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Video may have killed the radio star, but thanks to a group of Maine actors, the golden age of radio is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Like theater companies around the state, The Midcoast Actors Studio in Belfast was forced to cancel its upcoming season. So to fill the void, they started producing audio podcasts using scripts from 1940s-era radio shows, put them up on their website and made them available for free to the general public.
“We needed something to keep ourselves creatively fulfilled and relevant,” said Jason Bannister, Midcoast Actors Studio artistic director. “We want to come out of this and keep going.”
After the summer and fall season was cancelled, Bannister and the theater members looked for ways to bring virtual performances to their audiences, the timing seemed perfect to revisit a suggestion made a few years ago by Robin Jones, a former member of the studio.
“He now works in the film industry and he had always wanted to do a radio show when he was here,” Bannister said. “At the time we really did not go for it, because we had so many plays we wanted to do and we liked the action of the stage.”
But as soon as the stage performances went on hold in March, Bannister contacted Jones, who he said was more than happy to provide a list of old-time radio show scripts from which to choose.
These scripts included episodes from the original radio series “The Adventures of Sam Spade,” “The Adventures of Philip Marlowe” and “The Adventures of Ellery Queen.” All are detective mystery dramas that ran in 30-minute segments in the late 1930s and into the 1940s.
“I did not grow up listening to those radio shows,” Bannister said. “So producing them was a bit of a learning curve.”
Auditions were handled by the theatre’s musical director Dominic Williams who set up online virtual auditions and then cast the episodes. The actors were given their scripts and were responsible for recording their own lines.
Once done, they sent their recordings to Williams who put them in order and added music and sound effects to complete the final product.
“We have a lot of great talent in our area,” Williams said. “The people who wanted to participate all obviously have the time right now and they have the energy to create something they want to be proud of.”
For community theater veteren Crys Bruschi, taking part in the radio shows was a perfect opportunity to get back into theater after taking three years off following the birth of her twins.
“When I saw this I saw a chance to act without having to worry about getting to rehearsals and scheduling sitters,” Bruschi said. “I’m so excited to get back on stage.”
Reading for a radio production is very different from the type of performances normally put on, Bannister said, and the actors are making adjustments.
“Theater is meant to be communication between the performers and the audience and that relationship had to stop on a dime this year,” Bannister said. “With the radio shows, you are all by yourself and that feels pretty strange but at the same time it is kind of fun.”
When she is on the actual stage and performing live, Bruschi said she plays off the energy from the audience along with reacting to the actions and lines of her fellow cast members, something that is lacking working solo in radio.
“Acting is all about reacting,” she said. “In this case you have to use your intuition and determine how the other person in the scene would interpret the script and the biggest challenge I find is being honest to my character and true to the script.”
Bruschi played the role of Mrs. Kilcourse in the theater’s radio production of “The Adventures of Sam Spade, The Hot 100 Caper,” which originally aired in 1948.
“I was the ingenue who goes to Detective Spade,” Bruschi said. “Recording the lines was really just like talking to myself and it was really important to read the entire script so I could at least try to determine what the other characters are thinking.”
Bruschi completed recording her lines at home in about four hours over one night working from late evening into the small hours of the next morning.
“I knew a little bit about radio,” she said. “I’m 36 so I never used to sit around listening to it, but it’s a kind of genre I wanted to explore and it was an interesting adventure.”
Williams uses the music and sound effects to pull the lines together into believable scenes.
“These are the sounds that cue the listener to what is going on and brings the scene alive in their imagination,” Williams said.
In one case Williams contacted a fellow musician he knew had been posting “quarantine karaoke” online and asked her if she’d want to record a piece for one of the radio shows.
“She recorded an old Irving Berlin piece for us,” he said. “If a certain scene has a specific emotion or idea that kind of source music works well.”
So far, the theater has produced two radio shows and is getting ready to audition for a third. Bannister said he really has no idea how many people are listening to them.
“When you do a play, you can gauge its success by ticket sales,” he said. “With this there is really no way to tell.”
In addition to the radio shows, after the scheduled spring production of Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People was cancelled, the actors put it online through Zoom. They have also taken to Zoom to record and present 10-minute readings from different plays.
It takes about three weeks to produce one 30-minute radio segment and Bannister said as long as the actors and Williams are willing to put in the time, he’s more than happy to keep going with the project.
“We do have fans and patrons telling us what we are doing is really great and that we should continue,” he said. “And we will for now but I really want to get back on stage in front of a live audience.”
Links for auditions to the next radio show and to already produced shows are on the theater’s website at www.midcoastactors.org
Do you know of an uplifting story in Maine? Bangor Daily News Features writer Julia Bayly is on the lookout for Up Beat stories of people, places or things that bring smiles and laughter to your day. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.