Radio Hour: Sherlock Holmes

Went to Salt Lake last night, to see (and especially hear) Plan B Theatre and KUER’s production of Radio Hour: Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle.  Plan B and Radio West does this every year, get together to do a radio drama live, simulcast on the station.

RadioWest‘s Doug Fabrizio is a local institution. He has an hour-long show daily, talking politics, history, culture–basically anything that strikes his fancy, with an emphasis on the West and on Utah.  He’s a fantastic interviewer, and such a smart, informed radio presence.  There’s no question in my mind that Doug could go national–could become a host of a show like All Things Considered or Morning Edition.  He stays here; Utah is fortunate to have him.  I’ve been interviewed by him a few times, and it’s an amazing experience; you feel so comfortable, like you’re chatting with a life-long friend, and then you listen afterwards and you think, ‘gosh, I didn’t sound half bad,’ and you realize how much he’s gotten out of you.

Anyway, Doug played Sherlock Holmes in the radio show last night, did the whole show as one of just four actors.  Bill Allred played Dr. Watson, and Jason Tatom and Jay Perry played everyone else.  Jay Robinette was the Foley artist, and Bill Robinette was the engineer, working with director and sound designer Cheryl Cluff.  And Matthew Ivan Bennett wrote it.  Matt and I are co-playwrights-in-residence at Plan B, but in this case, I was there to learn from him; he’s written a number of these radio plays, and I never have.  And I need to learn how to, because I’m up next year.  I was there to study his craft.

Which is considerable.  Radio drama is terrifically fun to see performed live.  I expected that a lot of the fun would be seeing Jason and Jay vocally create this entire cast of characters.  It’s a little bit like when you see an animated movie, and then you see the ‘making of’ feature on the DVD extras, and you see, I don’t know, Antonio Banderas doing the voice for Puss in Boots, and you realize, he’s acting.  He’s not just reciting lines.  He’s creating a character, he’s involving his entire body in an act of creation.  You’re not creating a character walk or body attitude, it’s an incompletely physicalized characterization, but it’s still, you know, acting. Doug Fabrizio did it too; when he was Holmes, the voice was different, the movements more precise.  And then he’d go ‘this is Doug Fabrizio and this is Radio West,’ that voice Utahns know so well, and he’s putting on a different persona, his ‘Doug Fabrizio’ persona.

I’ve done two drafts now of my radio drama for next year, and seeing Matt’s last night, I realized how much more work I have to do. It’s not just an hour-long play with two short breaks for station IDs.  You need a three-act structure.  My earliest plays were three act plays: Gadianton has three acts. But as I’ve progressed as a playwright, I’ve gone more and more to a two-act structure.  Instead of writing beginning-middle-end, you truncate the exposition, and basically start in media res: you write middle-end. Plan B, however, likes a long one-act structure.  My play Borderlands is really a three act play, but I was able to tighten it down to a semi-reasonable, though very long, one act.

But Sherlock Holmes really was genuinely three acts.  Watching it, I realized that you need that first act, because it’s radio.  You do need the exposition, you need to take the time to really orient your audience in time and place.  Settings and costumes and movement in a space can’t help you–you have to create all that aurally.  And because it’s radio, and because radio dramas aren’t really done anymore, you need to accustom the listening audience to an unaccustomed exercise in story-telling through dialogue and sound effects.

And the world was created.  Through the simplest of effects, we were transported into a world, Holmes’ London, late nineteeth century.  We heard the crackling of fire in the fireplace of his Baker Street apartment, we heard the horse hoofs in city streets, and the sound of a goose being slaughtered–crucial to the plot of The Blue Carbuncle.  Which, let’s face it, is not a very satisfying Holmes story.  Yes, he cleverly unwinds the plot, and the nefarious jewelry thief is captured.  And then released, let go, Holmes acting as sentimentally as a Dickens’ hero.  Never mind that another poor schmuck has been accused of the robbery, and even if unconvicted, has his reputation irreparably tarnished!  Holmes waves such concerns airily aside.  The pleasure of Holmes is in the details, the way he can look over a man’s hat and confidently describe his history and character.

Anyway, part of me enjoyed a thoroughly delightful evening in the theater, (and my wife and I made a night of it, quick shopping trip to Trader Joe’s, dinner, and then a good play in good company).  And part of me spent the whole time in a state of dawning horror, as I realized just how inadequate my last radio play draft was, and how much work I have before me.  But re-writing is its own kind of pleasure, after all.  Kudos to a wonderful company, and a terrific evening’s entertainment.


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