Bits ‘n’ Pieces: Radio plays scare up some chills at Kiggins

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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It’s back to an old-fashioned future at the Kiggins Theatre on Wednesday night — with the sounds of rebellious robots and spooky supervillains supposedly headed for that newfangled wireless contraption in everybody’s living room.

In reality, a live audience will witness the magic of handmade sound effects as foley artists clank chains, turn grinders, slam doors and otherwise create convincing sonic illusions, just the way it was done during the Golden Age of Radio.

Two early science-fiction radio plays will be brought to the Kiggins stage on Wednesday by Re-Imagined Radio. That’s a collaboration by the Kiggins, Washington State University Vancouver faculty member John Barber of the Creative Media and Digital Culture department and Portland-based Willamette Radio Workshop, a nonprofit that re-creates radio drama in front of live audiences using voice actors and those clever foley artists. You can learn more about Willamette Radio Workshop at www.radiowork.com.

The two Radio partners — Willamette and Re-Imagined — have already brought a half-dozen or so live performances to the Kiggins over the last couple of years, and those have been heavy on the otherworldly and supernatural, with such material as Charles Dickens’ ghostly “A Christmas Carol” and the original panic-inducing 1938 Orson Welles production of “The War of the Worlds.” Hey, when you’ve got your audience’s ears feeding directly into their imaginations, why not crank up the strangest, scariest sounds possible?

Such was the original situation for radio listeners — whereas at Kiggins you can see just how, for example, a whirring vacuum effectively impersonates an alien spaceship swishing down through the atmosphere on its way to a tidy little invasion.

Next week’s Halloween-season plays will keep mining the origins of modern science fiction. The first is “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” by Czechoslovakian writer Karel Capek, which premiered onstage in Prague in 1921 and is credited with inventing that word for a mechanical slave who, one hopes, never grows any sense of independence.

We know how that goes. In “R.U.R.,” a tenderhearted factory wife pities the poor overworked robots and manages to supply them with feelings. Realizing that you’re resentful of your masters — and that you vastly outnumber them — is the stuff of revolution, of course.

The other play is “The Fall of the City,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Archibald MacLeish, who said he based this 1937 drama-in-verse partially on the surrender of Austria to Nazi Germany without resistance. When rumors begin to spread that their nameless city has already been conquered, the people debate what to do — with many ready to welcome their conquerors. A sole radio announcer is the only one who can see that the conqueror is only an empty suit of armor. The play considers questions about the meaning of freedom and people’s hunger for powerful leaders.

This scary — and thought-provoking — sci-fi doubleheader is set for 7 p.m. (doors open at 6) Wednesday at the Kiggins Theatre, 1101 Main St. in downtown Vancouver. The performance is free but as always, the Kiggins hopes you’ll make it worthwhile by buying popcorn, candy or even an adult beverage in the upstairs bar.

Learn more about Re-Imagined Radio at www.kigginstheatre.net/events/re-imagined-radio.


Bits ‘n’ Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you’d like to share, email bits@columbian.com.