Starting a Radio Play 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.
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.
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 offeradvice about scoring for radio. Those pages will
also aid troupes using pre-recorded music cues.
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.)
(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.
(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
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.
Finding Radio Play 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 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.
(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 was 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 was recorded in front of a live audience. They sold tickets ($30-$50) that funded the production of their shows and then sold 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.
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.
(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
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
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
Directing Radio Plays
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 "Sparx" 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.