Directing Radio Plays - Part 1
Tony (wearing headphones) left, directing the Theatre 40 troupe.
See also: Directing Radio Plays - Part 2
Directing the MT&R Re-creating Radio Workshops
Directing radio drama is more like film direction was
during the silent era than contemporary theatrical or film
directing. The director stands in front of the actors
"throwing cues" and using hand signals to convey ideas like
"faster," "more emotion", "stretch it out," "step back from
the microphone," and coordinating the music, SFX and dialogue. In radio's
golden era, directors would often stand in the sound-proofed
control room and cue the actors through a glass window.
There was a lot of swearing going on behind the glass as
actors or sound effects artists missed cues or bungled a
line. Orson Welles would direct--and act--from a podium
in the studio, much like an orchestra conductor. I prefer to
direct "on the floor", with my cast and crew facing me. I
read along as the actors speak and pantomime my instructions
to coordinate the actors, SFX artists and engineer (who is triggering music and
pre-recorded SFX tracks).
I prepare the script ahead of time by marking up
the master copy with a large “Q” where dialogue, music
or sound effects cues need to look to the director for
timing or coordination. For example, after a music cue
starts, the cast and crew need to know how long the cue must
be "established" before we begin dialogue or sound effects.
I also put a "Q" on a dialogue line where the actor must
pause for an important sound effect or music cue to finish
before continuing their dialogue. For example, waiting for
the window to open before they talk about what they see
inside the secret hideout. I also put a "Q" on music cues
where the engineer must wait for some action to be concluded
before the music starts or stops. All actors and staff work
from a copy of my "Q"-ed script. When they see a "Q" next to
their line or sound effect, they know to look to me to cue
I put the scripts in 3-ring binders for the Sound Effects
Artists and Engineers. I create a master engineering script
by using a highlighter pen and marking how long a music cue
will play under dialogue or sound effects. I highlight the
music cue in the script, then draw a vertical line through
the other dialogue and sound effects cues until I get to
where the music cue must fade. My site's engineering page
has a representation
of a script marked up for music cues. The script
is hi-lighted as follows: Pink for music cues (indicating
what dialogue and SFX cues they run through), Blue for
Reverbed dialogue and SFX, Green for filter effects
(telephone or tinny radio broadcasts). Don’t use yellow
hi-liters--they are hard to see in low light situations,
such as a recording studio control rooms. Similarly, I
create a master sound effects crew script where I indicate
how long specific sound effects are to continue under other
cues. It takes time to create these hi-lighted script books,
but they pay off in ease of production.
I keep my own director's script pages in plastic sleeves
in a three ring binder--The plastic sleeves make for quiet
page turning. When directing, I lay the book out
on a table or music stand, which allows me to have both
hands free so I can coordinate cues between the sound
effects department and the actors and engineer.
The cast makes all the difference to a radio production,
especially in a workshop. Luckily you don't have to worry
about what people look like and can often cast someone in
several roles. Auditions are essential to getting the best
performers in the most important roles. I prepare a
two page collection of casting monologues representing the
various major characters and have the workshop participants
read this over (often aloud), before they audition. I then
grade them as to quality of reading (emotion, diction,
accents, spirit, etc, and SFX--meaning they belong in sound
effects) and list several candidates names for the important
roles in the program. For workshop purposes, we have plenty
of small roles for those who only want to act--but can't. I
usually combine several roles--since it is radio, one actor
can easily do several--and can split those off to give to a
poor, but determined actor who won't "stoop" to sound
Voice and Sound Effects Training
In the workshops, we have two hours to cast, rehearse,
produce and playback a 25 minute radio show, which does not
allow me the luxury of sitting around doing the traditional
first table-reading so common to stage productions. Instead,
I gather the actors and sound effects artists together and
quickly tell them the story of the program--and to
insure I have their full attention, I do this
before I have let
them know the casting decisions. People pay much better
attention to the story when they're not focused on their
role. It is especially important that the SFX artists
understand the story since they will be providing the sounds
of the action.
After the story run-through, I announce the casting and pass
out the actors' scripts, which already have their
character's lines highlighted, (preferably in green or pink,
since those colors show up best under nearly all lighting
conditions), and send the sound effects artists into the
studio for training by our sound effects chief. I then
instruct the actors to read over their highlighted lines and
practice the "mechanicals" of the performance--saying the
lines out loud five to ten times in a row. This helps
the actors get their tongues used to forming the words.
While the actors work on the mechanicals, I visit each one
and explain their character's history and motivation. I also
help them with names or difficult pronunciations and suggest
attitudes to use behind their lines. For example: Tonto is
brave, he doesn't speak well, but knows a lot about tracking
and Indian medicine. He's funny too.... These broad "notes"
are about all we'll have time for in a radio production. We
don't do a formal "first reading." We will do that in the
Meanwhile the Sound Effects Chief is training our SFX
artists. We use from three to five SFX artists on a
show because our workshops generally have 20 people in them.
The real old-time radio shows would only have two or three
SFX people and one of them was usually dedicated to playing
sound effects from records. We often use only manual sound
effects so there's plenty for everybody to do. Although the
pros used to regularly do two or more sound effects at once,
we make sure one artist never has to do more than one effect
at a time.
In preparing our scripts for a show, we divide the sound
effects cues between three to five SFX artists and highlight
several scripts with five different colors (blue, yellow,
green, pink, orange) usually indicating when an effects
starts and ends--like a musical score. Then for production,
we assign each SFX artist a color and they are
responsible for their producing the sound effects
highlighted with their color.
The Sound Effects Chief goes down the list of each sound
effect called for in the show and demonstrates how to
produce the sound. Each SFX artists learns how to produce
their assigned sound effects. After all sound effects have
been demonstrated, the Chief begins to go through the
script, sound effects cue by sound effects cue, practicing
to deliver either single effects or coordinating cues where
several effects are used simultaneously. In the limited time
allocated for this training, the crew may not make it
through all of the sound cues, but the rest will be covered
during the cue rehearsal. In the rehearsal and live
performance, the Sound Effects Chief assists in cueing
the SFX artists and coordinates cues from the show's
Radio Skills School
In workshops, just before we begin the cue rehearsal, I
call the cast and sound effects crew together to explain
radio drama production.
1) Sensitive and dead areas. Don't touch the mike OR the
2) Proximity effect. (It's sounds too boomy if you're too
3) Proper distance for radio acting. (10-18 inches)
4) Dynamics and distance. (Back off to yell or scream.)
5) Off mike use for distant sounds or asides. (Step back to
6) Popping “P”s and S-S-S-Sibilance. (Speak over or under,
not into the mike)
7) Mike safety. (No hitting, blowing into, or dropping)
8) Assume every mike is always ON. (Don't curse in a studio,
9) Turn script pages quietly. (Off mike.)
1) Quiet in the studio.
2) Don't cough, laugh, or talk during production.
3) Turn your script pages quietly--off to the side.
4) Watch the director. Wait for your cue. (Q)
5) Speed equals excitement. Don't bore the audience.
6) Jump in if there's "dead air."
7) Wait for director's signal at the end of performance.
Radio Direction “Sign Language”
1) “Wait.” Open hand.
2) “5-4-3---” Finger count down.
3) “You're on.” Pointing finger.
4) "Faster" Rapid finger circling--like dialing a
phone sideways. "Come on!"
5) “Stretch it out.” Pulling taffy.
6) “Wrap it up.” Finger draws circles.
7) “Louder.” Pull ear.
8) “Quieter.” Finger to lip ("Shhhh"-style)
9) “Cut.” Finger slits throat.
10) “Come in” or “Back off” microphone.
A cue rehearsal is used to learn the story, correct
delivery and pronunciation and coordinate the dialogue,
music and sound effects. It can run slow and sometimes stop,
as cast and crew repeat portions of the script until they
get the cues “right.” Here the
unique radio script
format is especially useful. Every cue for dialogue,
music and sound is numbered and the numbers begin again with
each new page of the script. When the director wants the
cast and crew to return to a certain cue, he can just say
"Page 7, cue #3" and everybody will know just where to go.
As an actor or SFX artist is doing their cue, I often give
direction on how to deliver a line ("faster" or "angrier")
or produce an effect ("bigger" or "longer"). I often have
actors or SFX deliberately step on each other's cues (where
possible) to give it a more life-like feel.
If technically possible, I wear headphones for the cue
rehearsal and broadcast, so I can also monitor how loud the
dialogue, music and sound effects are in relation to each
other. When recording or broadcasting live, due to feedback
fears, the actors and SFX artists often aren't permitted to
hear the music cues during the live performance. With
headphones on, I can more accurately time when to cue
During rehearsal, I'll constantly be looking to the
Engineer and Sound Effects Chief to coordinate cues.
Everybody has a script in front of them, but like an
orchestra conductor, the director sets the pace and puts
emphasis where it is needed. My own personal style is to
conduct with wild hand gestures punctuating the dialogue I
want emphasized and shaking towards the sound effects
artists to get more out of them. It's been developed out of
necessity when working with amateur actors and SFX artists.
Old time radio veterans get a big kick out my histrionics
and I think it adds to the vigor of the performance of the
cast and crew. Radio should never be boring and this lends
an unseen visual component to my productions.
I work the actors and crew through the script, learning
the story as we go. In workshops with amateurs, the one cue
rehearsal we have time for is usually terrible--sloppy
cues, slow delivery, lack of excitement. No one can believe
the program is going to sound good when performed live, but
the practice pays off. In the golden days of radio, they
would spend 3 hours rehearsing a
15 minute show and they were professionals--just the
same, many shows had stars reading their lines "cold" on
air! Orson Welles would have somebody else read his lines in
rehearsal and then do the live performance himself, which
added a freshness to everybody's performance, but that was a
special skill. I do about 25 minutes of rehearsal for a 15
minute program. And then play a trick on everybody for the
As soon as the cue rehearsal is completed, we reset all
music and sound effects cues and prepare for the broadcast.
It is at this time that I tell the cast and crew about the
"old speed trick" of radio drama. I tell everybody to do the
show faster, to add zing to their delivery. In fact I tell
them to do it just a shade too fast. I say I want
the listener to be a little confused about what's going
on, so they have to lean in toward their radio to "see"
what's happening. If you pace the show just a bit faster
than it should be, the listener won't have time to figure
out where the plot is going, which will prevent you from
boring them and getting the dreaded "tune out."
During the live performance, I can't speak to cast and
crew, but continue my frantic pantomime in front of the
actors. I also contribute to the "Walla Walla" sounds (the
background mumbling used for crowd scenes). I'm ever-ready
to jump in if somebody misses a dialogue cue or prod the
actors along if a sound effects cue is missed. At the very
end of the performance, after the engineer has faded out all
the microphones, I heartily applaud the cast and crew for a
job well done--and it usually is. The difference between cue
rehearsal and live performance is never less than
astounding. Something happens in the time between the
two--the production gains confidence and has fun.
Directing radio drama is much more involving and
satisfying than the remote control directing of theater and
film. Since you are "on-stage" with your performers, you can
shape the production in a much more hands-on fashion. Radio
is an exciting medium to work in, limited only by your
imagination and energy. It's also a great deal of fun.
If you look at old pictures of radio listeners, you'll
note that many of them are clustered around a radio to hear
the show. In fact, they are often staring at the
radio. This may seem ridiculous because there's nothing to
see, but what they were doing was
focusing on the
drama--mentally building the sets and filling the stage and
applying makeup to go along with the sound. And after years
of playing back audio dramas to live audiences--either
workshop participants or just a crowd hearing a famous
show--I've noticed that you need to provide them with a
visual focus when listening--otherwise they have trouble
following the story. If the eye wanders, the mind follows.
Don't discount the visual when working with sound.
Radio drama is an intimate experience. It works well with
small groups of listeners in a small place--like a living
room, kitchen, or inside a car. Driving a car is the perfect
place to listen to radio drama--the driver is watching the
road, but not allowed to wander and so they're able to focus
their ears and attention on the audio. So, if you must play
back your show to a large group of people, give them
something to look at--an old radio or a still photo or the
actors assembled on stage in chairs. It doesn't seem to make
sense, but it does.