions of the music bed can be difficult in a live production with amateur actors. As for how much music to use, ten seconds is usually long enough for any single cue. Film soundtracks and classical music collections are good sources for music cues for radio drama. If you can’t find exactly the right music for a scene, try using just something to “cleanse the palate” between scenes and allow the audience to rest their ears.

    The Format’s the Thing
    The script format used in this workshop follows the conventions of professional radio drama in use since the 1930s. It differs from play or screenplay formatting and is laid out for rehearsal and actual production. Lines should be double-spaced, sound and music cues triple spaced, paragraphs triple spaced. With a page size of 8.5” X 11”, each formatted page represents about 45 seconds of air time. An 8.5” X 14” page yields about 60 seconds of air time. Cues for dialogue, music or sound effects are numbered  and start over on each page. This allows for instant identification of where to begin or return to during rehearsal (“Take it from page 4, cue #7”). Music and sound effects cues are  capitalized and underlined. The exact tab stops and margins aren’t as important as the style and underlining. A 12-point Courier font is traditional--and easier to read "live" than sans-serif fonts like Arial or Helvetica. See the end of this document for an example of page 8 from my radio adaptation of Macbeth. For a further example, see my free MS Word template for writing in the radio format. Also, very handy is my detailed lesson How to Write Radio Drama Cues, which explains exactly how to be clear when writing dialogue, music, and sound effects cues.

    By No Other Name
    A radio drama is a specific genre with its own rules, strengths and limitations. If the writing is not clear, the listener can easily get confused. Once you have written your radio script, watch it with your eyes closed. Anything that isn’t clear should be fixed, even if that means re-writing William Shakespeare,  who in Richard II wrote, “Superfluous branches we lop away, that bearing boughs may live.”

(page 8 from my adaptation of Macbeth: Act 4, Scene 1)

    Shakespeare On The Air                                               “Macbeth”                                                                                 8.

    1.  MACBETH:          That will never be. Who can impress the forest?

                          Yet my heart throbs to know one
    thing. Tell me,

                          if your art can tell so much, - shall Banquo’s

                          issue ever reign in this kingdom?

    2.  SOUND:            THUNDER.


    4.  ALL WITCHES:      Seek to know no more.

    5.  MACBETH:          I will be satisfied. Deny me this, and an eternal

                          curse fall on you! Let me know!


    7.  MACBETH:          Why sinks that cauldron? And what noise is this?

    8.  FIRST WITCH:      Show!

    9.  SECOND WITCH:          Show!

    10.  THIRD WITCH:               Show!

    11.  SOUND:           THUNDER.

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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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Last modified: 03/02/11