by GARY FERRINGTON
Listen with your eyes closed to the soundscape that surrounds you. What do you hear and what do you imagine within the theater of your mind? Are those the footsteps of an approaching mugger? Who is inserting a key in the front door? That sound of crashing plates — an accident or domestic fight?
Radio theater encourages you, the listener, to create your own images of the characters and sounds you hear as they perform radio classics from the past.
When the Eugene repertory theater group Radio Redux brings its production of It Happened One Night to the Hult Center’s Soreng stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 8, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 10, it will transport theater goers back to a time when radio broadcasters of the 1930s-’50s performed “live” drama before a studio audience. And instead of watching former Oregonian Clark Gable chase Claudette Colbert in the Academy Award winning 1934 film version of the story, they’ll create the images in their own minds.
As a resident company of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Radio Redux has been recreating the Golden Age of live radio drama since 2009. Former Register Guard Arts Editor Fred Crafts founded Radio Redux “to celebrate radio’s rich history, revive its most-memorable moments, preserve its unique art form, and introduce its wonders to new audiences,” according to the company’s web page.
Radio drama has never ceased as an art form even though the commercial networks have long moved on to recorded music and news formats. Today’s Internet provides not only repeats of classic radio drama from the Golden Age, but also new audio drama such as that produced by the ZBS Foundation, and other organizations, distributed by disc recordings or online streaming.
Radio plays performed before an audience are less frequently available. The Portland based Willamette Radio Workshop offers original material as well as classic radio shows produced in the studio and at times, before a live audience. And, from time to time, a theater group, such as Ashland’s dinner theater, Portland’s Opera Theater Oregon (with Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief), and Hillsboro’s Bag&Baggage Productions may stage a play as if it were a vintage broadcast as in its 2013-2015 Christmas trilogy ( produced It’s a Not-so-Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Miracle on 43rd Street, A Kristmas Karol. Radio Redux is the only Oregon theatre company dedicated only to radio drama and offering an annual season of plays performed before a live audience in a major performing arts center.
Theater goers who have never been to a Radio Redux production are struck by the minimalist stage setting they see upon entering the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater. To one side is a collection of sound effect devices from the golden era of radio drama that reproduce everyday sounds from the roar of thunder (the rattle of a thin metal sheet), gusty wind (a rotating drum of wooden slats against a canvas sheet) doors slamming closed, or footsteps sneaking down a hall. All effects are created by Radio Redux foley artists who use an array of mechanical devices to replicate these sounds as illustrated in a behind the scenes video of an earlier performance.
At center stage stands an array of microphones and seats for the voice actors who may portray more than one character in a play. The actors do much more than just read their scripts; for example, if a character has just been chased down the street, the voice actor must sound breathless although he/she is simply standing before a microphone.
Live music, performed by a soloist or small ensemble, is used to underscore the emotional feeling in a scene, or to transition from one scene to the next. Radio Redux’s the Jewel Tones often provide pre-show vocal entertainment with songs of the era as well as the music for comical “commercial breaks” that, using the style of the LUX soap pitches popular at the time, are sometimes open to two interpretations, wink, wink.
The goal is to help an individual listener create a scene within his/her mind through what is heard. Audience members are encouraged to close their eyes and listen and imagine the unfolding story be it out in the countryside, on a busy urban street, or in an office. How a given scene and its actors “look” is up to the individual listener given there are not on-stage sets (although actors dress in the fashion of the period). Given that such imagery is based upon one’s own life experiences no two listeners envision a scene the same way – unlike movies and television which present all the details down to what what color an actor’s tie might be.
Audiences will have the opportunity to enjoy a “theater for the mind” experience when Radio Redux stages its next radio adaptation of It Happened One Night, the delightful screwball romantic comedy about self-absorbed heiress Ellie Andrews, who, newly engaged to rakish pilot and fortune-hunter King Westley, runs away from her extremely wealthy father after he orders her to stay away from Westley. Peter Warne, an out-of-work newspaper reporter played in the movie by Clark Gable, recognizes Ellie on a Greyhound bus and gives her an ultimatum: If she will give him an exclusive on her story, he will help her escape her father’s grasp so she can reunite with Westley. Though initially they can’t stand each other (she’s spoiled, he’s a lout), as Ellie and Peter go through several adventures together they begin to fall in love.
“We’re excited to revive what’s arguably the greatest screwball comedy in film history not just because it’s a lot of fun but because it represents a significant genre that’s rarely experienced anymore,” notes Fred Crafts in a posting by Radio Redux. “It’s a dynamite road trip adventure, loaded with steamy romance — for the 1930s, that is — and close calls. It’s a ‘will-they, won’t-they’ potboiler.”
The cast features Shirley Andress as Ellie Andrews and Steve Wehmeier as Peter Warne, and includes Bill Barrett, Achilles Massahos, Kim Donahey, Stanley Coleman, Al Villanueva, Don Aday, Cameron Walker and Jennifer Sellers. Sound effects artists for the show are Emerson Malone and Cameron Walker. Musical commercials and bridges are by the Jewel Tones.
Audiences for Radio Redux have grown with the company’s move to the Hult Center and shows are frequently filled to near capacity. Given it has been well over 60 years since the golden age of radio, few audience members can remember gathering around the family radio to listen. Audiences are asked if they are new to radio theater performances and most raise their hands. For many, the idea of listening to and not seeing a play being performed is a new experience. Given the number of returning patrons, also polled at each show, that new/old experience brings them back.
Radio Redux began productions at the Wildish Theater in Springfield in 2009 when the company performed The War of the Worlds, Maltese Falcon, Radio Daze, and Stage Coach. The 2014-2015 season brought the company to Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts as a new resident company, staging Arsenic and Old Lace, It’s A Wonderful Life, Casablanca, Lost Horizon, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The 2015-2016 schedule included The Thin Man, Miracle on 34th Street, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the upcoming It Happened One Night and in May, Radio Daze.
Radio Redux performs It Happened One Night at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 8, and 2 p.m. Sunday, April 10. Tickets, starting at $18, are available at the Hult Center box office (in person or by phone at 541-682-5000) or at radioreduxusa.com
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.
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