Radio theater

DIY radio theater makes a comeback in Minnesota

Come back with us now to those exciting days of yore, when from the past come the thunderous beats of… a noisemaker with a pair of coconut shells.

Radio theater, which was killed off by television, has resurrected on airwaves – and the internet – across the country and across the state.

In International Falls, Icebox Radio Theater produces a bimonthly podcast about a small town in northern Minnesota cut off by a meteor impact. “Strange things keep happening,” playwright Jeff Adams of the fictional Icebox town of Minn said. “Comedy and sci-fi and maybe a few dark touches every now and then.”

St. Cloud’s Granite City Radio Theater features inner humor as well as cameo appearances by the police chief and university president. “Imagine ‘Prairie Home Companion’ was about your neighborhood,” said Jo McMullen-Boyer, manager of the KVSC station, which produced the skit and music show four times a year for six years. “It’s hyperlocal. It’s making fun of ourselves, but also with pride.

And in the Twin Cities, the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society embraces nostalgia by turning recordings of old radio shows into scripts, which they stage as live performances (including sound effects and commercials). in front of the audience at the James J. Hill Center in downtown St. Paul.

He recently resurrected a 1952 play about an unlucky journalist on the trail of fugitive Nazis in South America. The journalist is kidnapped in an automobile (a kazoo inserted in a vacuum cleaner hose), is shot (a tennis ball on a stick hits a metal sheet) and narrowly escapes the collapse of a wooden bridge rickety (balsa wood broke into pieces). In the end, spoiler alert! – Adolf Hitler falls into a river and is eaten alive by a swirling mass of piranhas (a bottle of water, vigorously shaken).

“It’s a marriage of all the things I love,” said Eric Webster, one of the Listening Society’s cast and writers. “It’s theater and theater of the mind.

Gather around the computer

Once upon a time there were families from all over the country who gathered around the radio to listen to plays such as Orson Welles’ 1940 version of “The War of the Worlds.”

It was around this time that radio theater was the primary form of home entertainment, featuring the voices of showbiz stars in scripted dramas and comedies brought into your living room by national broadcast networks. It ended in the early 1960s, when the networks shifted their focus to producing shows for a new invention – television.

But now almost anyone with a laptop and a story to tell can write, record, mix, and publish an audio piece on the Internet. This DIY technology is fueling a popular resurgence of the old art form.

In Minnesota, playwrights, professional actors and ordinary people create horror and suspense shows, experimental science fiction, “Indiana Jones” style adventure series and variety shows. Some are performed in front of a live audience. Some exist only on the internet, riding the rising wave of audio storytelling in podcasts. Others are broadcast live on local radio stations, in the footsteps of “A Prairie Home Companion”.

But unlike “Prairie Home”, these shows do not compete for a national audience. Instead, they function as a kind of community radio theater, designed to attract local listeners.

Chills from the cooler

“I really fell in love with some of the peculiarities of this art form,” said playwright Adams, who started a nonprofit radio theater in International Falls after moving from Oregon to Minnesota in 2004.

Adams’s Icebox Radio Theater began creating plays with northern Minnesota themes for the local radio station, KXBR. (One of the winners, “The Thing on the Ice,” is about a fisherman who is stalked by a mysterious creature while trapped in a fish house in Rainy Lake during a snowstorm.)

In Alexandria, Michael Roers, a community theater actor, established the Lakes Area Radio Theater in 2010 to provide more performance opportunities for other amateur actors in his city.

Once a month, Roers conducts two half-hour audio pieces – G-rated comedies, detective stories, or westerns – in front of an audience. Local residents perform original scripts by playwrights from across the country. The recordings are broadcast on 15 radio stations in small towns across the state, typically local AM talk stations. “Sometimes they have church on Sunday morning and they play us after church,” Roers said.

Although popular, it is a low budget operation: it costs $ 8 to view the parts; the voice actors do it for the experiment, and the radio stations get the recordings for free.

“The writers are the only ones who get paid,” Roers said. They earn $ 30 per script.

Hyperlocal variety

“Granite City Radio Theater,” which airs on St. Cloud State University’s public radio station, includes performances by musicians and segments of an adventure series called “Shade’s Brigade”. Mayor Dave Kleis also makes regular appearances, albeit as a parody played by show host Jay Terry.

The real Kleis is “a calm and sincere man,” said Terry. But the quirky, upscale version of Kleis has a British accent, flies around town in a helicopter, and lives in a local landmark, an over-the-top mansion called the Fortress of Poseidon.

“People love the character,” said Terry. “They can’t have enough.”

Aaron Brown is creating something similar as the host, producer and screenwriter of “The Great Northern Radio Show,” a variety show that has aired live on KAXE in Grand Rapids and KBXE in Bemidji since 2011.

Shown to live audiences in towns across northern Minnesota, the show features “somewhat sophisticated humor about places often seen as unsophisticated,” Brown said, citing a recent skit about anxiety caused by a roundabout. -point at Hibbing.

“We get who we are and we are ready to laugh about it,” he said.

A new golden age

Emily Larson and Don Ness, the current and former mayors of Duluth, appeared on Duluth’s radio theater show, “Take It With You”.

Launched in 2014 by musician Blake Thomas and his wife, actress Mary Fox, the hour-long comedy shows are recorded monthly from April through November to a live audience and then broadcast as a podcast. A typical episode, “The Golden Guitar”, is sort of an ironic musical version of “Gunsmoke”.

“We want to take the art form and bring it into a new era,” Thomas said.

Tim Uren, an artist with the Mysterious Old Radio Listening Society, credits the more than 40 years of “Prairie Home” for making “theater of the mind” accessible to modern listeners. “It’s easier to say to someone, ‘Come here and watch us stand up and make a fuss with our mouths.’ “

Additionally, audio storytelling has found new life in podcasts, such as “Serial,” the hugely popular real crime series launched in 2014.

But not all podcasts are fiction. “There are a lot of audio dramas on the Internet,” said Elena Fernández-Collins, a writer in Portland, Ore., Who covers audio dramas for the Bello Collective, an online publication.

She cites “Welcome to Night Vale”, “Limetown” and “The Black Tapes” as dramatic podcast hits.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of people all over the world,” said Jerry Stearns, producer of radio plays in Minneapolis with the Great Northern Audio Theater and host of a KFAI radio show on audio theater. “I would say there are more people doing radio dramas now than there were in the heyday of radio theater. “


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