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The return of radio days: New Radio Play project brings local plays to the airwaves

By Ed Condran For The Spokesman-Review

Part of the appeal of podcasts is the intimacy quotient, which is high. But well before the popularity of podcasts, there were radio shows. It was common for families to gather around Guglielmo Marconi’s invention to listen to dramatic and comedic programs or to experience emerging icons such as local boy made good Bing Crosby and/or New Jersey’s favorite son, Frank Sinatra.

The sounds transmitted conjured the images in the listener’s minds for a visceral connection.

Vintage radio entertainment is back thanks to a joint project between Spokane Playwrights Laboratory and Spokane Public Radio. The venture, Radio Play Co-Lab, will air Monday and Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. on KPBX (91.1 FM). The retro concept was conceived by Spokane Playwrights Laboratory co-founders, executive director Scott Doughty and artistic director Dahveed Bullis.

“There’s something a radio play can achieve that a theater play can’t do,” Doughty said. “You can listen at your home with people you love. You are connected by the program. After the show ends, you discuss it and it’s fascinating how you all hear different things. Someone will say, ‘I thought it went this way.’ And someone else will say, ‘No, I think this is how it went.’ Anyway, you look at the success of (the radio drama podcast) ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ and that proves that this is a viable concept.”

If novelist Stephen King, director David Lynch and “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter decided to embark on a fictional venture, it might sound quite a bit like “Welcome to Night Vale.”

Playwrights Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink developed a story-based podcast a decade ago, which artfully combines the macabre and the mundane that occurs in the fictional Southwestern desert town of Night Vale.

Narrator Cecil Baldwin reads local news in his sonorous baritone. Weather via song and traffic in poem form are delivered. There’s nothing quite like the podcast, which airs twice a month.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a story in which there is a town where every conspiracy was true,” Cranor said by phone from upstate New York. “Isn’t it interesting to try to explain things we don’t understand?”

The Radio Co-Play Lab, which is cut from a similar cloth, is open to airing adventurous scripts from local playwrights. After sifting through a number of submissions, the project will debut Monday with “Brothers Before,” a script penned by Tristen Canfield. The one-act dramedy focuses on estranged half-brothers played by Matt Slater (“Pass Over” at Stage Left) and Tre Terry (“Much Ado About Nothing” for Spokane Ensemble Theater) who work through conflicting emotions about their father. “Brothers Before” is directed by Juan Mas of Purple Crayon Pictures.

The following evening features “Con Science” by Sandra Hosking. Her comedic script is about a man who is a pawn in a battle between good and evil. The cast includes Danny Anderson (“Bug” at Spokane Civic Theatre), Marlee Andrews (“Native Gardens” at Civic) and Kellen Lewis, who appeared at the Riverfront Park Pavilion in October in “According to Coyote.” Mas will return to direct “Con Science.”

It’s a challenge to the playwrights since they are walking the terrain of master storytellers, who only use words, voices and sound effects, to convey the action.

“This isn’t easy to pull off,” Doughty said. “But we have so many talented playwrights in town that I knew it would work out. I was so excited when Sandy Hosking agreed to be part of this. I was particularly fascinated since Sandy is among the most visually thrilling playwrights. Sandy writes in a bold visual manner. I thought about how we would take this rich, visual storyteller and convert her vision to the radio.”

Hosking, who was a playwright in residence at the Spokane Civic Theatre in 2015, wondered the same while writing “Con Science.”

“I was really grateful when Scott asked me to participate but I had no idea how it would sound,” Hosking said. “I decided to keep it simple with three characters. I have a guy with a moral dilemma. There’s an angel and a devil on his shoulder.”

However, Hosking flips the script with an angry angel and a provocative sexy female devil.

“Why wouldn’t you listen to a hot devil,” Hosking said. “I added a plot twist. I hope a lot of people will be surprised. I really enjoyed this process since writing for radio is so different than writing for the stage. I used another side of my brain and tapped into my auditory senses.”

Bullis is curious how many submissions he and Doughty will receive after the initial two radio plays air.

“I can’t wait to see what kind and how many submissions we receive after people experience what we’re presenting,” Bullis said. “I think this will be a revolution of the mind for the younger generation, who haven’t heard anything quite like this before.”

The goal is to air a pair of fresh radio plays each quarter.

“I would love to be able to do this once a month but that might be a stretch,” Doughty said. “We’ll see how things go. We still have a dozen radio plays we didn’t pick.”

Doughty is optimistic about the quality of plays due to the ability of local playwrights.

“We are in a community bursting with talented writers,” Doughty said. “We are not a theater company. We are a playwriting service that lives to support the playwriting community. We are about creating opportunities to bolster future projects. We’re excited to see what can happen with our playwrights through Radio Play Co-Lab and we look forward to the reaction from the audience, who I’m sure will enjoy what is presented.”

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