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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Discovering the world of radio plays (and dramas)

It all started from a phone conversation with Maiko the Producer (she produced my short films "Kingyo" and "Exhalation") a few weeks ago. She had been working at NHK Osaka for the past two years, earlier this year she was involved in the hit morning drama "CARNATION" as an assistant director.

She asked whether I wanted to try my hand in writing a radio drama. It was an interesting preposition. A storytelling medium I was entirely unfamiliar with, but seemingly filled with possibilities.

The first thing that came to my mind was, of course, Orson Welles' famous 1938 WARS OF THE WORLD radio drama, believed to be probably the most famous radio drama of all time.

I also remembered the Cantonese radio dramas I used to listen to as a child, when I was in a car with my mother on the way back from primary school. They were usually soap opera-like stuff, where the woman is constantly on the verge of weeping. A gross generalization, but a sheer reflection of my ignorance.

Yesterday, free from most of the projects that I had been working on, I decided to do some researches on a radio drama. I then realized that a new TWILIGHT ZONE radio drama had just came out a few years ago. (I immediately downloaded the iPhone app that came with four free episodes)

But as I dug deeper, more riches emerged, especially in the form of BBC radio plays (many thanks to the wonderful MODERN SOUNDLING blog). I then discovered that some of the greatest playwrights of the past century, like Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard, had written numerous radio plays (a few were later adapted for the stage, but usually with lesser success).

Immediately I secured a few recordings of these radio plays, ran off to McDonald's for breakfast, and listened to them.

The first one I listened to was the 55-minute A SLIGHT ACHE (1958) by Harold Pinter. The production I listened to was voiced by Pinter himself. It revolved around a middle-aged married couple, and a third character, a match seller who is an old man with a glass eye who never speaks... so he could probably be a figment of the protagonists' imaginations, used to channel their own frustrations and self-doubts, their innermost desires and the like. Mom called me after I listened to it, because my sister read my previous tweet and told her about it.

Mom, who had performed and written a few serialized radio dramas back in the day, was quite excited.

"So, what are you writing? Do you know that I have written a few episodes that I performed in?" Mom said. "Which ones are you listening to now?"

"Um. BBC ones. The one I just listened to is about... um, well, it's mostly about a middle-aged couple talking to each other in the span of one day. Yeah." I answered.

After a short chat, I switched to listening to John Arden's THE BAGMAN OR THE IMPROMPTU OF MUSWELL HILL (1970). (Mr Arden passed away just recently, in March)

It's a story about a guy who bought a bag from an old lady and was mysterious transported to a dystopian land 'where the people are starving while the rich live in idleness and squalor'. It had quite an epic scope, and reminded me of novels I used to read, like Neil Gaiman's NEVERWHERE, or Paul Auster's IN THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS. Arden's stylized prose flowed beautifully and musically through the voice of the narrator, I almost wanted to look for the script just so I could savour it again.

Of course, listening to the 90 minute radio play, something else struck me. An idea.

After that, I was momentarily distracted by Boston Celtics' improbable victory over Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. They now lead the best of 7 series 3-2.

A few hours later...

Eliza Dushku is the only actress on my Twitter feed who cares about the Celtics.

(All my life, most of my circle of friends don't really care about the NBA. So Eliza feels like a sister to me.)

With that out of the way, I decided to listen to my last radio play of the day. Tom Stoppard's ARTIST DESCENDING A STAIRCASE (1972). Also almost 90-minute long. It begins with an artist, Donner, falling to his death while descending a staircase. His two other studio roommates of 50 years, Beauchamp and Martello, try to investigate the cause of his death. They even accuse each other.

Stoppard went with a more complex structure, something like David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS. It begins and ends on the present day (1970s), but going progressively earlier in flashbacks, each following scene is a flashback of the scene before, from the 70s to the 20s to 1914 during World War 1, revolving around the three friends' interaction with a blind woman named Sophie. And then it goes on, moving forward in time again. So the structure is like ABCDEFEFCBA.

It's quite a gripping play. At this very moment while I am writing this, I am listening to a different production from the one I was listening to last night. This is a live recording from a stage production of ARTIST DESCENDING THE STAIRCASE (complete with audience reactions). Listen to it!