“Chekhov always wrote about people gazing off into the middle distance,” says Martha Webster, a Chicago actress and director. “That’s what people did with radio. They gazed off into the middle distance and used their imaginations.”

In her 60s, Webster quotes the classic line from Mame: “I’m somewhere between 40 and death.” She remembers the radio age well. “One of the things I cherished about it is that you can do anything while listening to the radio. You can wash clothes, dance, clean the house, do your homework. You’re not limited. You don’t have to sit in one place and look at a box,” she says. “The listener can supply all of the costumes, scenery, and make their characters look exactly how they wish.”

Webster missed working in the medium’s golden age–the 30s and 40s–by a few years, although early in her career she did a few radio commercials. Mostly she’s been in the musical-theater business, touring with shows like Bye Bye Birdie, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret. In 1998 she joined the AFTRA/SAG Radio Players, a group dedicated to presenting re-creations of old radio scripts on the stage that was the brainchild of Chuck Schaden, host of WNIB’s Those Were the Days. For its first performance, the players–many of them well into their 80s–selected Cemetery by Arch Oboler, a classic creeper from the 1940s. That year Webster also produced and directed a 60th-anniversary retelling of the classic science-fiction drama The War of the Worlds, the original broadcast of which infamously caused panicked listeners to think that the earth was really being attacked by martians.

Radio scripts are character driven, and the characters have to describe what is going on around them. “If you want to pretend that you’re running, you don’t stand there and run in place,” Webster explains. “You have to [she pants] use your breathing [pant] and your voice.” It’s a different kind of acting. “More concentrated, focused,” she says. “As an actor, you need to keep in your mind the idea that you’re doing the sound track for a movie. If you visualize in your head what is happening physically, then you have living radio drama.

“For people who have not experienced radio, it can be difficult to watch one of our performances,” Webster says. “People today have to be entertained in bigger and bigger ways. Everything is in color, loud, with a laugh track. If you see people standing on a stage, you expect them to be doing something other than speaking. People who grew up with radio have no problem letting the imagination go free. I compare it to when you’ve read the book and you’ve already imagined how the characters are going to look and then someone makes a movie and you’re disappointed.”

Thousands of old scripts are available to the players, but they want to try something different. “We need new ideas,” says Webster. To get them, the group has announced a radio-script-writing contest. Winners will have their scripts produced, directed, and performed by the group and will be presented with a recording of the event. The scripts can be comedy, drama, suspense, either in a modern or historical setting, original or adapted from an existing story: Webster likes it all, from science fiction to westerns. “The more sound effects you have, the more dramatic effects you can use, the more I like it. And the more the audiences do too.” Scripts can run as short as 10 minutes or as long as an hour, but the group says 15 to 30 minutes is ideal.

“A lot of those old scripts were written for recognizable voices: Fibber McGee, Jack Benny, Bob Hope,” Webster adds. “We don’t do vocal impersonations, so we shy away from those. Plus the contest gives us a chance to encourage new generations to taste all of the wonderful flavors of radio.”

She does have one request for entrants: the scripts should have good parts for women. “A lot of old scripts were aimed at Mrs. Housewife,” Webster laments. “Lots of good male characters. The women roles were always secondary, if they existed at all.”

The deadline for submissions is August 15. Mail them to AFTRA/SAG Script Competition, c/o Melissa Rivera, 1 E. Erie, suite 650, Chicago, IL 60611. The next performance by the Radio Players is at 2 PM on Sunday, May 21, at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington (312-629-6000).

–Vicki Quade

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.