What do these celebrated stage plays and films have in common: A Man for All Seasons, Under Milk Wood, Alfie, The Mousetrap, Voyage Round My Father and Wings? All of them began life as radio dramas for the BBC. American playwrights should take a cue from their British counterparts and be more bold about marketing and exposing their stage plays on radio.
At L.A. Theatre Works, where I am producing director, we have succeeded in recording plays by such important authors as David Mamet, Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, Richard Nelson, Marsha Norman and others. We have recorded productions in Chicago (at theatres ranging from the Goodman and Steppenwolf to the emerging Looking-glass and the venerable Second City, some 34 companies in all) and Boston (at American Repertory Theatre, and such area companies as Trinity Rep and Williamstown) as well as Los Angeles. Our productions are broadcast on National Public Radio affiliates across the country; locally via KCRW/Santa Monica, WMFT/Chicago and WGBH/Boston; and internationally when the plays are co-produced with the BBC. These productions are heard by thousands of people, and in England the audience has reached one million.Order now
Working on these projects, I am often frustrated by the perception of agents that recording plays for radio and selling cassettes of them is potentially detrimental to authors. To the contrary, it is an important marketing technique which will encourage theatres to produce the works in question on stage and bring them to the attention of film and television producers. The myth that a radio production could inhibit a film, television or theatre production is, to be blunt, absolute bunk.
According to Linda Lichter, one of Los Angeles’s top entertainment attorneys, “If a production company, studio or network really wants to acquire your property, the fact that it has been broadcast over radio or that an audio cassette is on the market will not stand in the way of making a deal.” Both Doug Post’s Earth and Sky and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible were under option to movies and television when we wanted to record them for radio. A call to Warner Brothers and Charles Fries Productions was all that was needed to release the radio rights.
The value of cross-promoting an intellectual property is well known. Indeed, the long-running Lux Radio Theatre was a marketing technique invented by Hollywood. When a film opened, the studios would do a radio version recorded before a live audience as way of cross-promoting a new film.
Needless to say, in England, where radio drama is a big business–1,800 dramatic productions are aired annually–virtually every play is available for broadcast and cassette sales, regardless of whether it is currently running on the West End or in the cinema. The BBC and theatres around the U.K. are now beginning to co-commission scripts with one version for radio and another for theatre. Last year 12 such commissions occurred. The list of playwrights whose careers were started or fostered by British radio includes Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill, Vaclav Havel, David Rudkin, Tom Stoppard, Jean Anouilh and Dylan Thomas, to name a few. Last year in England, Kenneth Branagh’s production of Hamlet sold 14,000 cassette copies in one month.
Although the radio-drama industry is not highly developed in the U.S.–there was a 30-year hiatus in the making of radio drama from the 1950s to the ’80s–there is today a growing market for broadcast and great potential in the audio-cassette sales market. It is true that public radio in the U.S. cannot presently compete with Europe in fees for initial broadcasts, but the cassette sales potential is more than five times that of the U.K. because of our enormous population base. Furthermore, because video production is so expensive, most plays can never be permanently preserved, and archival videos are so substandard that they cannot do justice to the work. By contrast, it is possible to do a radio recording with top actors and superb production values for $20,000.
At L.A. Theatre Works we have recorded 90 plays for broadcast to date, with the essential mission of bringing existing stage plays to life in another medium. With a somewhat different focus, the L.A.-based California Artists Radio Theatre supports original radio writing. Company One of Hartford, Conn. commissions works for radio and stages mini-festivals of radio drama. The Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop has for many years been generating discussion and production of radio theatre at its annual conference held in Columbus, Mo. NPR has commissioned playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy, Eric Overmyer and Wendy Wasserstein to adapt their plays or write new ones for its own radio series. Such independent producers as Erik Bauersfeld in Berkeley, David Ossman in Washington State and Marjorie Van Halteren in New York are tireless exponents of radio drama.
These are just some of the organizations and individuals working to bring plays to radio–a marriage of media that allows both artists and audiences to stretch their imaginations inexpensively and innovatively. Playwrights (and their agents) would be wise to listen sympathetically when the radio-drama producer calls.