Chicago’s Thriving Live Radio Plays

What’s behind the craze, and how they prevented a “Pottersville in the making”

An old-fashioned microphone

When American Blues Theater and American Theater Company both staged radio play versions of It’s a Wonderful Life in 2009, insiders fretted that the dueling shows would split audiences and lead to poor ticket sales. Even the Chicago Tribune called the competition “a Pottersville in the making.”

But for the fourth season running, each production—ABT’s adaptation with director Marty Higginbotham and ATC’s by its artistic director, PJ Paparelli—is thriving. ABT is moving its show to the main stage of the Biograph Theater; ATC has seen its audience almost triple in size since 2009, enough to add another radio play—The Wizard of Oz—to its seasonal lineup (Oz will alternate nights with Life). So why are audiences flocking to a show where the actors work with scripts in hand, the sets are bare-bones, and the spectacle is nonexistent? Members of both companies have their theories.

“I thought having two companies doing an adaptation of the same movie would kill it for both of us,” Paparelli says. “But what happened was the opposite. The competition heightened awareness of both shows.”

That awareness definitely helped: ATC ran the show last year at 85 percent capacity, according to Paparelli, compared with 65 to 70 percent capacity just two years ago. But it’s only part of the reason people are taken with radio shows.

“In regular theatre, the actors are supposed to pretend nobody’s watching them. With a radio play, you fix your gaze on the imaginary scene partner in front of you—the audience,” says Higginbotham. Adds Kevin Kelly, in his fourth year playing George Bailey at ABT: “The audience can actually look into our eyes and get more feedback. The fourth wall becomes porous.”

As for the sound effects, they play a part too. Both camps cite the appeal of the foley artist, who creates an orchestra of effects using everyday objects—like a tennis racket slammed into water for a puddle splash—in full view of the audience.

“I think people love to watch the mechanics, the secrets, of how something is done, especially in live theatre,” Paparelli says. “The pressure of live theatre and watching how tricks are done—that’s what draws people.”

GO ATC’s It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz run November 17 to December 30; for info, atcweb.org. ABT’s It’s a Wonderful Life runs November 23 to December 30; for info, americanbluestheater.com.

 

Photograph: Tom Grill/Corbis

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