If You Go
• What: “A Radio Christmas Carol.”
• When: 7 p.m. Dec. 21.
• Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.
• Admission: Nonperishable food donation for Clark County Food Bank; $5 donation also requested.
• On the web: www.kigginstheatre.net/events/re-imagined-radio
You can keep your eyes open and discover all the secrets. Or you can close your eyes and dive into the story.
The story is a tough one about good old greed and natural human nastiness, which it fearlessly explores in search of the sad sources of Ebenezer Scrooge’s rotten behavior. Fortunately, it also packs a happy ending that’s both miraculous and completely logical, which helps explain why Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has been beloved and celebrated — and never out of print — since it was first published in 1843.
But you’ve probably never experienced it like this before. Breathing new life into the old story on Dec. 21 at the Kiggins Theatre will be the voice actors and sound-effects specialists (called Foley artists) of the Willamette Radio Workshop. That’s a Portland-based outfit that regularly presents old-fashioned, live-on-stage radio drama just the way it was done in the 1920s through the 1950s — the so-called golden age of radio.
Given all the spooky spirits and winter shivers in “A Christmas Carol,” get ready for atmospherics like clanking chains, howling gales and ghostly voices. That’s where your eyeballs come in, if you let them: You can watch Willamette Radio’s Foley artists create those ingenious sonic illusions through ordinary household items (hard-heeled shoes that click together to create “footsteps,” sheets of metal that rumble like thunder when shook) as well as custom-made gadgetry (a special flywheel generates the whining wind; the creak of hinges comes from a little stack of wooden tiles that protest as you turn them around a dowel).
There’s a lot to look at while you’re listening. But Sam Mowry, the director and boomingest voice of the Willamette Radio Workshop, has said that he likes the idea of some people just closing their eyes and immersing themselves in the grand illusion. That’s the essence of real radio drama, after all. When master storyteller Orson Welles launched his Mercury Theater on the Air in 1938, listeners at home could not see how the special effects were made.
Some even missed that they were special effects at all. The suspenseful drama “The War of the Worlds,” presented in the manner of an authentic emergency news bulletin, managed to fool at least a few listeners into believing Martians really were landing in New Jersey.
But just how many were fooled has been a matter of endless speculation. Widespread panic — or even just a little panic — appears to be more urban myth than reality. In late 1938, historians have pointed out, Hitler was on the march and invasion was very much on people’s minds. That could account for any easy terror the drama set off.
As winter weather and the holiday season approaches, people may be concerned about different issues. With its focus on income inequality and human suffering, “A Christmas Carol” remains as relevant as ever. That’s why the price of admission to the otherwise free show is a nonperishable food item donation for the Clark County Food Bank. (A $5 contribution to future radio drama presentations is appreciated, too.)
“Community needs are greater at this time of year,” said John Barber, who brings these live radio shows to the Kiggins as part of his work for the Creative Media and Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver.
“The performance by the Willamette Radio Workshop will be entertaining, but it will also remind us of problems such as hunger and homelessness, which are still with us.”