Before there was television, radio theatre entertained families in their homes. Actors read their lines complete with sound effects - and imagination helped the productions come to life. Well, the Sioux Empire Community Theater is bringing that tradition back. It’s a way to share shows virtually during the global pandemic.
The Sioux Empire Community Theater’s ‘virtual season’ has begun. The first radio play is called “Death of a Jazz Man.” It’s a Monty Python-esque retelling of “Death of Salesman.”
Robin Byrne, is executive director of the theater. He says these plays were really popular in the 30s and 40s.
“And even to this day. My background is I originally come from England and everyday, BBC Radio 4 in the afternoon puts a radio play on.”
Byrne has been planning to do such productions in Sioux Falls for about a year.
“Now that we’re on lockdown almost, it seemed like a really good time to make a move forward in that area.”
They hope to release a new play every week until the theatre can reopen for audiences. The theater, like so many other nonprofits and businesses, is struggling financially but does have some cushion.
“We can continue as we are at the moment for several months because we had such a successful season last year and we were having a very good season last year and we were having a very good season this year where we were ahead of budget.”
But Byrne says the financial realities will catch up with them the longer the pandemic continues. They’re applying for grants to help sustain the theater. And the radio plays are a part of that.
“We decided we needed to get creative and look at ways in which we could keep our volunteers active, keep our actors engaged and generate some income.”
They release the plays for free on a website called Patreon. People can offer voluntary donations directly to the theater. The plays also give actors a creative outlet. Auditions are open to everyone. Byrne says just send them a reading sample that’s under one minute. And, since it’s radio, there isn’t even a dress code.
“We don’t need sets, we don’t need costumes. You can get away with all kinds of things. In fact, I’ve actually put a warning on the first one that this radio play contains excessive nudity.”
Byrne is picking royalty free radio scripts online and recruiting local community members to share their scripts. That’s where Jeff Gould comes in. He’s a professional writer who started off with newsletters and emails.
“And then that migrated into fiction books. I write crime novels. I’ve written three and I’m working on the fourth right now, 20 thousand words in. Ha! Nothing else to do.”
But radio theater is his hobby. He says it has benefits that traditional stage productions lack.
“And what I love about radio theater is you don’t have to memorize your lines. You can knock out a performance and get the thrill of performing with one tenth of the effort.”
As a crime fiction writer, Gould’s favorite genre is-obviously-noir.
“I love that sort of private eye type stuff because it’s fun to write.”
Sound effects are an important part of radio theatre. They set the scene and help listeners picture the story.
“When you go to the theater production of a radio play, you might hear the sound guy hitting a piece of sheet metal and ‘oh that sounds like thunder’. And everybody in the audience says ‘that guys just hit a piece of sheet metal’. But when it’s truly radio theater, you don’t think about the sound effect. You just think ‘it’s raining outside. I just heard thunder’.”
Sound effects are an important part of the Sioux Empire Community Theater’s radio plays. One of Gould’s plays is called “The Colony.” It’s about a journalist who uncovers a big mystery. And no, I didn’t pick this one on purpose.
Gould is about to read a section. Just imagine heavy, New York City traffic as fictional Jake Jacobson prepares to go to City Hall.
“Flimsy, you bet it was. But I’ve landed bigger fish and smaller bait. So I grab my coat and a trench coat and beat it down to the cab stand.”
The street sounds muffle and as the cab door closes behind him.
“Downtown. And drop the foot. I handed the cabbie a five, grabbed onto the seat with both hands. My mind spinning faster than the wheels in the cab. The colony. Me, like every other reporter with a pulse, had been trying to beat down the doors of that headline and all I got was bloody knuckles.”
Several of Gould’s plays are scheduled for the community theater in coming weeks, and he is helping direct the volunteer voice actors. People can find a link to the community theatre’s current production on its Facebook page.