On Sunday, Forward Theater Company hits the airwaves with a production of The 39 Steps, helping to revive the lost art of radio drama.
In fact, Madison has quite a few radio drama performers who continually face the challenge of acting without use of their bodies.
The 39 Steps will be broadcast live during Wisconsin Public Radio's Old Time Radio Drama program, hosted by Norman Gilliland, at 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24. The adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller was first broadcast by Lux Radio Theater on Dec. 13, 1937.
In the heyday of radio drama, from the 1930s through the 1950s, Lux Radio Theater recreated then-current Hollywood hits as audio plays, often with their original stars. Last fall Forward presented a staged reading of Lux's All About Eve. The sold-out stage production included sound effects, incidental music and original commercials for Lux laundry soap.
That's all fun -- but radio drama isn't just nostalgia. For an actor, it's the reverse of pantomime, and it presents unique challenges.
"Focusing on the words is a wonderful reminder for me, in any type of performance, that the words were chosen to convey a specific story," says Michael Herold, who plays the male lead in Forward's upcoming production.
Gilliland performs in After the Fact Mysteries on his radio program, co-starring Stephanie Monday. "For me, if the dialogue is natural and in character, the radio acting comes fairly spontaneously," he says.
For Monday, a thoughtful veteran of many area theater groups, "our task is to see the world the writer has created in our own minds. I think this is the true secret of being a successful actor in a radio drama: Helping our audience to 'see' what we see, auditorily."
Monday reads her radio scripts repeatedly, "to determine the main idea of the writer, and the flow of the action. I then choose what I believe are the operative words and phrases within the script, and add color to them. By this I mean that -- through clarity of intent and articulation -- I will emphasize a word or phrase, increase or slow down the delivery of a word or phrase, and/or give added energy or 'pop' to a word or phrase, etc."
Madison has a theater company dedicated solely to recreating classic radio drama. The Radio Active! troupe was formed in 1998. It performs before a variety of live audiences, besides meeting informally and socially for read-throughs.
Christian Neuhaus is an area playwright who has worked with Mercury Players Theatre. He also performs with Radio Active! "With radio acting you're storytelling through dialogue, using your voice to create a mental image in the listener as well as convey emotion," he says. "You have to choreograph your words, being deliberate about rhythm, variations in pitch, what words to emphasize. Everything has to be bigger than it would be in a conversation where you can rely on visual cues."
However, "I don't think there really is a difference between radio acting and stage acting," says Forward's 39 Steps director Colleen Burns. "But I do think that radio work requires some skills that aren't necessarily second nature to the stage actor. Oddly enough, not all actors are good readers. They do better once a piece is memorized. Most radio actors have developed the skill of good reading."
Gilliland presents two different Old Time Radio Drama anthologies each weekend, from 8 to 11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (in the Madison area on WHA-AM (970), WHAD-FM (90.7) FM and W215AQ-FM (90.9).