Radio Drama Sees a Revival in Davis Square

pmrpPhotos by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Many historians will say that the “Golden Age” of radio drama ended almost 80 years ago. But for the Post-Meridian Radio Players (PMRP), it’s alive and well in Davis Square. 

At a live show, the sound effects are made on stage—we see the water poured slowly into a teacup, the envelope hastily ripped open, the tiny door built only for the sounds of its hinges and locks. 

One of the joys of watching a PMRP show is the actors’ commitment to the format and time period. Just as silent film stars used over-the-top physical movements and facial expressions, radio actors use exaggerated intonations to establish tone and mood. Seeing fully costumed voice actors and Foley artists work together to create a narrative soundscape eliminates any kind of “fourth wall” separating the audience from the show.

In many ways, the Foley artists, or the actors who make the live sounds, are the stars of the show.

“We have everyone fill out a questionnaire when they come audition, and one of the questions is if they are interested in doing Foley work,” says Will Spreadbury, a voice actor and publicity director for PMRP. “And a lot of people who get those roles end up loving it.”

The troupe has been performing its own audio drama adaptations of classic radio plays, old films, and public domain stories all over the Boston area since 2005. With live sound effects artists and costumed voice actors, the group is taking part in what’s become a renaissance of the genre.

“I grew up with radio dramas,” says Artistic Director Jeremy Holstein as he excitedly recalls listening to audio-only versions of “Star Wars” and “Sherlock Holmes” on Amherst’s National Public Radio affiliate in the 1980s. “I quickly learned that I couldn’t get away with reading in bed because of the light,” he remembers, “but I could listen quietly to the radio … so it’s pretty cool to be able to do this now.” 

In the spirit of the early days of radio drama, PMRP performs a series of live shows in front of an audience for each title. Then they choose the best iteration of the series and drop in any edits or fixes or better takes from another show to create a version they put up for sale.  

PMRP’s first show was a fundraiser for a local filmmaker in 2005. The recreation of a 1937 classic radio horror was a success, and the group quickly developed a yearly schedule. 

“The stuff that people are familiar with usually does well,” says Spreadbury. Adaptations of “Sherlock Holmes” (typically during the summer season when the group focuses on mysteries), short stories by Edgar Allen Poe (closer to Halloween, when horror is the genre of choice), and the annual Christmas show (a retelling of the 1964 film “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”) are always popular, Spreadbury says.

According to one member of the group, PMRP has almost fully exhausted Poe’s work. Recordings of “The Raven,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” are all available on the group’s website. 

One of PMRP’s favorite recurring shows is a gender-swapped “Star Trek,” featuring characters such as Captain Jane T. Kirk and Ms. Spock, which the troupe performs at Boston’s annual Arisia Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. “That’s not public domain,” Holstein is quick to point out. “We can take donations for those shows, but since it’s privately held intellectual property, we cannot charge admission for it.”

Holstein says he’s particularly excited for 2022, the year when the classic Fritz Lang film, “Metropolis,” will enter the public domain. 

“The problem with a lot of these older, public domain titles is that they are very male-centric,” says Holstein. In order to have a more inclusive casting process, the group doesn’t differentiate between male and female roles during auditions. 

This spring, the group performed “Filibus: The Mysterious Sky Pirate,” and “Confidence Confidant” at Davis Square’s Brunch Church. “Filibus” is writer Brian Kjersten’s adaptation of a 1915 silent film about a woman who is both a master thief and an expert disguise artist. 

“Confidence Confidant,” written by Eva C. Schegulla, tells the story of Kate Warne, the first woman to be a Pinkerton agent in the middle of the 19th century. In one memorable scene from the show, a character’s sarcastic clap is performed not by the actor playing the character, but by a one of the non-speaking Foley artists. The result is an unusually satisfying inside joke among the audience members and cast.

Schegulla’s text also has a lot of fun approximating the language of the time, at one point referring to a criminal forger as, “an artist who has enough business acumen to profit from his skills.” 

In July, the PMRP will put on its ninth annual summer mystery show, returning to one of its old favorites of the public domain, “Sherlock Holmes.” “Mrs. Hudson Investigates,” written by Phoebe Roberts, tells the story of the detective’s landlady taking up a case when Sherlock is nowhere to be found. And “The Adventure of the Empty House,” adapted and directed by Holstein, has Doctor Watson trying to solve a murder three years after the death of his mentor.

“Mrs. Hudson Investigates” and “The Adventure of the Empty House” will run July 19 through July 27 at the Brunch Church at 52 Russell St.

Show recordings are available at the group’s live shows and on its website, pmrp.org.

This story originally appeared in the Voices of the City issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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