UD Theatre tunes in to 3 classic radio plays

By Tim Smith

Photo: Kayla Kingston creates sound effects, or ‘Foley effects,’ to emulate ‘50s-style radio plays

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when radio was the entertainment medium of choice for the average household. Long before television developed into the must-have appliance, people crowded around radios to listen to comedy, musical variety shows, sporting events, and live dramas.

University of Dayton’s Theatre, Dance, and Performance Technology program will recreate this experience with “LIVE ON AIR: Three 1950s Radio Plays.” The one-act plays being presented are Ed James’ “Father Knows Best,” Anthony Ellis’ “I Saw Myself Running,” and Ray Bradbury’s “Zero Hour.”

In its heyday, radio featured the best acting and writing talent available, whether the show was a drama or a situation comedy. When television was in its infancy and not many people could afford a TV set, it was common for some shows to be presented in both mediums. Popular films were also adapted as radio plays, often with the same actors who had appeared on-screen. Most of these shows were performed in front of a live studio audience. The folks listening at home had to rely upon the vocal talents of the cast and the creativity of a sound effects engineer to create a mental picture of the action.

Michelle Hayford is the program director of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Technology. She is also the motivating force behind the production and admits that the project held special significance for her.

“I’m in love with actors performing Foley sound effects on stage, and I’ve always wanted to direct a show from this era,” she says. “The 1950s are a fabulous period to riff on! I was inspired to take on this project after seeing ‘Feast’ by the Albany Park Theater Project in the summer of 2015 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The first scene of that play had the actors supplying their own Foley effects and I was mesmerized.”

The term “Foley effects” refers to the reproduction of everyday sounds that are added to film, video, and other media to enhance audio quality. Foley effects can be anything from the swishing of clothing and footsteps to squeaky doors and breaking glass. It was named after Jack Donovan Foley, whose work on sound effects dates to the early days of radio. The technique helps to create a sense of reality within a scene. The term “Foley” can also mean a place, such as Foley stage or Foley studio, where the process takes place. Hayford notes that it was a new experience for the members of the production.

“It’s not difficult, but it has been a great learning experience for our cast and crew,” she says. “We have become so enamored with the visual in our contemporary moment, so to reframe the production in order to privilege the aural experience has meant that the actors have had to pay more attention to their vocal delivery. Since they are playing multiple characters, they need to be able to make each one distinct and unique, and not rely on physicality to express each character. The crew has needed to shift their attentions, creating the tools and gadgets needed to create Foley effects as the priority for this show, an atypical departure from merely building a set.”

Hayford says that variety was the key factor in choosing which radio plays to recreate. She also points out the timeless appeal of the stories.

“I love the diversity of the three selections,” she says. “‘Father Knows Best’ is your typical 1950s family sitcom: humorous, sweet situation comedy. ‘I Saw Myself Running’ is a fabulous psychodrama that requires the most sound effects, including free-falling out of a plane after a plane comes apart in midair. Lastly, ‘Zero Hour’ is a great sci-fi thriller with a twist ending. There is really something for everyone, a kind of sampler platter of 1950s radio play fare. We all still love the family sitcom format, dream sequences, and aliens, tropes that have stood the test of time. There are ways that we manage to comment on the more problematic aspects of 1950s representations. For example, we have a woman performing in ‘dapper drag’ to complicate the gender dynamics of the 1950s.”

The play will be simulcast on Flyer TV and Flyer Radio, but that fact didn’t influence the production process.

“We are being very true to the radio play aesthetic,” Hayford says. “Because the play will be aired live on Flyer Radio, we have to serve that medium, as well. Therefore, actors will be standing at microphones. There will be a Foley table, and actors will be moving from the Foley table to the mics as needed to perform sound effects and voice their characters. The live audience in the theatre will be treated to the lovely period costumes of the day, in addition to seeing all the behind-the-scenes action of the same six actors performing all the sound effects required for the radio plays—a lot of fun to watch!”


‘LIVE ON AIR: Three 1950s Radio Plays’ takes the stage Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 23 at 2 p.m. in the Boll Theatre at Kennedy Union, 300 College Park in Dayton. General admission is $12 and $8 with UD ID. For tickets or more information, please call the theatre box office at 937.229.2545 or visit Tickets.uDayton.edu. 

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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