The Ghastly Impermanence: Radio Silence, Observe

Photo by Jack Sloop via Unsplash. CC0/Public domain.

When COVID came to town, I was in a theater.

Appropriately perhaps, I stood in the lobby of a production of Michael Gene Sullivan’s stage adaptation of 1984. The anxious energy crackling in the air of that lobby and the murmurations of pure fear bordered on the neurotic. Everyone knew the governor’s announcement was coming, and that, like some faraway foreign nation, America was about to go into lockdown.

Everyone wondered what would become of us. More particularly, they wondered what would become of theater, with every public space shuttered and people forced to stay indoors. Stagehands and actors, producers and viewers — all felt they were about to lose something dear.

Being the optimist I am, I said to one of the actors that night, “Seems like a good opportunity for radio drama.” He smiled knowingly, then went back to fretting about stage work.

The next two years in Seattle brought more people worried about the death of theater. But they had a clever solution: Zoom readings of stage plays! And so because I’m an idiot I subjected myself to over a dozen incredibly wack readings of plays that belonged on a stage rather than in my ears. Every single flaw of modern acting and modern dramaturgy glared from my screen or my iPod, amplified because there were no physical actions in space or social milieu to distract. Actors couldn’t simply resort to their bag of tricks. The qualities that make radio drama uniquely strong revealed the fundamental weakness of our modern stage. Once again, I repeated to people that they should really consider scripts written for audio broadcast.

It’s been three years now. Stages are opening again. Not one person took me up on my call, even actors who had “done voiceover.” Why not just take the extra step? One could argue that actors weren’t getting paid to do audio drama, but it’s just as true they weren’t getting paid to be on a stage either. Furthermore there are dozens of audio dramas recorded with actors never being in the same room. Actors could easily record their parts and send them into the director at their own leisure. But they couldn’t be bothered to do that either.

After three years, I’ve finally stayed silent long enough.

It’s been awhile since I wrote about radio drama. Which doesn’t mean I’ve been idle. I’ve conducted a few interviews on the subject, and I’ve helped assemble a couple of distros of Canadian radio dramas, helped out a couple of groups with their Creative Commons licensed work, and even recorded a couple radio dramas myself.

Obviously I haven’t given up. But I’m even less inclined now to put up with nonsense. I’m looking for drama, that thing that extends throughout the history of the world, with its roots in poetry and performance. I’m looking for actors to rise above the trivial, and for producers to stop relying on trite genre pieces for fanboys as the only source of drama. I’m not looking for TV tropes or too-lazy-and-poor-to-make-a-movie material. I don’t give a damn about OTR nerds with their precious inviolability and tribal elitism, and I sure as hell don’t care about what’s popular among their peers. Equally, I’m not looking to make popular or promote anything, because I’m not a marketer.

You may bristle at my harshness. Feel free to ignore me and go read Sam McDonald’s Audiophile reviews instead. Sam is an excellent writer with much more interest in genre fiction than I will ever have. From where I stand now, I think it remains necessary to scrape away some of the patina on all this fourth-generation OTR-derived genre fiction to find the silver again. The bristles I give you are a tool for just such a task.

As I see it right now, the contemporary world of audio drama is kept alive in my country almost exclusively by amateurs, while actors and directors who consider themselves “serious artists” consider it completely beneath them. This unbalances the field and harms both.

Yet I can turn on RTÉ and hear Emmy-winning, Tony-winning, BAFTA-winning actors like Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Rea, Marie Mullen — even Vanessa goddamn Redgrave. They do not consider radio drama beneath them, and they certainly will spare an evening or two for it. Similarly on BBC I can find Christopher Eccleston, Dame Penelope Wilton, Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, Adrian Lester… These actors could do anything they wanted, but they choose to do radio. So how do American actors think they are somehow better?

Samuel Beckett wrote for radio. Harold Pinter got his start in radio. So did Tom Stoppard. So did Martin McDonagh. Ingeborg Bachmann, Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek all wrote heavily for radio. And because you’re undoubtedly thinking that’s all Euro-trash, I can add David Mamet, Rod Serling, Edward Albee, Arthur Kopit and a dozen other Americans. Don’t tell me you’ll do their work on stage but not on radio because somehow the stage is inherently better. The authors didn’t think so, and neither should you.

Meanwhile, amateurs go to work holding the medium together in the absence of professional leadership. But without solid professional models, they are left trying to reinvent the OTR wheel. Amateurs tend to emphasize genre pieces because they’re much easier. The tropes are already there, the structures are there. One simply has to write around them. Because of this OTR emphasis, too, they also tend to regard audio drama as a kind of substitute for television — witness how much of their work is in “seasons.” Every new entry then becomes a massive series, requiring a massive investment from a listener. Why?

In the field of literature, not every work is a novel. Not every poem is an epic. Short stories and short lyrics hold their own, and have the same status as longer works. Even short plays get produced routinely in theaters, especially in festivals. Why then is this not true of audio drama? The field is so tilted, even a 90 minute radio play would be considered a short work these days.

Because of this lack of short work, skilled actors and directors wind up avoiding audio drama for the same reason listeners do: the investment of time and energy is simply too great. Where one might convince an actor to do a 45 minute radio play that takes three days total to read and record, telling one that they’re required for an indefinite amount of time for an indefinite amount of episodes that may or may not end and will take them certainly away from other paying work — this will make them balk. And rightfully.

I’m not naive enough to think that casting big stars or even seasoned veteran pros in audio productions will magically revive the medium. I’ve heard Homecoming. I’ve heard Bronzeville. It takes more than that. But giving professional actors more choices than just another genre piece would be an improvement. As another critic of radio drama once wrote, amateurs do not do drama very well. So don’t ask them to. Ask the pros whose bread and butter comprises such things.

There’s a much more healthy symbiotic relationship to be explored between amateurs and professionals. Amateurs have superior passion for the medium: the numbers bear this out. Professionals offer a much greater diversity of skills and materials. With two and a half years of quarantine to plan it all, professional actors and talent could have kickstarted all these projects and investigations. Surely there were hundreds of writers who could have written 15 minute dramas over the past three years. Instead, they sat on their thumbs and decided reading Shakespeare aloud was sufficient. Meanwhile, the revivification of audio drama is still waiting.

Categories Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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