Drama on the Airwaves: Series of Radio Plays Re-Creates a Lost Tradition

By Dease, Melissa | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 20, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Drama on the Airwaves: Series of Radio Plays Re-Creates a Lost Tradition

Dease, Melissa, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

Once upon a time, people listened rather than watched.

There was no television - only radio. Families would gather around the radio set after dinner to listen to their favorite comedies, variety shows, serials or plays.

People had to use their imaginations. There were no colorful costumes and elaborate sets to dazzle their eyes. Listeners picked a program based on content, but when TV came along, the ability to use the mind to see was seriously hindered. Who needs an imagination if you have the picture given to you?

While yesterday's shows are remembered and even collected by enthusiasts and curators, the art and concentration of radio drama has been lost. L.A. Theatre Works, a nonprofit production company, is trying to revive imaginations with brand-new radio plays, often recorded in front of an audience.

Beginning Wednesday and running until Nov. 21, the works of established playwrights and budding writers will be performed in Washington by local actors and celebrity guest stars such as Richard Dreyfuss, Stockard Channing and Ed Asner. The four live radio plays will be presented by the Smithsonian Associates and the Voice of America, co-sponsored by the Capitol Group Cos. Inc. and the ANA Hotel.

"My goal is to make good radio programs," producing director Susan Lowenberg says. "My goal is also to get people interested in radio drama and to understand it as something new and exciting and fun and interesting and not something that is about old days. It's about new days.

"I'm not interested in nostalgia radio drama."

Ms. Lowenberg's company is producing the live plays at the Voice of America on Independence Avenue SW. She drafted four local theater directors to present the plays and also help her select and cast the works, which will be broadcast later on VOA worldwide and on public radio in the United States.

Live radio can be exciting and new for the audience as well as the actors, Ms. Lowenberg says. The audience gets to see a radio production being created and to experience the rewards of enjoying a play by concentrating on the story itself.

Actors, particularly the celebrities, get to work intensly on challenging material with other fine actors. Ms. Lowenberg says it is an important exercise for them to tune their craft and instrument. It also requires little time commitment, a precious commodity to these people.

"It is remarkable what you can accomplish in a week when you're not worried about sets and costumes and lights and all the extraneous things you need to worry about in a production," Ms. Lowenberg says. "That's what takes a great deal of time."

L.A. Theatre Works began producing radio plays in 1987. Ms. Lowenberg was working on a project with a group of actors who were theater-trained but famous because of film and television, including Mr. Dreyfuss, Mr. Asner, Amy Irving and Marsha Mason. During one meeting, Mr. Dreyfuss said he had always wanted to do radio drama.

Eighteen months later, Ms. Lowenberg produced "Babbitt" with the help of a local radio producer. The play was picked up by National Public Radio, launching L.A. Theatre Works. When a Los Angeles hotel manager asked the company to present a play at the grand opening of the hotel, a major project of recording plays onstage began.

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