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Since opening its doors to New York City’s theatre scene in 2004, RadioTheatre has been innovating the relationship between sound, performance, and audience, through their enthralling voice acting and use of tailored sound effects.
The artist leading these ventures is Dan Bianchi—RadioTheatre’s founder and artistic director, two positions chiefly among a laundry list of others. Bianchi—having been in the New York City theatre scene for nearly 48 years now—has also spent his career as a fine artist in galleries and museums; worked in Hollywood; directed the Royal Shakespeare in several films; as well as founded other theater companies.
With a wide-reaching background, Bianchi understands that to succeed is to be “collaborative” with the other artists that surround you—such as the group of 5 to 8 voice actors comprising the core of RadioTheatre.
Below, Picture This Post (PTP) asks RadioTheatre founder Dan Bianchi (DB) about the process of turning classic pieces of literature into hollowing, eerie works of audio entertainment, RadioTheatre’s COVID-19 transition, and what the future looks like.
(PTP) How is it decided which artists or genres will be covered by RadioTheatre?
(DB) After years of directing and producing in traditional and experimental theater, I still wanted to explore the worlds of horror and science fiction, adventure and mystery that I grew up with and love—all genres that have been generally ignored by theatre or treated as comical spoof. Yet, the worlds of literature, TV, movies, gaming, etc. have all learned that those genres not only make the most money, but they have loyal audiences that would dwarf the entirety of Broadway shows.
So, that was my first goal, to create a serious approach to those genres on the stage and attract those horror fans who don’t even go to theater. Also, I wanted to utilize a technical field—sound—which is often relegated to the bottom of the budget. The whole world is turned on to sound, from cell phones to cars and so on. Yet, again, theatre ignores it unless it’s a musical.
So, I discovered a software made for movie makers that allows me to create Hollywood type scores for my horror tales. What better genre is there for a fantastic sound design? Well, we’ve done everything now from Frankenstein to King Kong to War of the Worlds and beyond. Plus dozens of Poe, Hitchcock, Lovecraft tales—ghost tales, vampire fests, etc. Who gets to put that on their resume?
The Edgar Allan Poe Festival, for instance, offers such a range of his works. How was it decided which of his works would be done by RadioTheatre?
Well, of course, there are his most famous tales like THE TELL TALE HEART, THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO, or THE OVAL PORTRAIT, some of which are even taught in grade schools so people are familiar with those. But there are a lot more to choose from. Many have been adapted into movies, some producers just took his titles and made their own stories. He’s never gone out of print and countries all over the world love Poe—especially Japan. So we get many tourists coming to our live shows. I think we are up to 30 or more of his stories we’ve adapted.
Some purists might be expecting that we just read his stories from a book. No, these are adaptations. He didn’t write for the stage. And his language is quite antiquated so I try to make it easier for today’s audience to understand. I admit I might take some leeway in adapting these, like changing sexes for lead roles, since he didn’t really write for female characters. But, I do try to keep to the main story and message.
What comes first: the voice actors or the content they will be in?
The voices are chosen much like a band or classical music quartet. We don’t need four fantastic violinists, we do need, however, a second violinist, a viola, and a cello to make the group work. Often I have to turn down a soprano type of voice because we already have that in our group.
So, our voices are chosen to be able to mix in a fashion that audiences can discern who is talking at any given time. They can’t see who it is so, they must tell by the voice. If you have several voices that almost sound the same then there is confusion for the listener. Also, it’s most helpful if an actor can utilize different accents or vocal ranges to play multiple characters.
How does one prepare to be a voice actor, especially in a time when the physical presence of the audience is missing from a performance?
We’ve never focused on group exercises, each of my actors does his or her own thing to warm up. We do use microphones so there isn’t much strain on the voice but, with our kind of stories, you can expect a lot of suspenseful scenes and lots of arguments and screams, too. But, mics allow us to also whisper or growl and be heard clearly in row 100, unlike a traditional actor who has to project loudly for every word to be heard. Since we’ve been working for years together, we have our natural flow to mounting any show. Hopefully, if the coronavirus subsides we are ready to jump right back into a show at a moment’s notice.
What do you think audiences will resonate most within these renditions of classic works?
A listener has to do just that—listen, see for themselves, even close your eyes. We can allow no distractions because unlike most traditional theater or movies or TV, where a director has laid out all the visuals for you to see, no thinking is required on your part, you can be staring at someone across the aisle. However, here we ask our audiences to keep focused and participate in using their imaginations to provide the visuals. Most of them are quite taken aback by that, especially the younger crowds who are used to $300 million movies coming out each week. Leave your imaginations at the door.
In our house, I believe they really enjoy that they’ve been asked to come along for the ride. For instance, when a traditional play or movie has a beautiful girl or a monster in it people see what the director decided for them is a beautiful girl or monster. With RadioTheatre, if we say a beautiful girl walked into the room, that’s all we need to say because instantly there are 300 versions of that girl out there in the minds of our audience. I didn’t dictate to them my version of that girl, yet, at the end of our shows, they’ll come up to me and congratulate me about characters or scenes they “saw.” That was the power of audio dramas back in the Golden Era of radio, the theatre of the imagination. Many of those old listeners still remember what they “saw” one night long ago.
An excellent element to the RadioTheatre Hour audios are the sound FX. What is the process of tailoring the sounds to the voice actors’ audio?
What I’ve always told my actors through the years is that with this kind of performance art, you must consider the sound or music cues as a fellow actor on stage. You can’t run over its lines with yours or we won’t hear the sound effect. We have custom made orchestral music, much of it runs behind scenes, sometimes the actors have to time their monologues to end at just the right moment. And the audience is amazed. They’ve never seen that in a drama on stage. Well, we’ve perfected that kind of theatre in order to create something quite different than anything else on stage. Our sound engineer is a whiz at timing, and we don’t need many rehearsals at this point to make it all work together.
Since COVID-19 has robbed many in-house productions of their runs, what has RadioTheatre’s transition been like?
Our transition was quite easy compared to most traditional play groups. Since we’ve recorded most of our live stage shows through the years, I collected the best tales and concocted albums that run nearly 3 hours, each filled with frightening tales of terror, science-fiction, and ghost stories. Hopefully, we can get our group together again soon, if not before audiences, but just to record some new tales and release them again online. It’s not going to pay the bills but we have a great venue to work in and it helps to keep RadioTheatre alive and well, while many NYC theaters and groups have closed for good.
What kind of service do you think RadioTheatre provides to people caught inside quarantine right now?
Well, for one thing, since we deal with classic works from literature, it helps listeners to catch up on Mr. Poe’s repertoire, or H.P. Lovecraft’s tales, and so on. For some, it may turn them on to audio theatre and one day they may attend one of our live shows in the 200 year old St. John’s Sanctuary in historic Greenwich Village, amid the candlelight, fog, and added spooky stuff, and of course, the storytelling.
With each festival and with each audio, what is RadioTheatre’s goal?
My initial goal was to present material that one does not see or hear in traditional theatre—whether in a small venue or on Broadway. And, since I am a horror fanatic, I want to present it correctly, not as a goofy musical or whatever. Live theatre may even be the best medium to present such genres as long as you connect with the audience and invite them to participate. After all, theatre began eons ago when mankind sat around a fire in the dark and told tales. As long as the storyteller can deliver that tale correctly, that’s all you need to succeed in making your point and scaring the hell out of your audience.
But, I also have a far-reaching goal too: the use of sound in drama. RadioTheatre has perfected it to the point that any play from the Greeks to Shakespeare to modern plays can sound like a Hollywood movie. With the use of this special software that’s easy to learn one doesn’t even have to be a trained composer. But, most traditionalists are scared to use it. They didn’t learn that in school. It’s like when musical artists refused to use microphones but now it’s a requirement for any musical. Someday, the playmakers may be brave enough to experiment with this method, and I think it will revolutionize the world of theatre.
If and when live performances come back, what are you looking forward to?
Seeing those faces every night as they leave the theatre. Wow! Our audiences love what we do and are not afraid to keep us there for an extra half hour commending us, taking photos, and getting signatures. And—what amazes me—they love our simple sets so much they form long lines to take photos. Who does that? Many of them return over and over even during the same festival and we recognize them. But, I do keep our ticket prices low enough so that most anyone can attend. It’s part of our mission. I know they’re probably purchasing a lot of our albums now, but, it’s still not the same. So, whatever we do on stage next, I look forward to seeing our audiences again!
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(ALL REVIEWS ARE LISTED IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER BELOW)
THE BLACK CAT
THE OVAL PORTRAIT
SHADOW OF A DOUBT
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
Photos courtesy of Dan Bianchi