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
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
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
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.”