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Turned On to Radio Drama : L.A. Actors, BBC, KCRW Join Forces for 2 Shows

Times Theater Writer

“Treble the intensity, lower the volume” was the byword around the Culver Studios’ Stage 12 these last couple of weeks.

It came with driving regularity from the mouth of Martin Jenkins, senior director of recording for the British Broadcasting Corp., as he rehearsed a collection of top-line actors from L.A. Classic Theatre Works in two plays about American witch hunts, 17th- and 20th-Century style.

The first was Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” about the Salem, Mass. witch hunts (airing Sunday, 6 p.m., over KCRW-FM, 89.9); the second was “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?,” Eric Bentley’s play lifted from transcripts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ investigations of Communism in Hollywood. It airs April 17--same time, same station.

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Jenkins specializes in radio drama. These actors, who are among the most respected from the American stage and films, don’t. Yet. “It’s like doing a whole performance in close-up,” was how company member Rene Auberjonois characterized the experience.

Aside from being a first (and probably not last) collaboration among Great Britain’s BBC, Santa Monica’s KCRW and Los Angeles’ L.A. Classic Theatre Works, the occasion marks something of a return for America to homegrown radio drama.

“Martin has an extremely keen ear,” said Judith Auberjonois, wife of the actor and co-director with Susan Loewenberg of Theatre Works, which supplied all the acting talent for the productions. “He prejudges how it must sound. That’s why he’s always in the (sound)truck. . . . “

At Wednesday’s morning rehearsal, the truck was off to one side on the cavernous sound stage. The actors were running through the material on an improvised stage-recording studio in the center of the space, surrounded by walls of hanging sound proofing and folding chairs for the audience invited to the recording that night.

The actors worked at several mikes. On one side were the three inquisitors (Ed Asner, James Whitmore and Jack Coleman); on the other was the witness stand--a table and two chairs. Above stood a tall microphone for narrator Michael York and, lining the back wall, a row of chairs where cast members sat waiting their turns.

As they ran through scenes, Jenkins occasionally emerged from the truck to give brief notes.

“Nippier,” he suggested to Joe Spano, playing then-committee member Richard Nixon. “More intense,” he told Harry Hamlin, delivering a taciturn Sterling Hayden, summoned to appear. “Speak across the mike with all those ‘p’s,’ ” he said to Coleman as the inquisitorial committee member.

“Martin is very conscious of nuance,” stressed Judith Auberjonois. “The Crucible,” which was done without an audience in front of a single microphone and in a space roughly 10 feet by 10 feet, “was literally staged for the microphone,” she said. “The actors ebbed and flowed around it.”

“You have to scale things down without losing the mental alertness,” offered director Jenkins, founder of Liverpool’s avant-garde Everyman Theatre and whose background includes work with Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company. “You have to create tension, like a game of table tennis. A lot of it is persuading the actors that they are each not doing a turn but are part of a whole.”

The idea of doing these shows at all was sparked last year, when KCRW and L.A. Classic Theatre Works (an arm of L.A. Theatre Works) got together to mount a radio version of Kaufman and Hart’s “Once in a Lifetime” and a marathon cover-to-cover dramatized reading of Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt” that aired Thanksgiving Day. (It was later re-broadcast in 29 half-hour episodes.) But the trans-Atlantic connection was ignited by the UK/LA Festival, with L.A. Theatre Works eager to participate and England eager to find new American resources for the British market.

According to Loewenberg, the BBC put up most of the more than $50,000 that it took to produce both plays and will air them in London April 16 (“Are You Now”) and April 18 (“The Crucible”). Locally, KCRW provided post-production facilities and a cash contribution, and L.A. Classic Theatre Works supplied the actors who receive an austere National Public Radio salary of $500 each per show.

(L.A. Classic Theatre Works and KCRW will pair up to do Arthur Kopit’s “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad” as an ironic offering to air Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.)

“Every radio piece we’ve done so far has been different,” said actor Auberjonois, during the lunch break. “ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ was full of pizazz, very hyper. ‘Babbitt’ was 15 months of careful, intense work. With ‘The Crucible,’ we did three or four scenes a day but finally (recorded it) in one take. Stacy (Keach, who plays John Proctor) said he’d never been so tired at the end of a day.

“Are You Now’ is closer to ‘Lifetime,’ because it’ll be done in front of an audience, but not really because it’s more documentary.”

By the time the audience crowded into the space Wednesday evening and sat through the final 90-minute recording of “Are You Now,” it turned out to be a lot less hyper than various stage versions of the explosive material. “Treble the intensity, lower the volume” appeared to have been taken to heart by the company. The low-key intensity of the show--probably perfect for the listener--was in sharp contrast to the much more highly charged stage productions.

More than anything else, the co-production of these two plays has reversed the longstanding trend of British radio drama imports, and the future promises to deliver more such Anglo-American collaborations.

“I genuinely believe it,” said director Jenkins. “It’s been a learning experience for the actors. Radio drama has been largely abandoned here (in the United States). The joy has been that most of the actors have taken to it like ducks to water.

“The biggest problem is time. We’ve done this on a shoestring of time because of other business and costs. We’ve had to create a radio studio. I’d love to see what American actors can do with a Shakespeare play. . . .”


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