Creating and performing a radio show stretched this writer’s skill stack. Photo credit: Nick Boland

July 1, 2020–Last week I ventured out. Out of the house, out of town, out of my comfort zone.

I took a class.

I’ve always been fascinated by the art of script writing. Which is unusual, because writing of any kind was not a plausible path out of the corn patch, and I never placed myself in a situation where I could work on an actual show.

As a kid I didn’t even realize there was such a career option. I thought the Brady kids were all making up their own dialogue as the cameras rolled.

But now when I watch any TV show or movie I’m paying most attention to the only people NOT on the screen–the writers. It’s intriguing when you realize every word that Hawkeye Pierce utters and every Frasier foible comes not from their mouths but from the fingers of a sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden, grad school dropout who clawed their way into this insane career.

While I’ll never have the opportunity to write for a real show, I jumped into a session offered by Playhouse 2000 called the Vintage Radio Workshop.

For five days–under the patient guidance of Janice Fronczak, visiting instructor and Professor of Theater at the University of Nebraska at Kearney–six wannabee radio actors built a script from scratch, complete with a miscast of characters, sound effects, newsbreaks, and commercials. The commercials were cheesy–literally, with Hostage Cheese one of the sponsors–“At your next dinner party, the guests will be delighted if you take them Hostage!”

The show was a cliché-rich radio mystery set in a theater, complete with femme fatale, vain actor, overbearing director, jealous ingenue, and amateur detective, with thunderstorms, missing crew, blackouts, and of course–a murder (collective gasp!).

In this small way, we were able to experience a bit of the energy and angst of putting our vision on paper. It confirmed several insights I’d read about:

You can’t worry about who gets credit
Writers on the best shows in television history all agree the process is smoother if no one cares who wrote which lines. In reality, the people involved are not even sure which jokes or ripostes came from their pens. It is truly a collaborative effort when it is working right.

You have to build every single thing from scratch
Especially on radio, there is no detail that can be left out. If a character is addressing another character named Dilbert, the first character has to say, “Dilbert…” If someone brings you a lightbulb, you have to say, “Here comes Tom with the lightbulb.” It makes for awkward writing for a reader, but it leads the listener down the dark alley you need to get him to for the next piece of business.

Sound effects matter
Much of the painting of the picture is accomplished with sound effects. When a character walks across the room, you make shoes stomp on a board. When a door opens, you open a door. There are machines for wind and thunder. And musical cues indicate breaks in action and new scenes.

So yes I got to vicariously be a scriptwriter for a week. I got to do a bit of voice acting, and ended up as the Foley artist–the insider name for “sound effects guy.”

But here is the most unexpected benefit: I got to try something new, with a group of people I’d never met. That is the point of all art, isn’t it?

L-R: Announcer & Spitz Cracker spokesman, Penelope Hunt, Dilbert Dittlewomper, Ethyl Long, Winston Timpleton, Candy Fudge (not their real names). In front, Director Janice Fronczak (real name).