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Last updated: October 30, 2018

Directing Radio Plays - Part 2

 My advice to a first time director on how I direct radio drama.  This is from a post to the (now defunct) RadioDrama e-mail discussion list.

From: Tony "Sparx" Palermo
To: Radio Drama List

Subject:  First Timer Directing Radio Drama

Peter asked for some advice on directing radio in the OTR (Old Time Radio) style, which happens to be my specialty. I've worked with amateurs and professionals--and that mix of both that is community theater. It's not too tough if you're well prepared. I happen to have much more detailed info on how I direct these groups at my Radio Drama Resources website.
See especially my page about how to prepare scripts for production and the section on the nuts and bolts of production.

Aside from that, I can offer this specific advice:


Work quickly. Amateurs lose much of their energy after a few hours. For a 25 minute show, I generally take 2.5 hours from walk-in-the-door to finished recording--a bit longer if I need to do lots of "pick ups"--re-recording flubbed lines or cues. Don't over-rehearse. You'll tire them out and believe me, you will hear the difference. I do ONE full rehearsal and then go live.

Set up a "craft service" table with fruit and cookies and plenty of water. A hungry crew is an grumbly crew. Make it a party.


Your casting will be extremely important. I usually prepare short monologues of five characters--a total of two pages in radio script style. These give background to the story and characters and may include some key lines.

Here's an example:

DOÑA TERESA:         Hola! I am Señorita Doña Teresa de Olivar, the 21

                     year-old daughter of the Governor of Panama. I am

                     on my first voyage to the New World when our ship is

                     captured by pirates! I befriend the capitán, who

                     permits me do what I like best--exploring. However,

                     my curiosity gets me into trouble, but I do "survive"...

                     in a manner of speaking. (PAUSE) You will see!

I hand these out and give the actors 10 minutes to look them over. I encourage them to practice reading aloud--try out different voices, etc.

For the auditions, I let them choose whichever monologue they want to try. I listen for diction, character, accent, attitude. I may direct them right there; "Play it older, more gruff, nastier, etc." I "grade" them A-to-F and keep an eye on my list of all the character names in the script. I've already decided which roles could be combined if I have a small cast--namely those who aren't in the same scenes together and aren't the principal characters. I decide NOW who will play what role. I
parcel out the biggest roles to the best auditioners and fill in the rest with the merely good or competent. Casting makes or breaks your production.

The Actor's Rehearsal:

Then I DELAY announcing who's been casting in which roles. Instead, I get everybody together and TELL them the story of the play. They'll all pay attention to the entire story since they don't know which part they're getting. Lately I've begun telling the story with a CD of the score playing certain cues as I get to that part of the story--it really communicates the feel of the show.

Then I announce the casting and hand out scripts where the actors lines are already marked up by highlighter pens (use pink or green, they show up best in dimly lit studios).

I DO NOT do a traditional "table read." Instead, I have them read through ONLY their own highlighted lines. I ask them to read their lines aloud several times, adding what emphasis they can glean from the lines themselves. My scripts use lots of underlining and I write dialogue that's easy to read aloud--meaning I avoid twisty syntax and tricky phrasing. Then while everybody is working on the mechanics of delivery, I huddle with each actor and give them direction on who the character
is, what attitude, etc. I'll even give them pointers on accent and speed.

The Cue Rehearsal:

After 15 minutes of this solo-rehearsing, I assemble cast and crew (I usually have 3-5 SFX artists because I work entirely with live manual SFX) and begin a full cue rehearsal--with all music, SFX and dialogue.

I direct "on the floor" standing directly opposite my cast. We work through the entire script, cue by cue, at a reasonable speed. I correct pronunciations and coordinate SFX, music and dialogue. If there are rough voice, have the actors just try them out, then use a normal voice for the rest. They can easily blow out their vocal chords in rehearsal doing a gruff accent--save it for the real show.

My website pages on directing radio plays explain the OTR method of using "Q" marks on scripts to signal cast and crew to wait for my specific instruction to begin a line or sound. As needed, I go back over tricky cues and make suggestions regarding tone and delivery.

If you have real-time music (live or from a CD) have it play along so the actors can hear it during rehearsal--it puts them in the mood. For a 25 minute play, I'll do about 30-35 minutes of rehearsal. That's it. Please note that these rehearsals usually sound terrible! They lack energy and are tentative performances, but after all, everyone is just learning the play at this point. Don't worry, though.

The Performance:

Just before we begin, I ask everyone to play it "just a little too fast"--to add some extra energy. Then we begin. Usually the only people with headphones are myself, the SFX chief, and the engineer. During the performance, I am still on the floor, directing silently via wild gestures--mostly "You're on," "speed it up," "stretch it out," "closer" and "cut."

I actually "conduct" the cast and crew as if they were an orchestra. I set the tempo for the performance--speeding up or slowing things down. I sway to the music cues they can't hear. I also contribute and lead any background crowd noise (walla walla atmosphere). At the end of the broadcast or recording, I wait for the engineer to fade out completely and then lead a hearty round of applause for the cast and crew. They're usually thrilled and for good reason--The performance is markedly better than the rehearsal could have promised.


I have the cast and crew listen to a playback immediately, en masse. It reproduces the theatrical audience feeling and allows them to enjoy themselves together. This builds solidarity among the company.

If this is for a recording (instead of live audience or broadcast) we'll do pick ups. While listening to the playback, I read along in a clean script and note flubbed lines or cues that need re-recording. Then we record any pickup lines or sound effects cues as needed. These are also played back and corrected if necessary.

I'm certain the many other radio drama listers have their own personal production style. I can only tell you what has worked for me. The more you do it, the more you can refine your own method. You'll be fine.

As we say in radio, "Break a lip."

TONY PALERMO is a radio playwright, professional sound effects artist, radio director, composer, and educator based in Los Angeles, California.

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