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Theaters Return To An Old Art Form — The Radio Drama — With A Twist

American actor, producer and director Orson Welles speaks into a microphone during a broadcast of his CBS radio program 'First Person Singular' circa 1938.
Hulton Archive
Getty Images
American actor, producer and director Orson Welles speaks into a microphone during a broadcast of his CBS radio program 'First Person Singular' circa 1938.

As theaters across the world have closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, they've scrambled to find ways get work to the public.

Some have made archival video of productions available, some have created Zoom plays and some have returned to an old art form — radio drama — but with a digital twist.

In the 1930s, with many people out of work, families huddled around radio receivers to listen to audio plays, like Orson Welles' famous broadcast, War of the Worlds.

"Orson Welles began his career as a theater actor and director," says Adam Greenfield, artistic director for New York's Playwrights Horizons. "And I think he's able to really utilize the full potential of what audio can do."

Taking cues from Welles' success, Greenfield commissioned a new series of audio plays for podcast called Soundstage. He planned to release them this summer, when the theater was dark, but because of the pandemic he hustled them online.

The first podcast released was Prime: A Practical Breviary by songwriter and performer Heather Christian. It's based on the 6:00 a.m. rite, or breviary, of solo contemplation for nuns and monks.

"They live their entire lives devoted to contemplation on certain mysteries of existence or questions of how to be," Christian says.

And even though she recorded the piece in January 2019, it seems to speak to our present moment. "I feel like we are all bombarded with information," Christian says. "But none of it feels right anymore ... facts [don't] carry weight anymore. And this for me, personally, has driven me nuts."

While Mandy Greenfield, who runs the Williamstown Theatre Festival (and is no relation to Adam), was sheltering-in-place, she listened to podcasts.

"I was escaping into putting in those earbuds and turning on something that took me far away. Felt human. Felt immediate. But also engaged my imagination. I mean, that's the beauty of audio. And I think that that's the synergy with theater," she says.

With this summer's season cancelled, Greenfield had the idea of taking the seven plays that had been scheduled and turning them into audio dramas. So, she's in the process of working with Audible to do just that.

Acclaimed British playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn, who is 81, got his start as a radio producer — and does the sound design for all his stage works. So, when his theater, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, shut down, he took an unproduced play, Anno Domino, and made it into an audio drama, which is now available online.

"The theatres are trying to reinvent themselves, really, and are attempting to raise their voices and say, 'We are still here, we are still here. We can give you something'," Ayckbourn says.

He and his wife, actress Heather Stoney, recorded the play themselves in their home studio. It has eight different roles, from teens to octogenarians, and Ayckbourn and Stoney play all the parts.

"Thanks to the brilliance of Alan's editing, it managed to make a kind of sense, but I did find it very tricky, because obviously you record one character – the voice, the lines – and then you record the other character," Stoney says. "So, it's quite difficult to be at the same level of either fury or happiness or whatever, at the same time."

Stoney and Ayckbourn, as well as the other writers and producers, don't see audio theater as a long-term solution. And all of them are waiting for the time when their theaters are no longer closed.

"That has left a very big hole in my life," Ayckbourn says. "And I'm carrying on writing, because writing is a solitary and selfish craft. But I can't wait to run into a room with my new toy under my arm — my play — and share it with a few people. So, it's a curious time and it will get curiouser."

Tom Cole edited this story for radio; Meghan Sullivan adapted it for digital.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.