Live Radio Theatre: The Pictures are Better

Use a fresh apple if you ever need to simulate the sound of a person’s nose being bitten off.

I didn’t learn this on the job, but rather when I was 9, when my 11-year-old sister came home from the fifth grade field trip to the county courthouse. The withered, creaky-drawled judge acting as their guide had eagerly related the weirdest experience of his career: he’d presided over a trial where the key witness’s testimony so enraged the defendant that they leapt up from their seat, tackled the witness in the witness box, and, well, you know the rest. We’ll consider this primary research.

Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t grow up listening to Golden Age radio. I knew the era had both its triumphs and its liabilities, but my early education in Foley came from seeing radio plays lampshaded on sitcoms. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago, however, that I saw Foley work onstage

The biggest shift in my understanding came from seeing a Foley practitioner work without the luxury of a jump cut. In sitcoms, the sounds were always meant as punch lines, so the format was 1) Closeup on actor explaining a story point, and 2) Cut to the Foley practitioner using a ridiculous object to sonically illustrate that story point. The Foley I saw onstage required precise timing and active listening in a way I’d never recognized onstage, but now associate with great musicians, dancers, and puppeteers. Also, I realized that being fun didn’t always necessarily mean being funny. If anything, audiences were drawn further into the world of a story thanks to the cognitive remove. Seeing what they were hearing meant they made an active choice to commit further to the worldbuilding. The audience can even surprise themselves with their own investment: I’ve heard an audience gasp in dismay at the demise of a parrot they see being portrayed by an old umbrella. And they just met that umbrella 5 minutes earlier!

I knew I wanted in. As I started chasing more of this work around Chicago, a little upstart company dedicated to horror began an onstage audio drama festival of their own, and made it an international conversation about contemporary horror storytelling in the process. WildClaw Theatre’s Deathscribe showed me how horror could be a joyful, communal experience, regardless of whether folx “watched” the stories with their eyes shut tight, or trained on the Foley table for every single moment. I served as one of their trusty helper monkeys for several years before joining the company, but that was really just so they’d let me near the sharp objects. One of my favorite moments to date has been hearing the audience’s rippling, gleeful comprehension, as a character’s earwig-induced, explosive headache was realized through a pumpkin, a sledgehammer, a soaked sponge, and a 5’ tall rainstick.

I’ve been at the Foley table for Deathscribe since 2011, and took over as lead Foley designer in 2015. As I write this, we’re on the eve of The Culling for Deathscribe XII, where we determine which five out of scores of stories will represent 2019. I love the responsibility of curating this conversation. I’ve read maybe one thousand scripts for Deathscribe over the past 8 years. The stories themselves serve as a time capsule, not only of what we find scary, and why, but of what it means to be an aural storyteller in the radio renaissance, and why.

If we’re lucky, we reach and represent a new audience every year. The biggest compliment we can get for Deathscribe is to have someone ask how they can submit a story for the next year’s festival. And if one of you is ever inspired to write a script featuring a nose-biter... I have just the thing.


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