The power of storytelling transcends age, gender and predilection; since the dawn of humankind, from cave fires to camp fires, from the wireless box to the iPod and the Bluetooth, people have simply liked to listen.
That’s the premise behind St. Petersburg’s Radio Theatre Project, celebrating its 10th anniversary season in 2019. Many of the core group of a dozen or so – writers, actors, recorders and others – have been there since the beginning, and nobody’s ever made any money off anything.
They do it because they really, really like to tell stories.
Once every month, the RTP group puts on a “show” – reading, in character, from specially-prepared scripts at thestudio@620.
“I have talked with people who shut their eyes,” says co-founder Mimi Rice. “And people really love watching the sound effects as they’re being created, live. So I don’t think it’s just a boring thing, like watching people stand at a microphone.”
It’s not “theater of the mind”-style old-time radio, like The Shadow or Calling All Cars, although they’ll pull one of those out of mothballs every once in a while. The majority of the Radio Theatre Project scripts – thrillers, dramas and comedies – are submitted by Florida authors and playwrights, many of them local.
So it’s truly a creative endeavor.
“Writing a script for radio,” says Bonnie Agan, another co-founder and the group’s current director, “is a lost art.” It’s not particularly easy, either – often, the group has to “radio-ize” a story they want to do, to make the dialog feel more “picturesque.”
Radio Theatre Project is back at thestudio@620 Monday, Jan. 28 to celebrate its first decade. On the program, Agan reports, is an audio adaptation of the 1950s science fiction story Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. “I don’t ever like to make them predictable, like ‘This month, we’re going to have all fun,’” she says. “I like to mix it up.
“This one is a very unique mixture. Attack of the 50-Foot Woman is the first one, and it’s campy. And the middle one is a very thoughtful, bittersweet story called Litany, by Patti Cassidy, and we’re going to end with Janet Keeler’s Elephant in the Room, which is very funny, very lighthearted.”
This particular story began with Mimi Rice. “I’m an older actress,” she says, “of a certain age, it’s safe to say. And I was not getting cast regularly. I saw an article in Theatre Week magazine about radio theater, and how it had become very popular. And a lot of actors were doing it. And I thought ‘That’s it! Doesn’t matter how old you are. Don’t have to learn the lines. Don’t have to worry about sets. Let’s do it!’”
In short order, she recruited her husband, Eckerd College theater professor Richard Rice (director of the Woodbridge Playwrights’ Workshop), and as many of her actor friends as she could round up. They had an organizational meeting with Bob Devin Jones, who suggested they could do the shows at his five-year-old community arts venue, thestudio@620.
Musician and journalist Paul Wilborn was in on that first meeting, with his celebrated thespian wife Eugenie Bondurant. “I used to love doing theater, but I couldn’t ever commit to it,” Wilborn says.
With Radio Theatre Project, “You rehearse on Sunday, you do a show on Monday. It was great. And I got the chance to write for it, so it just seemed like a natural.”
Founding members Matt and Sheila Cowley were at that time working at WMNF in Tampa, and the radio station was a partner in RTP for many years, airing the shows (recorded at thestudio) via Cowley’s program Soundstage.
The catalog of past shows is available to stream on Soundcloud.
The Cowleys were (and are) gifted writers. Sheila’s plays are gaining national attention, and Matt, as the foley artist (live sound effects creator) is usually the unsung star of every Radio Theatre Project performance. Their audio production company, 128south.net, provides sound design, software development and voiceover production for a wide cross-section of bay area clients.
Bonnie Agan is both a stage and voiceover actor. “It’s fun for me to distill acting from a big stage persona to the microphone,” she says. “That’s a great challenge, and it’s great fun. It’s like, tie your hands behind your back because you can’t use them. And no mugging!”
Wilborn, who wrote (or co-wrote) and voiced the original series Noel Berlin, Cabaret Detective for several years, has been MIA for a while, as he put the finishing touches on an about-to-publish book called Cigar City: Tales From a 1980s Arts Ghetto (it’s about his days in Ybor City).
Still, he can’t stay away from Radio Theatre Project. “When I’m in town, I play the piano to open both acts,” he says. “And Eugenie’s doing a character in one of the plays this time – I’m not sure even she knows which one!”
The cast, according to Agan, rotates organically. “It’s kind of whoever’s available,” she says. “I start with the core group of actors. And mostly now when I pick shows, I pick them with actors in mind. That’s part of the whole task of ‘what to do this month,’ looking through all the scripts and seeing who’s available.”
Recent guest performers have included freeFall Theater artistic director Eric Davis and David Warner, editor-in-chief of Dupont Registry.
“One of the best parts about growing the company is the shows get better,” Agan adds, “and we have a lot of really good actors in St. Pete. And one of the many benefits of working around in the community is to know these people. And they think it’s a great hoot to do a show.”