Families no longer gather around the radio for the latest installment of “The Twilight Zone” or for a fireside chat. But the Yale Cabaret hopes to prove that radio is still living and thriving in “Live Radio/Vintage Suspense” this weekend.
Developed in the 1920s and popularized in the 1940s, radio plays brought audio thrills into the home. Often in the form of one-acts, they incorporated music, sound effects and a recurring cast of actors to tell the stories, many of which hinged on mystery and suspense. A leader of the media movement, Orson Welles adapted many previously-published works for the radio; his version of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” convinced many listeners of impending alien invasion through its use of realistic news-broadcast style.
In the 1950s, however, radio began its period of decline, as the television became a new staple in the American home. Now, the radio dramas of old are confined to specialized podcasts or NPR programming, notably “A Prairie Home Companion.”
“Live Radio” attempts to bring you back to the age of radio by embracing the artificiality of the genre. The performance is comprised of four plays, two having being previously adapted for the radio and two adapted by the director from the short stories of Victor Pelevin. No attempt is made to stage these scripts; actors remain nearly motionless with their scripts in front of a mike, often obscured and barely lit. All focus is on the sounds.
“There’s a dichotomy between what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing,” said director Naomi Okuyama DRA ’07. She equated the sensation to her reaction to meeting NPR’s Ira Glass: “He just doesn’t look like what you would think.”
All of the elements in the production are exposed. The actors, all playing multiple characters, do not alter their postures to fit their huge variations in vocal color. “It’s more like mask work,” Okuyama said. “They’re channeling everything into their voices.”
The dyad between the visual and the audible becomes even more apparent in the appearance of the Foley board, where sound effects are imitated through the use of familiar materials. The technique is named for Jack Foley, who developed many of the traditional sounds artists use and helped produce sounds for movies during the revolution from silents to “talkies.”
In “Live Radio,” the Foley artist is intimately involved as a performer in full view, allowing the audience to see the often-unusual derivations of the sounds. A candy wrapper, a shovel, even a head of lettuce is used; some sounds are literally enacted — a lighter is held in front of a microphone when a character lights a cigarette — while others are more improvised: The sound of change inserted in a pay phone is a coin rolled down a trowel. Okuyama and the cast learned how to make the various sounds from Web sites dedicated to Foley artists as well as through simple trial and error.
Okuyama said this demands more of the audience members, who are “in charge of piecing together the parallel narratives” of sight and sound. They are allowed to make up their own story, because each audience member can control which elements of the production they see, from pure sound narrative to complete visual exposure of the artifices that create the sounds. Depending on the unique combination of voice and sound in each experience, the story line emerges with varying degrees of clarity.
Okuyama insists that radio, despite declining listenership, is still important in today’s technologically savvy, cinematically saturated world. So if the synthesized, extravagantly overly-produced sounds of Hollywood blockbusters lack their thrill, maybe you just need to get back to nature. Try some lettuce.