The golden age of radio gets newer all the time.
For years now, the Kiggins Theatre and Re-Imagined Radio, a Washington State University Vancouver project, have been reviving the bygone era when families gathered around a grand wooden box in the living room to listen.
Yes, just listen. There was no screen to grab your peepers in those days, so eyes took a rest while imaginations took over. That’s the deep delight of sonic-only storytelling, be it on the air, on stage or at bedtime: it’s absorbing and stimulating without being overwhelming and deadening, the way sound-plus-screen can be. (Did anyone ever call radio “the idiot box”?)
So, local radio-drama lovers nearly slipped on a banana peel upon hearing that, for the first time in years, Portland’s busy Willamette Radio Workshop won’t perform its annual holiday classic “A Radio Christmas Carol” at the Kiggins this year.
“We couldn’t find a time that worked for everyone,” said John Barber, who has steered Re-Imagined Radio as a faculty member in the creative media and digital culture department at WSUV. “It was a challenge we just couldn’t solve.”
But Kiggins owner Dan Wyatt recalled that Vancouver’s own Metropolitan Performing Arts group recently shone during a live reading of the script “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” at a Harry Potter festival. Turning to Metropolitan to carry on the radio-drama tradition seemed like the perfect way to transform a loss into a win, Barber said.
The man who invented Scrooge
Superheroes and beloved characters have always needed backstories — and the worse the better. The lonely but loving Superman is an orphan from another planet; the darkly brooding Batman witnessed the murder of his own parents. Trauma like that can really fix your personality.
What about villains? Ebenezer Scrooge certainly qualifies. His associates and underlings both hate and pity him, but nobody knows why he’s such a greedy jerk until ghosts start showing up on Christmas Eve. They show us that Scrooge is only passing along the karma he’s been handed. He was just a child when his icy father shipped him off to boarding school, where he appears to have been an outcast. His dread of poverty drove him to prize security — money, that is — above all else. And, after his one true love rejected him, grasping for money metastasized through his whole self.
Should we have said “spoiler alert”? It’s the rare person who doesn’t know the basics of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” a short novel of such straightforward, moralizing genius, it’s earned a place among timeless legends and fairy tales. It had incalculable effect on the way the Western world now celebrates the holiday, which is why a movie now making the rounds about Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” is called “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”
Ironically enough, according to one biographer, Dickens wrote this powerful work about greed and poverty while in a “white heat” of worry about his own failing finances.
“Let’s go a little more grassroots than before,” he thought. “Why have this event in Vancouver and bring in the entertainment from afar?” The idea of developing a local stable of voice actors and sound-effects specialists “is quite exciting when you think about all the ways it could go,” he said.
“This is an experiment. It doesn’t mean we can’t go back to Willamette Radio in the future. That door has not been closed,” he said.
But Metropolitan Performing Arts is more than ready to take the sonic stage, according to executive director Barbara Richardson. If this “Radio Christmas Carol” goes well, she said, she can easily envision Metropolitan assuming the tradition of quarterly, seasonal radio-drama performances at Kiggins.
A radio play is so much easier to deliver than a full-stage production, Richardson said; the latter is a complex business that demands costumes, sets and weeks of full-time rehearsal, while the former just needs a handful of run-throughs with a P.A. system.
When radio drama “fell into my lap, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do something creative with the adults in our program,” she said.
But isn’t Metropolitan a kid-oriented outfit? “There are two sides to our organization,” Richardson said. “We have our academy, which is predominantly for kids … but we have a community theater side. We do a lot of performing in Portland because there’s no arts center in Vancouver. It’s a shame the local community doesn’t know much about that.”
“A Radio Christmas Carol” veterans will notice some differences in the Metropolitan approach. Fewer microphones shared by more actors. Teen carolers as well as the Juleps, a Vancouver singing group in the style of the Andrews Sisters, smoothing scene transitions. And, a live keyboard player adding mood music as well as a traditional Foley artist — that is, a sound-effects wizard — seasoning it all with the slamming doors, clanking chains and howling gusts that bring unseen ghosts alive.