Writing and Acting Your Own Plays

If you want to write, direct or act in a radio play I recommend reading this book, which I give you for free and which you can print. It is based on 30 years experience as a radio drama script editor and producer.

Before doing so I suggest scrolling down to the rest of this page.

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BBC Radio Drama: "Sorry Wrong Number" by Lucille Fletcher

It is essential to acquire these talents for good spoken English.

In this course we concentrate mostly on writing and performing audio plays, as these are more easily achieved alone or in small groups than are stage plays or videos. Audio plays also concentrate on the spoken word, its rhythms, emphases and music. It is essential to acquire these talents for good spoken English. As well as becoming a writer and actor this course can help you become a voice actor for films and cartoons, for roles, where your non English accent could be an advantage.

  Online we provide audio exercises in which you can listen to and respond to your interlocutor. You can also review and learn from your audio productions; and remember that making mistakes is part of learning.
Audio Drama has been described variously as the ‘Mind as Stage’, ‘The Theatre Between The Ears’, ‘The Theatre Where Anything That Can Be Imagined Can Happen.’ It is primarily about the power and the beauty of the spoken word, which can convey to the human imagination anything of which it can conceive.

There is the mythical small boy, who prefers radio to TV because the pictures are better and the colours more vivid. In The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy twenty-six men and women can fit inside a sardine tin. In 1938 the comedian Arthur Askey declared: ‘Radio is the only medium where a man can sit on a circular saw in outer space.’ It is a medium for an audience with an active imagination. So have a go at writing and then recording an audio play, it will greatly improve your English.

Shakespeare, writing 300 years before radio, was, paradoxically, an excellent radio playwright. His language is full of pictures: of descriptions of scenery, of dress and of characters. The audience (from the Latin audire: to hear) used to go to the Globe Theatre not to ‘see’, but to ‘hear’ a play. Recently most major playwrights have learnt, developed and mastered their art in radio before moving on to theatre, film and TV.

Grabbing the Audience: the Beginning of the Play

Giles Cooper
Oysters
Audio plays should have clear and beguiling openings and use their opening credits to set up the play and make listening as easy as possible. Let’s look at the beginning of a famous radio play, first broadcast in 1957.
ANNOUNCER: This is the BBC Third Programme. We present a play by Giles Cooper entitled, ‘The Disagreeable Oyster’.
BUNDY: You can say that again.
ANNOUNCER:: ‘The Disagreeable Oyster.’
BUNDY: They do disagree with me, but how was I to know when I stood on the steps of the Rosedene Family and Commercial Hotel, thinking that the world was my oyster that –
BUNDY MINOR: Begin at the beginning.
BUNDY: And the beginning is at twelve o’clock on a Saturday morning in my office at Craddock’s Calculators Ltd.
It is a period piece, but no less entertaining for that. It is about a very ordinary person in a very ordinary situation and yet because the story is presented in a stylish and amusing way, one wants to listen on. This beginning conveys necessary information without spelling it out in an obvious, boring or clumsy way. It also begins to establish the convention that Bundy, the central character, can step outside the action of the play and talk to the announcer, and that Bundy is divided into two parts, the more thoughtful being Bundy Minor.

As you read the opening of the play, imagine your pictures

Albert Schweitzer
Let’s look at the beginning of a very different play. Babylon Has Fallen by John Fletcher, has a much a less conventional setting – that of a Victorian tropical island where Augustus Hare, an old Etonian with a Malaysian harem and David Worth, a non-conformist evangelist with a band of pious disciples, confront one another. John Fletcher, who is something of a visionary, has allowed his imagination free rein. He also wrote a stage version of the play, in which, at the beginning, the characters were brought on and introduced to the audience. This is he felt would not be so compelling in the radio version, which starts as follows:

HIGHLY DRAMATIC, VICTORIAN ORGAN MUSIC

DAVID: (PERIOD BRISTOL ACCENT)

One Morning the Lord God Ravished I. As I did sit at Sunday service, the sun full in the aisle, playing a voluntary upon the organ, a flare of raw light did hit my body, burnt so strong, I could see every bone glowing within my hands. While all about I the world fell dark and dead. And as He did ravish I, the Lord God implanted within I the seed of wisdom. ‘Go, David Worth,’ He said, ‘leave your Babylonian captivity here in Bristol. Seek out a place unsullied by human habitation and there build for me the Temple of the New Jerusalem’.

FADE ORGAN MUSIC

DAVID:

From that moment there has been no distraction in my life. At night I studied the holy texts of Revelation, seeking to understand the sacred principles of Divine Geometry. Upon old ocean charts I found an island, the Keeling Coco Island, lying deep in the wastes of the Great Southern Ocean. Myself, all my companions, my wife and children, my faithful servant Elisha all scrimped and saved, husbanded our scarce resources, until one day last Spring after many hardships, us set sail from our native Bristol, down the Gorge of Avon and out upon the broad ocean, committing ourselves to the perilous deep.

BRING UP AND SWELL SAILING SHIP CUTTING THROUGH HEAVY SEAS AND INTO THE NEXT SCENE

If these beginnings have done their job properly you are intrigued, even compelled, to listen on, to know what is going to happen next. Incidentally the fading of the organ music subtly directs the listener away from the chapel and inside David’s head, rather as one might track into a close-up on film.

Think how you might start a play that would grab a listener’s attention.

The power and beauty of the single human voice, well produced and acted, can provide a compelling and cajoling way into a play. If kept fairly short, the contrast of ‘opening up’ from this overture into a scene in a concrete place, with more than one voice, can both fulfil a promise and be quite arresting. It can be the second movement of your symphony.

Starting at the End

T. S. Eliot
‘In my beginning is my end’ (T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets), contains an important truth for dramatists. In order to arrive at an overall structure that will continuously captivate the listener, it is not be a bad idea at this stage to think about the ending. Try applying your mind to the end of the play as you might to the end of a pilgrimage, to give shape and meaning to your journey, to your narrative. It does not matter if the end changes radically in the course of writing the play. This will probably be because you have found ways of improving it. However it can be a good idea to start with a shape to give yourself an even better shape.

Why not ask yourself, ‘Why am I writing this play?’ ‘What do I want to say?’ ‘What thoughts and feelings do I want to leave the listener with at the end of the play?’

Planning the Structure in Between

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His most celebrated play was "Faust"
So how do you get from the beginning to the end? Here are a few pointers.
  1. Make sure that your listener always wants to know what is going to happen next.
  2. Construct your play like a symphony with different paces, combinations of voices and styles to beguile and enchant the ear.
  3. Prune well for healthy growth. A German dramatist once said that nine tenths of a writer’s work is cutting. That way you will be left with what is pure gold.
When you are looking for ideas for a play, one approach could be to think of two characters and perhaps write their biographies and backgrounds. Then think of what they want. It maybe that their aspirations conflict and this could be where the play starts. As the compelling narrative of the play develops, conflicts can be resolved and others introduced, until the final resolution of the play. That is if you want to have a final resolution. You may prefer to leave questions and answers in the listeners’ minds.  

Music

Cesar Franck
Augusta Holmes
Music in drama can be used in many ways. It can swing you instantaneously from one mood to another. It can remind you, perhaps in a single chord or two, of a character or emotion portrayed earlier in the play. It can act as bridge between scenes allowing the listener to reflect on what is passed and anticipating what is to come.

Perhaps the most obvious use of music in radio drama is in a play about a composer’s life. Playwright, Bruce Stewart, began Symphonic Variations about the elderly César Franck’s love for the young Irish composer, Augusta Holmes, with one of the most romantic pieces of music ever written. Being a married man and a strict Catholic, Franck poured his passion into a composition, that was not at all his usual style. In that way he sublimated, what might otherwise have become an adulterous affair.

THE BEGINNING OF THE FIRST MOVEMENT OF CESAR FRANCK’S PIANO QUINTET. AFTER 15 SECONDS FADE AND KEEP UNDER HIS MONOLOGUE

CESAR:

Oh my soul! My love! Only in music shall I reach out to you. Only in music shall we become as one. We shall identify, conjoin, like light from the far stars, shining, enduring, as long as music itself. My soul, my love, my Augusta!

SWELL MUSIC

This is also quite a captivating start to a play.

Sound Effects

Foley artists creating sound effects for films at the Lucas Skywalker Studios in California
Fay Weldon
Polaris Nuclear Weapons Submarine
Inside Polaris Submarine
Scottish Submarine Captain
Atom Bomb
'Remember Christ our saviour was born on Christmas day'. Painting by Bernardo Daddi.
Thompson is a Spanierd, a cross between an Alsation and a Springer
Clyde Naval base, Scotland
They are important but they should be used sparingly and ‘effectively’. If a character says, “He opened the door.” We do not need to hear the door opening. The picture and action is already in the listener’s head. When I was script editor of the BBC’s Afternoon Theatre on Radio 4, the largest number of complaints that we received from listeners were about plays being swamped by sound effects.

Making sound effects can be fun. Making the sound of horses trotting by knocking together two halves of coconut shells is well known. Foley artists (cinema sound effects creators) have a lot of fun, as can you, inventing all sorts of sound effects. Like music as in the play Polaris by Fay Weldon sound effects can be used to take us from one scene to another. The play starts with:

WE ARE IN THE CONTROL ROOM OF A POLARIS SUBMARINE, IN DOCK, ON THE SURFACE. THE CAPTAIN AND JIM, THE FIRST LIEUTENANT, ARE COMPLETING A DAILY-USER CHECK, AND EXCHANGING A MURMURED CONVERSATION OVER ASSORTED WHIRRS, CLICKS AND THE SOUND OF RADIO 1: ‘RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER’. THE CAPTAIN IS A SUAVE AND EASY FELLOW: RATHER TOO MUCH SO FOR HIS FIRST LIEUTENANT.

CAPTAIN:

Hydroplane system. One-man-control?

JIM:

A OK Sir

CAPTAIN:

Plotting tables?

JIM:

All complete, sir.

CAPTAIN:

Sounder?

JIM:

Hold on, sir.

SILENCE. THEN PING-PING-PING FROM THE ECHO SOUNDER

JIM:

A OK sir

Let us skip forward to the ending of the first and the beginning of the second scene:

JIM:

Cold out there, sir. Snug as a bug in here.

CAPTAIN:

Snug as a bug. User check complete. Down periscope. Goodbye, God’s eye. See you in three months. Take care. Small you said (referring to Tim, the Navigator’s wife), and learning to be sensible. Ah!

RADIO 4; ‘DECK THE HALLS WITH FERNS AND HOLLY’

CAPTAIN:

She won’t be lonely?

JIM:

They have a dog.

CUT TO: THOMPSON, THE DOG, HALF SPRINGER, HALF ALSATIAN, WHICH MAKES HIM AMIABLE AND ENORMOUS, SLURPS AND GRUNTS OVER THE SLEEPING MEG’S FACE. THE BEDSIDE RADIO IS TUNED TO RADIO 4 AND CONTINUES FROM THE PREVIOUS SCENE IN THE NEW ACOUSTIC. RADIO 4: ‘TIS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY’

THOMPSON:

(PERHAPS AN ACTOR CAN IMITATE A DOG. FAY WELDON WROTE:) Ploph!

MEG:

Go away Thompson. Get off this bed. You’re not allowed on the bed. Get off! Timmy, get him off . Timmy? Oh, Timmy, you’re gone. I forgot. Three months. Oh Thompson, you stupid dog, what will I do? Sleep. ‘Tis the season to be jolly.’

Thus Fay Weldon invents some call signs to signal, where we are going: the ping ping of the echo sounder, the Christmas songs on Radios 1 and 4 and the slobbering of Thompson. This is the next scene change:

POSTMAN::

You’re too isolated up here. You’d have done better to have chosen nearer to the Base with the others. But that’s your affair.

HE GOES.

MEG:

I didn’t want to be near the others. I wanted us all alone, just the two of us. Oh, Timmy. (SINGS) ‘God rest you, merry gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay.’

THOMPSON JOINS IN, HOWLING.

MEG:

Be quiet, Thompson, you stupid dumb dog. If you could talk there’d be some point to you.

SLIGHT EDGE OUT. DOWN IN THE POLARIS: PING-PING-PING

CAPTAIN:

(SINGS) ‘God rest you, merry gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay’ – (SPEAKS) Glad to see you, Timmy. Now perhaps we can get on with the fast cruise.

JIM:

Morning, sir. I was last aboard. That’s never happened before.

CAPTAIN:

You’ve never been married before. (SINGS) ‘Remember Christ our Saviour Was born on Christmas day’ –

It is interesting how Fay Weldon uses different characters listening to the same radio programme to link the scenes.

Layout of Scripts and Radio Acting.

Black headed gull
Song Thrush
House Spider
Audio drama is the only medium, in which the actors do not learn their parts, but in which they pick their speeches off the page. Thus presentation and layout are crucially important. The actor has to work very fast. She has to lift the words off the page, deliver them, monitor how she is saying them and attempt to make them even more spontaneous, truthful and interesting. The actors have to listen to each other and use each other’s energy. They have to respond to each other’s pitch, timing and tone. The lay out on the page is crucial. Peter Tinniswood in his play The Village Fete used this layout to help the actors.

NANCY:

[TO MIKE]. We moved from London to the country on a misty morning in early May.
There were no black headed gulls.
Thrushes sang.
Next door neighbour’s cat howled.
And the house spider came out from his hole by the fireplace in the drawing-room to bid us all good-bye.
He seemed so smug about it all.
The removal men couldn’t park outside the house.
But, of course.
William got distraught.
But, of course.

WILLIAM:

[ALOUD] It’s so outrageously inconvenient.

ROSIE:

Moving house is always inconvenient, William.

WILLIAM:

But it’s specifically inconvenient to me, Rosie.
I’m approaching the climax of my book.
It’s all locked away in my head.
I am rapidly approaching the denouement.
Do you understand?
The denouement.
And this move will destroy it.

Acting is a Response

Research your character as thoroughly as you can. Do not open your mouth until your thoughts and feelings are truthful, until you are truly inhabiting the character. To start with think fast and speak slowly and clearly. As English is not your first language you may need to take time making the English words your own. Don’t worry. You can speed up later. So first respond to your own thoughts and feelings.

Then don’t get hypnotized by the script, but listen very carefully to the other actors, their thoughts and their feelings, and respond to them. Make sure you’re in a little bubble doing your thing and not listening to/engaging with anyone else. Eye contact is great. Rehearsing with other actors in the green room (the actors waiting room) before your scene comes up is also great – and so few actors do it!

When listening back to the recording observe how your presence on the microphone contrasts with or counterpoints that of the other actors. Do you have a more resonant or a lighter voice? Are you a generous actor? If you are a man with naturally deep projecting voice, do you upstage your female companion’s lighter, less prominent voice? Should you lower your voice or edge away a little from the microphone to compensate? On the other hand do you upstage yourself by looking down at your script, losing your higher registers, sounding muffled and appearing to be talking in a paper box?

A good actor will pick up, contrast , counter point or complement the other actors’ energy, timing, pace, pitch and tone. In this way he helps to invest the meaning of a scene with a beguiling and accurate musicality.

I particularly recommend you to observe how edging almost imperceptibly into the mike and lowering your voice to make an important point can be far more effective than shouting. If for example you have an important impression to make at the end of a scene lean in a little. In this way you can give yourself the equivalent of a cinema close-up. Also be very conscious of conveying what I term ‘contained energy’ which might also be described as ‘disciplined urgency’. Radio acting requires 101% concentration for short periods of recording.

Listening to the Listener

Radio acting as well as being a dialogue with other actors is also a dialogue with the listener. In a dialogue you are inviting the listener to eavesdrop; while a monologue is a direct dialogue with the listener. The following precepts should help you to give colour and variety to a passage and prevent it from sounding read. Paint pictures in the theatre of the listener’s mind.
  1. Share your (character’s) thoughts and feelings with the listener. React to the imagined expression on the listener’s face.
  2. Invite him or her to anticipate, to share a sense of danger or of desire. Thus you will get the listener to identify with your character.
  3. If appropriate inject a note of longing and urgency at the beginning of a scene, to help the listener ‘s eager anticipation.
  4. Radio is a very visual medium. If you really see something in your imagination and respond to it, this will help the listener to see it too.
  5. The variety of expressions on your face can transmute themselves itself into a meaningful vocal range. The lifting of an eyebrow, fluttering of eyelashes, smiling through your teeth can very much affect characterisation and performance. If you are peering at something, make the action of peering and it will reflect in your voice.
  6. Modern English tends to be rather clipped. It is particularly important for non English speakers to articulate clearly. Don’t ‘swallow’ your words. Where appropriate try and find diphthongs, vowels which you can elongate or rest upon, to convey questions, thoughts, feelings or pictures.
  7. It is important in radio to signal questions as early as possible; so that we can see the expression on your face as we would in any other media.
  8. Think of each speech or sentence as ammunition to convey pictures, feelings and thoughts. Use your ammunition as soon as you can. Remember that the listener can only see the expression on your face and your gestures and even the reaction of others, through listening to your voice.
  9. If you ‘fluff’ (that is make a mistake) don’t panic. Simply go back a line or two or point to a fellow actor as a way of asking for a cue. (You need to do this so that when it comes to post production the editor has a choice of cutting points and can avoid hearing you correcting yourself). The really focussed actor will often use a stumble to think quickly and improve on the go-back.

Homework

Gerard ManleyHopkins and The Wreck of the Deutschland
Wrecked in the mouth of the Thames
  1. Read and think about the whole script, not just your part.
  2. If the author or director does not provide one, you may find it helpful to invent or discover a biography for your part – and think of where your character fits into the story. It may help also help to “hot seat” your characters.
  3. Mark up your script with accents. An acute accent can mean an emphasis and a grave accent can mean resting on a syllable (perhaps leaning in closely to the mike and speaking more softly). The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins used to mark up his poems to help the reader. Try reading this aloud: Thóu màstering mé Gòd ! gíver of bréath and bréad. It is the beginning of his poem The Wreck of the Deutschland.
  4. Always know where you’ve just come from when you start a scene and where you’re going when you leave….. And what you want.
  5. As an actor, I suggest that every day you listen to different characters speaking English in different situations either on film or TV or in real life and build up a portfolio of different ways of speaking.

A Fun Audio Acting Exercise

Joe Cipriano, Voice Actor for films and cartoons
Please refer to Secondary Course 5 , the introduction to the audio version of Treasure Island, to find an exercise as to how to use the microphone. Incidentally do not be frightened of the microphone. Regard it as the ear of your best friend or family member with which you can have fun.  
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