The largely lost art of locally produced audio drama lives again courtesy of Radio Theatre Omaha (RTO) performances. The group next performs November 8 at OutrSpaces, 1258 S. 13th St., when it presents two pieces with voice actors, live sound effects and live musical accompaniment.
Founder-Artistic Director Kent Garlinghouse formed RTO two years ago. The Minnesota transplant created audio drama for decades with Lake Area Radio Theatre during and after a long music education career. When he and his wife moved to Omaha to be close to family, he searched for an audio drama company here, only to find none.
As a writer himself, Garlinghouse promotes RTO throughout the state’s writing community, hoping to inspire fellow scribes to pen scripts. He’s recruited some converts that way.
“There are lots of excellent voice actors, but the big issue is trying to find material — finding the writers — and that’s what I spend a lot of my time doing, going to various writing groups with my spiel,” he said.
A radio theater script “is short (5,000 words or 25 minutes), to the point, simple, direct, all action-oriented, and you get a public performance out of it,” goes his pitch to prospective writers.
“I really look hard for people who are interested.”
Garlinghouse, who’s also an actor, is still enough of a newcomer he doesn’t know the local acting talent pool that well. Thus, he’s allied himself with Omaha theater veteran Stephanie Kidd, herself a transplant from Overland Park, Kansas. The stage director, actor and voice talent serves as RTO’s managing director. With 22 years on the local theater scene, she taps her deep network of experienced theater professionals to work with RTO. The company sweetens the pot by paying cast and crew stipends from ticket sales.
Both Kidd and Garlinghouse are theater junkies. While she’s a newcomer to audio drama, Garlinghouse was weaned listening to it as a kid in the 1940s.
“I was hooked,” he said.
It still enthralls him at age 79.
“The thing about theater that triggers me is the power of words,” he said. “And for me audio drama is theater of the mind. It’s what radio has always been for me. It’s different from stage or screen, which is theater of the eye. In theater of the mind, you create the whole world yourself.
“Every audience member, based on their own personal experience, will create a different world. To engage in it, you only need to be able to hear the presentation.”
Before television became the mass market consumer staple in people’s homes, radio was the great national convener. People gathered around their console radio to listen to variety shows, game shows, situation comedies and audio dramas, such as The Shadow. Growing up in Malta, Montana, Garlinghouse found himself spellbound by the dramatic goings-on broadcast into his home.
Many radio talents went onto Hollywood stardom, notably Orson Welles, whose Mercury Theatre Players’ live adaptation of The War of the Worlds put a scare into America. Not only did radio feed the small and big screen, many established Hollywood and stage figures found success in the medium.
“By the middle-1950s, radio theater began to fade away only to surprisingly be reborn in the last 20 years,” Garlinghouse said.
The phenomenon of American Public Media’s Prairie Home Companion helped whet appetites. More recently, audio-drama-series podcasts have found large followings. It all speaks to the universal human connection to story, Garlinghouse said.
“I think it’s a need for deeper understanding of ourselves and more self-awareness,” he said. “I believe one of the things story does is invite us to find ourselves in it. To do that we have to be open to what the story has to say to us.”
From a theater company perspective, Kidd said radio theater offers “a really easy way for a small company to do homespun productions relatively affordably.”
“You can put up productions you write yourself, so there aren’t copyright costs,” Kidd said. “You can present it on an empty stage with just a microphone and sound effects using found objects and music you compose yourself.”
Plus, she said, there’s the kick of producing an art form with nostalgia and romance attached to it. “It pays a nod to the past, which I think people love right now.”
As radio drama is largely a thing of the past, few theater artists today have experience with it, though staged readings are a close approximation. That’s why, Kidd said, it’s a process acclimating actors to the genre.
“Our actors don’t memorize their lines,” she said. “They read from a script. They have to present absolutely everything in the story with just what’s written on the page for them to speak. They must establish everything about the character with just their voice.”
Kidd added some character traits and actions can be established through live sound effects and music. Sound technician Scott Dombeck and assistants manipulate objects and contraptions to mimic wind, doors opening and closing, footsteps, etc. Luke Furman composes and plays original music for the shows on his keyboard.
But spoken words, accented by vocal inflections, grunts, sighs, laughs and shrieks, must carry the day.
“The idea is that the audience, at home, in their car or in the theater,” Kidd said, “know what’s going on purely through what’s vocalized.”
Garlinghouse, who’s acted in dozens of audio dramas, said what may seem a straightjacket for actors is actually liberating by its very concentration.
“You don’t have to worry about stage directions or hitting marks or costumes,” he said. “It’s all focused on the vocal delivery and interpretation of the script.”
To minimize distractions, actors dress all in black, move as little as possible and generally don’t interact with each other. “We need them to just stand there and be a voice.” Kidd said. “Anyone too animated pulls focus from everyone else.”
Actors practicing radio drama for the first time must unlearn some training.
“All the actors I’m working with have been trained for the stage,” Kidd said. “So they’re used to being able to emote with their face and use their bodies. They want to be able to interact with each other physically.”
But in radio theater, Kidd said audiences should know the actors’ intentions without watching them.
“When it’s the actor’s turn to speak, they step forward to the microphone. When they’re not speaking, they step back and sit down. They can’t turn their head when they speak or their voice is lost on the mic.”
Since radio theater performed before a studio or theater audience hasn’t happened here in a long time, RTO audiences need some education, too. Before each show, Garlinghouse preps the crowd, emphasizing their own primary role in the proceedings.
“Radio theater is a way for you to enter into a world of your imagining,” he tells them, “and the presentation is only limited by your imagination.”
Kidd said some audience members may choose “to listen with their eyes closed and experience it that way, but part of the fun I think is to see the sound crew create the live sound effects.”
Omaha public radio station KVNO 90.7 FM records the shows. None have been broadcast or streamed yet as KVNO wants to first accrue a large catalog of shows.
The station actually produced radio theater in the 1980s as part of an audio drama contest it sponsored. Recordings don’t survive, but select scripts do, some by notable area writers. Garlinghouse is vetting them for potential RTO productions.
RTO launched at the B Side of Benson Theatre and at Gallery 1518 before finding its home at OutrSpaces. The company presents one show per quarter there.
The November 8 pieces, both directed by Kidd, are Shadowpoint: The Christmas Pit by Omaha playwright Doug Sasse and The Grinch Who Came to Dinner by Garlinghouse.
Shadowpoint essays a squabbling family searching for the fortune a billionaire uncle left upon his death. Their treasure hunt plays out during a rural Nebraska blizzard. Kidd promises “a fantastic plot twist at the end. (Diazepam) ”
Grinch portrays a big family forced to host the father’s crabby boss for dinner at their home. In the course of the evening, the boss is revisited by his past and forced to learn a lesson before the holiday.
Garlinghouse plans to feature aspects of local history and cultures in a series of scripts he hopes to produce. He’s in talks with Nebraska filmmaker Bridget Timmerman to use stories of Native American elders in her award-winning documentary Omaha Speaks. He’s secured permission from Omaha author Ted Wheeler to adapt his novel Kings of Broken Things.
RTO could choose from countless old-time radio theater scripts available for the picking, but Garlinghouse said RTO is committed to Nebraska writers. “I’m impressed with the talent here,” he said, “and this is a way to lift up the gifts of the people who live here.”
Creatives are invited to get involved with RTO.
“We are actively looking for folks that want to be a part of our process as writers, actors or sound effects people,” Kidd said.
The Facebook page Omaha Audio Drama Collective announces audition and volunteer opportunities.
RTO returns in February for a Valentine’s Day show.
For show times and tickets, visit facebook.com/radiotheatreomaha.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
All photos by Debra S. Kaplan