The Playgoer: Radio Drama

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Radio Drama

In case you missed it Friday, June Thomas rounded out her terrific weeklong Slate journal on London theatre with, among other highlights, a glimpse of the still-lively art of radio drama there.

Radio 4, the BBC's main spoken-word network, pumps out about 15 hours of drama every week—a 45-minute play every weekday, hourlong plays every Friday and Saturday, serial dramas and book serializations, and The Archers, a daily soap opera that has been on the air since 1950. The week that I listened to The Afternoon Play, I was astonished by the big-name actors who participated—Brian Cox, Patricia Routledge, Tom Courtenay, to name just a few.

What were these big stars doing on the wireless? "I think a lot of actors are really pleased to do radio," Jeremy Howe, Radio 4's commissioning editor for drama, told me when we met at Broadcasting House. "It's not like filming, which takes a long time and is a very tense-making process. Filming is very exposing, as is being on the stage. You rehearse a stage play for five weeks or so, and then you do it night in and night out—it's a big commitment." On the other hand, he noted, "Radio is a very easy medium for actors—and a great medium as long as you're a good reader. You don't have to learn your lines, and it's good fun." It takes a day or two to record a 45-minute play, and actors can schedule the work around theater, television, or other commitments.

I was also surprised by some of the subject matter. One play touched on abortion, prostitution, dysfunctional family relationships, and brain disease—all in just 45 minutes! It wouldn't have been shocking on stage or in a late-night spot on television, but at 2:15 in the afternoon on national radio? For Howe, it's just part of the BBC's mandate: "We're a public-service broadcaster. We like to tell stories. We like to challenge our audience. Our audience likes to be challenged."

"In the past, writers like Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter made their debuts as writers on the radio," Howe continues, a mite boastfully. "What's exciting about radio is that you can't see anything, so it's all in the world of the imagination. To be a good radio writer, you need to be imaginative. If film is about structure, radio is about words. Production is quite minimal, so there's precious little between the writer's words and what the audience hears. There's an intimacy about radio drama: The audience have to bring a lot to it, so it lodges in the imagination."

June also calls our attention to some home grown theatre radio--but just interviews, not plays. And not radio, but podcasts. "Downstage Center" is available through American Theatre Wing's site or via iTunes, unbelievably.


Anonymous said...

Anyone, anywhere can listen to BBC Radio 4's radio plays, etc, streamed online for 7 days after they are broadcast:

BBC Radio 3 has less choice, but are currently offering Genet's The Maids & Ibsen's The Pretenders is up next:

As well as new writing (try The Wire or The View):

And the BBC is testing out a download & podcast facility

freespeechlover said...

I was at the same show as June Thomas. I am going through the same feelings I had evening of the Rachel Corrie "counter-event" at the Riverside Church.

I ran into a Palestinian American artist there and told her of a number of events in the city that week related to Palestinians. She looked at me and said, "Is the world coming to an end?" I looked back and said, "I don't know." Then she said, "I mean Maya Angelou and Patti Smith on videotape?" I looked at her and said, "Well, now that they're all in their little reservations maybe it's actually possible to express some public concern about censorship in America over this issue."

I had a similar reaction to Thomas, where I felt like I had to eat humble pie after watching the production. A young man next to me said Megan Dodds' performance was "arresting."

PeonInChief said...

Freespeechlover, I was wondering whether you'd seen MNiRC and whether you'd liked it. And why did you feel you had to eat humble pie?

freespeechlover said...

peoninchief, I did see MNIRC in London, the Sunday matinee that June Thomas happened to be at. It's hard for me to judge as a piece of theater, because I'm not a dramaturg but an academic. Also, I saw it post all of this discourse about it, and that no doubt influenced me, although how I'm not entirely sure.

I thought it was an interesting production, mainly because Megan Dodds was "quite arresting," as the guy next to me put it. As I listened, and I do think this production, has a particular sensorium that tilts heaviliy toward the aural (maybe all theater from the stage does--like I say, I'm an amateur), one thing that struck me was Rachel's sense of irony. Dodds could have played that up more, but it came through, at least to me, so I found myself tittering a lot, although I noticed others were silent.

The production is all about Rachel's "voice," and Corrie is not canonized at all. No only is this not agitprop, but it's hard to see it was "anti-Israeli," since it's about Corrie and her point of view.

It's a very American voice, even a very north west coast young person's voice. I said I had to eat humble piece, because this is the thing that has struck me from the moment this brouhaha started--Corrie turned out to be a better writer with a distinctive "voice" in ways that I didn't imagine. And Dodds really makes that voice come alive on the stage.

I think it would be too much to call it the Greatest Story Ever Told or the greatest piece of theater since Shakespeare, but it is "arresting." It made me stop and think about many things--about young people who I teach and young women in particular, about Gaza, about my own memories which are painful about what I witnessed. Yes, the production made me uncomfortable, particularly the vast silence that happens after the lights go down. That was difficult.

I think I might not have included the videotape of Rachel making a speech as a child that they put up at the end, because I think it would have been more powerful with less narrative closure. But that's probably because I've been to Palestine and think that Americans in particular should be hit over the head about what's happening there--also the production was created before people were literally starving as they are today.

If I can tell you anything else, let me know, but I think you have to see it for yourself, as I imagine that people bring different kinds of experiences, background, expectations, etc. to any cultural production.

PeonInChief said...

Thank you, freespeechlover. I don't think that anyone expected, though, that MNiRC was going to be the greatest play ever written. Indeed, as someone who destroyed the diaries of her youth (and poetry as well, a service to literature for which I deserves a Nobel prize), I wonder whether Rachel Corrie would ever have wanted a play constructed from the musings of her 15-year-old self.

If I may impose on you for one further comment: do you think that MNiRC would have much to say to American young people who don't come from elite backgrounds? Many of the young people I work with are much more concerned with immigration, housing and educational equity issues than with Israel/Palestine. (They liked the HBO movie, Walkout, which may be much more relevant to them than Rachel Corrie. Yeah. I know. HBO. Go figure.)

freespeechlover said...

Good question peoninchief. I suspect that My Name is Rachel Corrie will appeal to college students who are interested in anti-war activism more than immigration or other issues. When I saw the film in London a young woman overheard me talking to someone about the brouhaha in NY about it. This young woman started talking to me about it and said she had wanted to see it at the Royal Court Theater when it first came out but couldn't do to being busy studying, so she saw it at the West End. She loved it, and she thought it wasn't really about Israel/Palestine but about Rachel Corrie. She was white and probably middle class.

I actually liked the film, Walkout, and encouraged Latino students to watch it during the big demonstrations. Yes, it's HBO but teaching seems to me about just these kind of compromises that I wrack my brain over to figure out.

PeonInChief said...

Thanks, freespeechlover. One of the interesting things about cable television (are we allowed to mention such on a theater blog?) is that there are so many channels that the cable companies are desperate for content and will take anything that might appeal to a niche market. That's why, should you be so inclined, you can watch curling matches or international archery competitions.

But it also means that the cable producers are looking for content that might appeal to, say, those of us who listen to Democracy Now. I can listen to Democracy Now on two radio stations or watch it on our community cable channel. If I had more than the very basic cable, I could probably watch it five times a day. Any decently produced content con find a home somewhere. But the curling finals may get more viewers.

freespeechlover said...

peoninchief, after the Rachel Corrie fiasco and the way this blog took up issues of speech, I think it is only fitting that we can talk about whatever we want here.

I have the same reaction to cable t.v. you have. It includes everything from c-span, which has some amazing programs on it--things that don't belong at all to the cultural environment of the Bush administration-cum-we-better-self-censor-because-we-are-at-war, blah blah blah-paul that I think has gripped the nation--and curling finals. The problem of which niches "count" and for what in terms of the overall cultural environment is a very interesting marketing one for progressive media, culture, and politics for that matter--how does Democracy Now! expand its market and thus audience? How do different progressive niches articulate with each other is a question that I've been thinking about in relationship to the Palestinian question. But I know nothing about marketing, except how to imagine certain problems.