Mike Russell writes and draws one of the best columns in the Oregonian newspaper, Culture Pulp. It is a comic and man on the street style column that chronicles the arts and events in Portland that make us one of the most livable cities. Well Mike ran into us at McMenamins Kennedy School doing our annual Hobbit reading and we made the cut and so, the funny papers. This fulfills a life long dream of mine and several other members of the Workshop. Mike was kind enough to let us post a portion of it on our site, but do check out his site and find his cartoons as well as excellent movie reviews (We are number 57). There is a wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth piece, not to be missed, that is both. Thanks Mike and see you next year!
(from the June, 2004 issue of Horizon Air magazine)
by Kim Cooper Findling
The costumes are wonderful: a radiant pink is outfit, complete with a silver-tipped magic wand; a black robe and face paint for a ghoul; a dazzling green, child-size frog tunic. But only members of the audience are wearing them.
The actors are dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Clutching scripts, they stand at the end of the gymnasium that’s been designated “the stage.”
A small pile of objects–including a bell, a balloon and a large sheet of metal–lies to the side.
The people around me chat excitedly as they settle into their seats. What have we all come to see? Well, nothing, technically. Hearing is the emphasized sense this evening. Tonight–for Halloween–Willamette Radio Workshop is presenting A Murder of Crows. We, the audience, will witness a live taping of a theatrical experience intended primarily for the ears.
Sam Mowry, director of the Willamette Radio Workshop, steps forward to one of the dozen microphone stands. “It was a perfect night for a murder of crows,” he says, in a voice so deep and sensuously scary that a chill runs down my spine to my toes. His voice slips from lush and rich to raspy and guttural, his words sliding into and around each other, the vowels trilling, the sounds so taunting and tempting that I am lulled, drawn forward–so enticed that I barely comprehend his words until, finally, this comes through:
“We will be trying to scare you.”
Whether or not I want to be scared is irrelevant at this point. I am hooked. I must keep listening. And it appears that I am not the only one. The 200-person crowd stays entranced–even the youngest, a child of about 5– through Crows and three other quarter-hour-long plays: one about a gargoyle that comes to life; one about a cell phone that slurps up listeners and deposits them in hell; one about a mother who eats her daughter’s boyfriend for dinner.
A Classic Form, Reborn
This is contemporary audio drama. Some people have fond memories of curling up near the radio in a state of tense, rapt attention while listening to a favorite show.Â Others have never heard a radio drama. Now, fans from way-back-when are discovering, to their delight, that audio drama is experiencing a renaissance, while people who were unfamiliar with the genre are becoming a new generation of fans. That’s because the allure of the art form has not changed, although delivery channels and range of subject matter have.
Radio drama was born in the 1920s,shortly after the first commercial radio stations hit the airwaves. For several decades,the medium dominated mainstream American entertainment. In the comfort of their homes, without donning any special attire or paying for a ticket, listeners could turn themselves over to the appeal of a good story. Westerns, mysteries,comedy, horror–no matter the subject,the exchange was simple: Writers and actors, via radio waves, would provide words, a plot and a sound effect or two,and listeners would provide their attention and the power of their imaginations.
But technology continued to march forward. Today, when aficionados contemplate the demise that ultimately befell radio drama, most point to the same culprit: television. Audiences, thrilled to have visual to go with the audio, turned to the TV, and radio dramas all but vanished from the entertainment scene–until recently.
“In the last 10 years, there’s been a real resurgence in audio drama,” says Mowry from Willamette Radio Workshop, one of the numerous West Coast groups producing audio theater. WRW, based in Portland, Oregon, was created three years ago after a writer placed a notice in the Auditions section of The Oregonian inviting people interested in audio theater to meet. Actors, writers and technology junkies all responded, and WRW was born.
Across the country, new audio drama companies are popping up almost monthly. The number of active audio theater companies in the United States is at least 134, and growing, according to radio-theater playwright and enthusiast Erik Deckers, who keeps an updated list on his Website, www.kconline.com/deckers. Some groups consist of a single writer,actor and producer of shows that might air only on the Internet; others are large,professional groups with regular broadcast schedules and CDs for sale.
What’s behind the resurgence? Mowry points to what made radio theater popular in the first place: the voice and the story. “Primal storytelling is at the root of all great entertaining, and that’s what’s at the essence of radio theater–the human voice conveying story and emotion,” he says. “If you’re willing to turn yourself over to it, it’s quite compelling.”
Mowry thinks audio theater is a sort of balm for the flashy nature of other contemporary forms of entertainment. “There’s so much bombardment in popular culture, whereas the human voice has an understated and simple power.”
He also believes that audiences crave interactivity. “Audio theater demands something from the audience. It always asks you to bring something to the table.”
Sue Zizza, executive director of National Audio Theatre Festivals, attributes the resurgence in audio theater to a more practical phenomenon: changing technology. Radio is no longer essential for reaching listeners–which is why the term “radio theater” has largely been replaced by “audio drama” or “audio theater.”
While recordings of various Festivals performances are broadcast on 70 public radio stations, many audio theater companies rarely broadcast on the radio. Instead, they rely on live performances, CDs, cassette tapes or Websites–whose dramas are often downloadable to MP3 players–to reach their audiences. So, ironically, as much as technology contributed to the decline of audio drama, it is now encouraging–and revolutionizing–its return. Not only can producers reach audiences even if a radio station won’t cany their shows, but creating the shows is easier. Recording an audio drama used to require expensive equipment and time-consuming editing. Someone had to slice tape with a razor blade and then splice segments back together. Today, recording equipment is less expensive and of better quality, and professional, relatively easy-to-use audio-editing software can be downloaded from the Web for free.
Production ease and guaranteed means of delivery have not only prompted more people to produce audio dramas,they have promoted creative freedom. Â Individual producers can create what they want, not what a radio station directs them to. And because recording and distribution is easy and inexpensive, audio drama producers feel free to produce a variety of material.
Pagliacci’s Fools, a nonprofit audio drama company in Oakland, California,has produced comedies, mysteries and even erotica. Willamette Radio Workshop’s productions include horror shows and classical-book adaptations–sometimes presented the same night.
“It’s very liberating to be able to do so many different things,” says WRW’s Mowry. “The audience can go from 14th century France to the present day in an hour. A gargoyle and a 20-year-old rock star can both be played by the same actor–who’s actually a 62-year-old bus driver.”
Because of the variety of the delivery media, determining total listener numbers is difficult, but various producers cite growing audiences.
National Audio Theatre Festivals, which receives an average of $10,000 a year from the National Endowment for the Arts,began in 1999 with one week-long festival in Missouri that attracted 200 audience members. Now the organization presents performances all over the country, all yearlong, attracting about 10,000 people to its shows.
Mowry notes that not only is a local radio station broadcasting WRW’s work,but corporate sponsors such as hotel-and-pub owner McMenamins Inc. are paying WRW to present shows. Vini Beachem, who directs Pagliacci’s Fools,points to an average of 1,200 hits a month on the company’s Website,www.foolsradio.com.
While Erik Deckers estimates that radio theater currently makes up 1 percent or less of the billion-dollar audio book market, he says that over the next five to 10 years the industry hopes to cap-ture 10 percent of the market.
The audio theater segment of the market is distinct from other audio products because it consists of works written specifically for audio presentation, or books fully adapted for audio theater, with actors performing parts, and music and sound effects fleshing out the presentations, according to the website www.audiotheater.com.
Mary Beth Roche, president of the audio Publishers Association, says the association does not break out sales for radio dramas, but the market for audio books as a whole has been growing more than 11 percent a year since 1997. A 2002 nationwide study by the Consumer electronics Association determined that approximately 42 million U.S. adults listen to audio books, with 33.5 million of lose adults able to receive audio presentations online.
Customer demand led XM Radio–subscription-based satellite-radio system that is available for at-home or in-car use and offers 100 stations of music, news,talk, traffic reports and entertainment–to add two audio theater channels. Sonic heater and Radio Classics, in 2002. While the company doesn’t release specific listener numbers. Alien Goldberg, XM director of corporate affairs, says audio theater is popular. “These are well-listened-to channels,” he says. “They’re favorites of families, commuters and truckers.”
Building a Fan Base
Another audience settles into chairs, this time at the Kirkland Performance Center in a suburb just east of Seattle. The crowd is mature and conservatively dressed. Â Conversation about the characters who will soon be on stage is quiet but eager. Two shows will be taped tonight: one episode each of The Adventures of Harry Nile, Private Detective and The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Both series were created by Jim French,owner and president of Seattle-based Jim French Productions Inc., whose audio dramas are broadcast nationwide. French steps onto the stage to enthusiastic cheering. He acknowledges the applause and then notes that “editing is easier these days, but human foible hasn’t been eliminated.”
“We may pause if something goes wrong,” he says. “But we won’t have to rewind to tape something over–we have miles and miles of digital tape.”
By things “going wrong,” French apparently means actor slips of tongue and audience gaffes. “We’re not trying to suppress your natural reactions,” he says,”unless they are vulgar or loud.”
The audience laughs and then quiets. The actors take their places on simple folding chairs behind a row of mikes.
French, who created the title “Movies for Your Mind” to describe some of his works, is a pioneer of contemporary audio theater. He was among the first to recognize that there was still potential for audio entertainment, and his productions have been on the air for more than 30 years. They are now broadcast coast to coast on 130 radio stations and on XM Radio.
Many of French’s fans have been fol-lowing Harry Nile since the character first aired in 1976. That series, along with Kincaid The Strangeseeker, Sherlock Holmes and Call Simon Walker, is produced for Imagination Theater, which is syndicated by San Francisco-based TransMedia.
French, long a popular Seattle radio personality, began his career as a radio announcer and talk-show host in 1946,and so has witnessed the changes in radio theater from a front row seat.
He agrees that technology and the nature of modern life have both contributed to the resurgence of audio theater. “Portable CD players make listening to radio drama an option anytime, any-where,” he says. “And more and more people are stuck in their cars and would like something to divert them.”
Interestingly, French believes that radio drama never really disappeared,but instead morphed into commercially viable genres in response to the pressures of television. “We never lost the genre,”he says. “Most radio ads are little tiny radio dramas.”
He has done his part to nudge audio drama back into traditional, and profitable,formats. He syndicated his shows in 1996, and XM Radio began daily broadcasts of Imagination Theater soon after XM added audio theater to its lineup. The exposure is an audio theater producer’s dream: While anyone can enter the industry for the price of a Website, more airtime means more opportunity to be heard, and more potential to attract listeners.
“We want Jim French Productions to be on as many stations as possible and, of course, also have a good Website,” French says. “I think that as long as we can keep reaching people, radio drama as a genre will continue to increase. ”
Just Like It” Used to Be–With a Techno Twist
For my final audio theater experience, my home is the auditorium. I am the only person in the audience; the time is 6:30A.M.; and I am wearing pajamas. The creators of the piece I will enjoy work in San Francisco, California. I am in Bend, Oregon.
I have located the Pagliacci’s Fools Website and downloaded the requisite(and free) audio software. A box pops upon my screen, telling me the title of my selected show–The Gentleman Caller–and the duration: 36:33 minutes. I am restless for a moment, fidgeting in my chair until, over the whiny tone of a violin playing a Renaissance tune, I hear a strong and clear voice: “The unicorn opens the door. …”
The story is grand. There is romance,intrigue, tragedy. There is spectacular dancing. There are flapping, colorful skirts. There are flaming swords. There are mystical beasts.
Of course, all of it’s only in my mind.
Kim Cooper Findling is a new audio theater fan.
Willamette Radio Workshop gets ready for some Halloween broadcasts of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”
BY PAUL DUCHENE Issue date: 10/25/2002
Orson Welles’ radio career is inextricably linked with “The War of the Worlds.” This 1938 production of the H.G. Wells sci-fi story caused widespread panic when its broadcast was thought to be actual news bulletins of an alien invasion.
But “Worlds” was actually Welles’ 29th show with the Mercury Theatre of the Air. He’d been doing radio dramas since 1936, and for a year he was the main character voice in “The Shadow” radio serial.
He would go on to produce and act in more than 100 additional dramas before Hollywood beckoned in 1940.
Sam Mowry’s Willamette Radio Workshop group successfully revived “War of the Worlds” last year at Halloween, filling the CoHo Theatre in Northwest Portland for a midnight performance.
“We had 50 no-shows, and it was still full — thank God they didn’t come,” he says.
This year, Mowry’s crew is tackling Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” which Welles adapted in July 1938. They’ll perform it live at the White Eagle Saloon, McMenamins Grand Lodge in Forest Grove and the Kennedy School in the days leading up to Halloween.
“Welles got the rights to it at the last minute — he was going to launch the season with ‘Treasure Island,'” Mowry says. “He and John Houseman sat in an all-night cafe cutting up seven copies of the book and gluing pages together to make the script. They argued around the clock for 36 hours, eating and drinking the whole time, then dropped off the pages at the typing pool and left Welles’ secretary to pay the bill.”
Mowry follows up with a prize-winning piece of trivia about English theater manager Bram Stoker, who wrote the story in 1897 and made vampire a household word. Vampires continue to enthrall 100 years later, immortalized in movies and television.
“Bram Stoker was (actor-impresario) Henry Irving’s stage manager, and one of the first things he did was offer Irving the play of ‘Dracula,'” Mowry says. “Irving wouldn’t touch it, and many people believed that it was because the character of Dracula was based on him.
“Think about it,” Mowry says. “We accept the idea of vampires, but when the story was written, nobody knew what they were. Here’s this great story: Basically, a real estate salesman goes to close a deal in Eastern Europe — and instead this evil is loosed on the world!”
Welles’ script runs 55 minutes and can be heard online at http://www.scifi.com/set/playhouse/dracula/ though it’s not a high-quality recording. But the adaptation rushes along, with foley sound effects creating the atmosphere of doom.
Radio drama is a very mobile production, Mowry says.
“It’s not like theater, where you have six weeks of rehearsal and a six-week run,” he says. “Here we can do five shows with a cast of 12. It takes a half-hour to set up a one-hour show and a half-hour to break it down. The sound equipment is the biggest thing.”
And Halloween horror stories are perfect for radio drama, Mowry says. “It’s the power of suggestion. Everybody carries their own private hell with them.’
Contact Paul Duchene at email@example.com.
ORSON WELLES’ ADAPTATION OF BRAM STOKER’S “DRACULA”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26
Where: White Eagle Saloon, 836 N. Russell St., 503-282-6810
When: 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 27
Where: McMenamins Grand Lodge, 3505 Pacific Ave. Forest Grove, 505-992-9533
When: 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31
Where: The Kennedy School, 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave. 503-249-3983
Cost: $3 at Grand Lodge, other performances free
Willamette Radio Workshop brings back “War of the Worlds”
BY PAUL DUCHENE Issue date: 10/26/2001
You might find it hard to believe as an adult that you were ever scared of things that go bump in the night.
But if there’s a little flicker in the back of your mind, you might enjoy Willamette Radio Workshop’s live re-creation of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast from Oct. 30, 1938, of “The War of the Worlds,” which takes over CoHo Theater on Saturday.
Welles’ Mercury Theatre managed to overamplify the story of Martians invading Earth by presenting it as a series of live news broadcasts. The resulting panic among listeners led to a front-page story in The New York Times and subsequent federal restrictions on radio broadcasts.
The very idea of radio terror seems far distant from the present, only a month after millions of viewers watched close to 5,000 people die on morning television when the towers of New York’s World Trade Center were destroyed.
But radio is theater of the mind, and the hobgoblins we create can be scarier than reality, however awful it is.
Portland actor Sam Mowry staged a reading of “The War of the Worlds” last Halloween with such success that he resolved to re-create Welles’ production.
“I did it last year with radio and TV people, and we were going to repeat it but it fell through because of conflicting schedules,” Mowry said. “Meanwhile I’d started Willamette Radio Workshop and everybody said: “Why don’t we do it?”
Twelve actors sound off Mowry aims to duplicate Welles’ hourlong CBS production with 12 actors and live Foley sound effects (named for Jack Foley, the technician who developed them).
Welles’ production, based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 book, was announced as a drama before it started, but the problems began when people switched to the 8 p.m. show in progress.
Starting with a news flash about explosions on the planet Mars, bulletins and scene broadcasts followed, describing a meteor hitting a farm at Grovers Mill, N.J. The meteor was then revealed as a metal cylinder from which strange creatures emerged firing death rays.
Meanwhile, large numbers of listeners had been listening to “The Chase and Sanborn Hour” with Edgar Bergen and dummy Charlie McCarthy on NBC, and many changed stations at the first musical break, rather than listen to Dorothy Lamour sing “Two Sleepy People.”
What they dialed into was Frank Readick as newscaster Carl Phillips describing the scene at the meteor as the Martians emerge. Police can be heard shouting in the background as Readick gradually loses his cool. Readick said later he based his delivery on the reporter who had witnessed the destruction of the Hindenburg only 18 months earlier.
Terrified voices can be heard as the din increases and the death ray guns are firing. Then abruptly, there’s dead silence. After Readick’s “death,” bulletins and news reports describe the Martian advance across New Jersey and nerve gas attacks on New York City.
(Those who listened to more of the show might have wondered exactly how the Martians managed to wipe out the 7,000-member-strong New Jersey National Guard and march clear across the East Coast in 15 minutes.)
Panic reigns At the break, the station announced that the show was a dramaÂ Â but the damage had been done. Even though The Associated Press and New York and New Jersey police announced there was nothing to worry about, police stations and newspapers were swamped with calls, and panicked listeners rushed into the street. The New York Times alone received 875 calls.
Analyst Hadley Cantril estimated in a 1966 study that 20 percent of the audience exhibited signs of mass hysteria. Phone calls to friends and relatives spread the terror across the country, leading to scenes like the man in Pittsburgh who returned home to find his wife in the bathroom holding a bottle of poison and screaming, “I’d rather die this way.”
“The War of the Worlds” is seldom aired, though there is an original tape. Station WKBW in Buffalo, N.Y., successfully updated the play using its news staff and DJs and local settings in 1968.
“We won’t be broadcasting this one either,” Mowry said, recalling a 1950 broadcast in Caracas, Venezuela, that was so successful an angry mob stormed the station and burned it down.
Contact Paul Duchene at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The War of the Worlds”
What: Live re-creation of Orson Welles’ broadcast
Where: CoHo Theater, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St.; 503-295-3565
When: 11 p.m. Saturday
OPB Radio’s news magazine airs Tuesday-Friday afternoons at 4:30
New “War of the Worlds” – Colin Fogarty
October 26, 2001
This weekend, a radio theater troupe in Portland will recreate a Halloween production from 1939. The “War of the Worlds” was Orson Welles’ early claim to fame. At a time, when the nation was preparing for world war, the “War of the Worlds” sounded real to many listeners. The modern production wouldn’t confuse anyone. But as Colin Fogarty reports, it could have some relevance for today’s audience.
You’ve heard Sam Mowry. But you likely didn’t notice him.
Commercial: The aggressive aerodynamic style of the Mitzubishi Eclipse will get you as much attention as you want. At a 16-valve engine and rack and pinion steering. And you my friend will be the total package. The GI Joe’s take it to the extreme 14-hour sale this Friday. We still have the sales. Grab the gear and seize the season.
Mowry’s got what in the business they call “great pipes.” But commercial voiceovers are his day job. He’s really a stage actor, playing every part from Henry the 8th to Henry Higgins. But Mowry’s latest project takes place in the theater of the mind. He plays Orson Welles in a radio theater production of the “War of the Worlds.”
Mowry voice: We know now that in the early years of the 20th century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s, and yet as mortal as his own”.
Welles voice: We know that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
Saturday night, Mowry?s Willamette Radio Workshop is staging a live performance of “War of the Worlds” in the worlds at the New Coho Theater in Northwest Portland. He hopes, in part, the revival will change people’s perception of Orson Welles.
Mowry: What they’re used to hearing from Orson Wells is the “Yes, we will sell no wine before it’s time.” And that’s what most people go, “Oh yeah, Orson Wells, the wine guy.” But when he was doing this, he was 21, 22, he’s actually much higher.
Mowry listened to old-time radio as a child, back when stations ran reruns of programs like “The Shadow.” As an actor in Portland, he found that there was a great deal of interest among fellow actors.
Mowry: What I love about it as an actor is that you can be anything you want to be. And my Dad, and I think everybody has this story, when my parents asked him whether he liked radio or TV better, he said, “Oh, I like radio, the pictures are much better.”
By re-producing the “War of the Worlds,” the Willamette Radio Workshop hopes to raise money for a series of original radio theater productions. At a time when foreign correspondents report by videophone and the Internet is more common than the newspaper, radio theater seems antiquated. But Mowry believes radio can forge a closer tie with the listener.
Mowry: And it is that intimate connection between a person and a microphone and that microphone and somebody’s ear, and you’re talking to them and you’re sharing an idea or love or hate or envy or any kind of human emotion that you’re sharing with them in a very intimate, very personal way makes for a tremendous connection.
Mowry says the production of “War of the Worlds” has special significance for our time. Just as in the radio play, the nation has been under attack’by hijackers using airplanes as weapons and by bioterrorists, sending anthrax spores through the mail. Some listeners of the original “War of the Worlds” panicked thinking Martians were really invading.
Mowry: And one of the things that we learned is that we do need to think before we act. And I think that’s as much of a good lesson today as it was back then. And even more so now because I think we’re a little more on par with the Martians ourselves in terms of having weapons of mass destruction that maybe we can and cannot use wisely.
Mowry hopes the re-production of the “War of the Worlds” doesn’t scare its audience during a delicate time. Rather the play is meant to comfort.
Mowry: It all comes out in the end. Humanity does survive and humanity does survive because there’s an innate plan for us to survive.
Welles voice: This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, to assure you that the “War of the Worlds” has no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be.
Mowry: So, good-bye everybody and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an invader of the pumpkin patch. And if your doorbell rings and there’s nobody there, that was no Martian, it’s Halloween.
Copyright 2001Â Oregon Public Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.