Are the 2020 Holidays the Perfect Time to Embrace the Radio Drama?

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The holidays are full of annual traditions, whether it’s giving gifts, watching your favorite movies or baking cookies. In a normal year, many would flock to the theater.

But like the rest of 2020, the pandemic has changed everything.

Many theater companies have shifted to doing virtual performances. Some are taking a more old-school approach and producing classic radio plays.

With doors shut and seats empty, the pandemic has upended the region’s theater scene.

Now the best way to get your fix of “A Christmas Carol” may be the same way your grandparents or great grandparents did: the old-fashioned radio play.

Theater companies like Ohio Shakespeare Festival are adapting Dicken’s classic tale and streaming it online.

But for Shaker Heights’ Radio on the Lake Theatre, the radio play is nothing new.

“That’s all we do,” Executive Director Caroline Breder-Watts said.

She founded the radio theater company with her husband, John.

The company performs both classic radio plays and new adaptations, which she says are having a moment in the spotlight with traditional theater shut down.

“So it’s a very interesting time period to be in where there is so much attention being paid to this artform.”

You can trace her love of radio theater all the way back to her dad.

“My father actually was a living witness to the ‘War of the Worlds’ phenomenon in 1939.”

Orson Welles’ famous adaptation of H.G. Wells’ acclaimed science fiction novel is a cornerstone of pop culture history.

“But apparently a lot of people came in late on that broadcast, which is why it sparked such panic,” Breder-Watts said.

A fact her father saw from his childhood home in New Jersey.

“(My father) said at the intermission of the play he looked out his window and saw cars—a traffic jam outside of his house—of people rushing to get out of town.”

This holiday season Radio on the Lake is streaming radio adaptations of favorites like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Little Women.”

Breder-Watts thinks nostalgia is a powerful thing during the holidays.

“Oh I think it’s everything. I really do think it’s everything. At least for this genre of radio play that we work on.”

In the world of radio plays, adaptations of “It’s a Wonderful Life” are the gold standard for holiday productions.

“It never loses its luster. It never loses its appeal to people,” Breder-Watts said.

But Breder-Watts encourages her actors not to look to acclaimed performances like Stewart’s when adapting beloved works.

“We want this to be their own work and their own performance.”

Another adaptation on Radio on the Lake’s holiday schedule is “Casablanca,” a story you can’t think of without picturing Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

She said Casablanca was adapted for the radio multiple times not long after the film’s release in 1942. It was common practice in classic Hollywood.

“The things that are iconic now, the phrases ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’ or ‘We’ll always have Paris,’ they aren’t always in those radio play scripts. They were written at a time when these films were not iconic.”

So they often add those famous Hollywood lines back in.

“We can’t do a play adaptation where there is this incredibly famous line and we don’t include it.”

Maybe iconic lines and stories are what many of us need this holiday season.

“It’s been such a difficult year. It’s been such a painful year. I think more than ever we’re really pining for a simpler time, a happier time, a less complicated time. And these sort of plays really speak to that.”

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