I am one of the re-creation directors at this year’s SPERDVAC Old Time Radio Convention and I thought that I would provide a glimpse into the process of making one of these shows happen.Not that it’s especially difficult, but it does take a lot of preparation!A friend
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of mine simply thought that I showed up at the convention the day of the performance with a script in hand with a room full of actors and then point at them with an air of authority to signal them to begin reading at the microphone. Well, not quite…
A few months ago I was asked to direct at show at this year’s SPERDVAC convention. Typically the director is left a free hand to choose a show of their liking. This year the theme was the holiday season, so I started by listening to several Old Time Radio Christmas shows. Unfortunately, nothing really caught my attention as something that I’d like to direct. So I tried listening to some Thanksgiving themed shows and hit upon a gem: an episode of “Jeff Regan, Investigator” titled “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” I’ve always loved Jack Webb on radio and was delighted to hear him in his days before “Dragnet” as this tough-talking private eye.He sounded like a wisecracking, “don’t waste my time” version of Joe Friday.
Once I selected the show, I asked that it be transcribed for me. Chris McMillan was the SPERDVAC volunteer who made a perfect copy of the script for me. Next, I placed it into the format that I prefer to use. I use numbered lines, as in a legal contract, so that it is easy to refer to any part of the script when giving notes to cast or crew: “Cut the last word in Line # 17,” for example. I use Courier font, 16 point. Courier is very clear and the larger type, while making what should be a 30-page script into a 47-page script, also makes it easier to see under what may be less-than-optimal lighting conditions on the stage. Remember, we do these re-creations on a temporary stage erected in a hotel ballroom and not in a real theater with lighting rigged specifically for that purpose.
I then listen to the recording of the actual broadcast to double-check everything. At the same time I place all sound effect cues and music cues in CAPS, underline them and number them. Again, this is for easy reference and the capitalization and underlining set these cues apart from what the actors are reading. Sometimes it can get confusing when dialogue and music and sound all happen at the same time (this happens often at the climax of action stories). I take care in writing the descriptions of what happens when so as to minimize any confusion. Another thing to keep in mind is that we put these shows on, from read-through to tech rehearsal to performance in front of an audience, all in the same day. Often these actors, sound engineers, music, and sound effects artists are doing many shows on the same day. As a director, it’s my job to be clear on what I need from everyone working on my show.
Next, I work with Randy and Chris McMillan on the live music that I will be using. Usually Randy will recreate the same music, cue for cue. During the show, Chris, his partner in all things, watches me for the cues. She taps Randy, who is blind, and whispers the cue in his ear and Randy plays it with superb perfection.
The script is sent to the actors in the cast, and the sound effect team.I identify which effects will be done live (always my preference) and which ones will have to be played as a recording.In “Jeff Regan” nearly everything will be live except for a car starting, driving, stopping, some ambient background sound of turkeys, crickets, and gunshots.Whereas, we can do live gunshots (and I have in the past), sometimes I prefer it as a recorded effect.Live guns firing blanks are still very loud and startling for the audience.In this story I need to build multiple gunshots at a specific pace.So, I will search my files for the best sound effects to use and place them in a folder of mp3 files to give to the sound engineers for playback during the show.I also create a separate Music and SFX Cue Sheet for the sound and music teams and myself.It lists the script page number, the cue number, the cue description as it appears in the script, and whether it is live or recorded.
As for casting, I always have a few actors in mind for certain roles.I ask the organizers to use them and we work together to make sure all of our performing guests get utilized appropriately.It’s rude to invite someone to perform and then only use them once, in a small role, during the whole convention.So Walden Hughes, John and Larry Gassman get together with all of the directors and hammer out a schedule for everyone involved.This scheduling is always difficult to do takes many versions to get it right.
So on Friday afternoon of the Convention I will have an hour to have a read-through with the cast.We will all meet together for the first time in a conference room, say hi to each other, I will answer questions, and then we will read the script out loud.I typically give my notes and suggestions after the read-through, we go over any parts that are difficult, and that’s it.
A couple of hours later we will assemble in the ballroom with the stage set, microphones in place, and music and sound stations ready for action. This is the technical (or Tech) rehearsal. I have an hour for this. Like a conductor, the director has to get everyone to blend his or her performances (actors, music, sound effects and sound levels) into the best version of the show we can create. This is part where I stand at a podium and point my finger at the actor, music, or sound personnel as necessary. One of the things I also try to work out before the Tech is assigning microphones. You don’t think about it until it goes wrong—when actors are unsure of which microphone to use, or they use one that is set too high (for taller performers) and therefore their voice isn’t as loud as it should be. I draw a diagram and map which actor should work which microphone (numbered 1-5) if I have a large cast. One of the microphones is set aside if I use a filter microphone to simulate a voice on the other end of a telephone line (as I will for “Jeff Regan”). The actors will work the remaining four microphones.
There!That’s it in a nutshell!After all this, my friend is correct.I just stand there and point my finger with an air of authority and the show goes on.That part is easy IF I’ve done all the hard work beforehand.
I hope you found this somewhat interesting! My goal is to shed some light on a process that I took for granted when I attended these conventions in the past in my days before directing re-creations. Gotta go now. I still have sound effects to find for my show!
I’m just saying…