Utah theater company finds the sound of a noir Christmas
Imagine the dulcet "In a world â¦" tones of an announcer inviting viewers to "Fairyana," a happy magical place that's the setting for a sweet children's TV show featuring fairies and Princess Amber.
Now consider the contrasting language in a room of down-on-their luck writers who are desperately out of ideas for "Fairyana's" annual Christmas episodes. Complications ensue when the writers become demonically possessed by an evil elf, who is one of the show's fictional characters.
That's the dramatic challenge playwright Eric Samuelsen gave himself when he began writing his first radio play. The dark comedy grew out of two personal obsessions: his longtime love of noir detective fiction and his hatred of PBS' Barney, that sickeningly sweet purple dinosaur.
If that mashup sounds like too much of a stretch, just talk to any writer, who might know something about becoming just a little bit unhealthily obsessed by one of their characters, Samuelsen says.
Beyond the plot, though, to write a radio play Samuelsen faced the challenge of creating drama out of dialogue and sound effects. "Things that I'm used to being able to accomplish visually I had to accomplish aurally," the playwright says. "I had to rethink how you communicate, basically."
For composer Dave Evanoff, his musical challenge was twofold: First, write a children's show theme to signal the world of "Fairyana," and then create sexy Christmas music as a backdrop for the noir themes of the dark comedy. That involved taking a sax line and putting it in a minor key, or borrowing a phrase from a well-known Christmas song like "Silent Night" and changing the melody just enough to make it sound dangerous rather than joyful, Evanoff says.
And then there's the performance element of making music for a radio play. "What I do to make it fun and to make it stageworthy is to play my iPhone or my iPad and do it in a visually appealing way," Evanoff says. On the iPhone keyboard, for example, you can blow into the microphone, which gives real breath to the performance.
Four years ago, it was something of a new idea, but now it's a musical joke often played round the world. "There are minutes and minutes of practice involved," Evanoff jokes. "It's a little cheesy, and especially in this script, that's kind of the point."
Rethinking sounds to make them also visually interesting is the challenge and the pleasure of radio drama, says Plan-B Theatre co-founder Cheryl Ann Cluff, who has directed all of the company's annual radio plays. Creating effects that might appear more interesting than the actual sound is part of engaging audiences, she says.
The cast's three actors face similar challenges acting without using movement. "Radio acting requires a different level of focus," says Jay Perry, who has appeared in all eight of the theater company's radio plays. "You're paying a lot more attention to how the physical gestures are affecting your voice, which is elevated."
The company's eighth annual Radio Hour is part of Plan-B's SeasonofEric featuring the works of Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen.
Cast • Jay Perry, Teresa Sanderson and Jason Tatom, with original music performed by Dave Evanoff, and sound effects by Michael Johnson. Eric Robinette is the sound director, and the play is under the direction of Cheryl Ann Cluff.
When • Tuesday, Dec. 3, 7 p.m.; also broadcast live on KUER's RadioWest.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's JeannÃ© Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20 ($10 students) at 801-355-ARTS or planbtheatre.org