Members of the cast and creative team for The Cabinet. Mickle Maher is third row left, Mark Messing second row right.
Members of the cast and creative team for The Cabinet. Mickle Maher is third row left, Mark Messing second row right. Credit: Courtesy Cabinet of Curiosity

In Willy Russell‘s 1980 play Educating Rita, the title character (a working-class hairdresser taking Open University literature courses in London) responds to the question “Suggest how you might resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt” with “Do it on the radio.”

Debates and speculation continue to unspool about whether or not online theater is really theater and whether it can (or should) continue after the pandemic ends. But even defining what online theater is can be tricky. 

Over the last several months, in addition to plenty of streams of previously recorded archival plays from the Time Before COVID, I’ve seen live real-time Zoom productions, such as Court Theatre’s current Theatre for One; new online film projects created by theater companies that are based on earlier plays, such as Theatre Y‘s lovely take on Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die; interactive magic shows, like Missed Connections with A Red Orchid Theatre; and brand-new plays created for digital viewing. 

Some of those new plays leaned into the world of online communication as an inherent part of the story. For example, Interrobang’s The Spin by Spenser Davis used a series of Zoom conferences and chats as the framework for its tale of political consultants trying to defuse a breaking scandal. Though it was prerecorded, we felt like we were seeing a crisis exploding on-screen in real time. 

It’s hard to say with certainty what kind of digital theatrical work will survive post-pandemic, though nearly every practitioner and producer I’ve spoken to in recent months promises that digital content will always be part of their programming going forward. But one thing that has emerged this year, to my great pleasure, is a mini-renaissance of radio theater. 

Some of the most satisfying work I’ve encountered in the shutdown has been geared for the ear, not the eye, including Theatre in the Dark’s atmospheric update on the classic H.G. Wells sci-fi tale, A War of the Worlds; Ike Holter‘s anthology of monologues and scenes created for Washington D.C.’s Studio Theatre, I Hate It Here; and Steppenwolf Theatre’s full-length radio-play production of Isaac Gómez‘s Wally World

Additionally, MPAACT is offering a full menu of podcast versions of plays they’ve produced in the past, such as Shepsu Aakhu‘s Black and Blue and By Association and Lydia Diamond‘s The Inside. Theatre in the Dark (which specializes, as the name suggests, in plays done in pitch-black surroundings even when produced live onstage) opens its latest radio play, an adaptation of Moby Dick, on March 11.

Turns out, “do it on the radio” is pretty damn good advice.

Chicago playwright Mickle Maher currently has two radio dramas running under the auspices of local companies. Cabinet of Curiosity presents The Cabinet through March 20, and 16th Street Theater streams It Is Always Almost Upon Us through March 31. 

The latter is the first episode in 16th Street’s podcast series from the resident MC-10 Playwrights’ Collective on the theme of “Are We Alive?” In 15 minutes, Maher’s play (which is presented as if it were an actual radio broadcast) takes on nothing less daunting than the nature of narrative and human identity. Nora (note the nod to Ibsen!), voiced by Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf vet Deanna Dunagan, is the host of a call-in radio show in southern Michigan, who keeps asking her unheard engineer if her husband has called in yet. 

She begins her broadcast with seemingly random musings about stories, and “the thing that happens”—what she describes as “the moment that does not need its story. The story is simply what it finds itself inside of. It is the moment that is lifted aside and placed in the world and its charisma is undiminished.” By way of example, she offers the moment in Pinocchio when the puppet’s nose grows like a branch, and birds nest at its end. By the time her husband (voiced by Guy Massey) does finally call, we learn that the Pinocchio reference isn’t merely incidental. “Life pretends to be a story,” Nora warns us. “It is a lie. Life is not a story.”

By contrast, The Cabinet revisits a piece Maher adapted originally for the now-defunct Redmoon Theater, which produced it twice onstage, in 2005 and 2012. 

Based on Robert Wiene‘s classic silent German expressionist 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, about a hypnotist in an asylum who turns a somnambulant patient, Cesare, into a serial killer, the original production of The Cabinet featured a literal cabinet onstage. The off-kilter set piece housed outsized drawers, out of which popped puppeteers in black-and-white garb enacting the story as Colm O’Reilly‘s Cesare narrated his experience, the sound seemingly projected from an old-fashioned Victrola. 

There was a definite graphic novel aesthetic to the design of the stage production. Absent those visuals, Maher and his creative collaborators—former Redmoon producing artistic director Frank Maugeri and sound designer and composer Mark Messing, both of whom worked on the stage version—have created what Maugeri calls “a sonic spectacle.” It’s the first offering for Cabinet of Curiosity’s new “Phonophobia” series of radio theater.

Says Maher, “As a playwright who’s not getting much work during COVID, as most playwrights are not in the world, I was just excited by the word ‘radio’ because that actually is viable. As opposed to Zoom or podcast or whatever, it really felt like, ‘Oh, that’s quote-unquote, real theater.’ But truly, my own personal experience of listening to the radio as a kid and different radio things like War of the Worlds or just Monty Python records—audio theater experienced on your living room rug—that was every bit as satisfying as going to the theater.” 

Maher adds, “The podcast trope is sort of the casualness of the host, and the feeling that you have this intimacy. And that’s the charm of a lot of podcasts, that you have someone who is for, lack of a better word, winging it to a certain degree, and there’s an informality to it. But then, combined with being rehearsed, recorded in the studio with sound, really considered sound effects and soundscapes and cues and music and everything—that makes it feel very radio to me.”

In essence, the radio version of The Cabinet (which runs about 40 minutes, compared to the 70-minute run time of the stage play) works, as Maher puts it, “as a kind of meditation on sound and silence, right? Because the source material is silent films.” He adds, “How does sound enter the world and how does sound enter narrative and how does sound enter theater? So it immediately seemed appropriate to me, more interesting to me, to bring it into just a pure world of sound. And we could feel at times the main characters get a sort of analog of how [Cesare] is experiencing the world.” Indeed, the sense of being inside Cesare’s head and then questioning whether what we’re hearing is real or not is heightened in this aural telling.

O’Reilly, whose narration as Cesare was a highlight of the live stage version, returned to do the radio play, with HB Ward as Caligari. The text portions of the show were all recorded in one (socially distanced, CDC-compliant) day in the studio. But getting the music and soundscape together took a lot longer.

Messing estimates that it took “three to four hundred hours” to finish all the sound and music in The Cabinet. “I tried to use the music from [the original production],” he says. “That worked pretty well because the first time around the music was created by writing themes and recording them and then mixing and matching tracks from those themes. And that helps the music sound a little more haphazard, a little bit less planned. So this was like a remix of that remix with the new script.”

He adds, “The script is really strong and the reading was really strong. You could have just released it as an audiobook and it would have been really cool and you’d get a sense of the story and drama. But the chance to create a universe around it was a really fun opportunity to collaborate with these guys.” Still, the amount of work required for Messing to create that score and soundscape (as a sometime-collaborator with filmmakers, he says it was about the same amount of time needed for a film) indicates that creating quality radio drama isn’t necessarily less time-consuming than working on a stage play.

Radio theater never really went away in Europe especially—the resumes of almost any emerging-to-prominent playwright from Ireland or the U.K. will include some work for RTÉ or the BBC, who both maintain robust radio drama departments. But though “radio play” adaptations with onstage foley artists and re-creations of old-fashioned broadcast studios are a fun draw for theaters (live radio-play stagings of It’s a Wonderful Life compete with A Christmas Carol for seasonal popularity in some places), having a dedicated radio production component isn’t common for most regional theaters, let alone smaller companies. 

But maybe it should be.

Maher says, “I think every theater company should have a serious conversation about how much audio work they want to put into their season. Because there’s so many people that can’t go to the theater, for whatever reason it’s hard for them to go to the theater, or they’re just more inclined to stay home and listen to something online. And we have the skills and the actors and people like Mark to really bring something very satisfying in their home.”

Maugeri envisions “Phonophobia” as something that will continue with Cabinet of Curiosity after the pandemic. He’s hoping to next do a new adaptation of The Old Man and The Sea, hearkening back to a show he and Jessica Thebus did in collaboration with Redmoon and Chicago Shakespeare nearly 20 years ago, Salao—The Worst Kind of Unlucky

While his current company has kept alive the visual and sometimes-fantastical elements that Maugeri and Redmoon were famous for, he finds this new sonic experiment challenging, but promising. And he hopes the radio shows also provide a different kind of experience for audiences caught up in too much screen time. 

“It exercises an important muscle for us in the west, which is sitting together listening, not doing anything else for a short period of time,” says Maugeri. “As we all know here, we’ve all become way too busy, way too multitasking of a culture. And the beauty of the radio experience we’ve been working on for me is, you know, I get to sit down with my kids and my wife, and we get to light a candle, pour some wine, and sort of stop moving.”

In a way, that echoes Nora’s conclusion in It Is Always Almost Upon Us. “Life must stop claiming its necessity. Its very uselessness is what makes it precious.” Perhaps more theaters will see the beauty—if not the necessity—of aural drama as a welcome form of theater, even after the doors open again.  v