Volume 16, Number 4, Fall, 1998


Traveling in Radio, Part II

The Heinlein Audion Drama Interview, with Brad Linaweaver and William Alan Ritch

Monsen: The written word and radio are quite different. What were the most challenging aspects of adapting Heinlein’s stories to radio?

Ritch: For my adaptation I was fortunate enough that the Heinlein story I chose had a lot of dialog in it. I was able to take reams of dialog, untouched, and put them into my adaptation.

Like in any short piece, there are long narrative passages where either you have the main character narrate what’s happening, or you turn it into dialog. I did both. I had my main character have an internal monologue, where she does a little bit of the narration. However, I kept it at a minimum, because it detracts from the story. I used it in one particular place at the denouement, where she had to describe what was happening—she was the only one who could—and I think we did it effectively. In which case, it’s a monologue, but it's actually a dialog between her and the sound of the wind, and the music.

One thing that radio has to offer is you can play with sound so that you actually have a dialog with sound effects. It worked very effectively. But what I did is I added several scenes where the main character is talking to her friend. Her friend is actually mentioned in the story, but I gave her a larger role than the story had given her, just so our heroine would have someone to talk to besides herself.

Linaweaver: In my case, because the standard thing in radio is you want to avoid narration when you can is “The Man Who Traveled in Elephants” had so much narration material that if it had been done by a traditional narrator it really would have slowed things down and not been dramatic.

I simply invented a new character, to speak some of the nicest Heinleinian prose, which would be dialog instead of narration, and gave the character the name of the Ringmaster. Because we’re dealing with circus and carnival situations, you see. Sure enough that’s the role that Harlan Ellison wants to do, because it’s got some of the most provocative Heinleinian language in the story, and it’s a very dramatic over the top—perhaps I should say, over the big top—type of performance, and Harlan just gravitated to it naturally.

Monsen: Is there anything else you would like to add about the production of the audio plays?

Ritch: I’d like to talk a little bit about the other actors, some of the people I’ve worked with for a long time.

In “The Menace From Earth,” we used a young woman who’s in her early thirties to play a sixteen-year-old girl. She does an internal monologue, where she has her sound slightly different than she does when she’s speaking as a direct sixteen-year-old girl.

This actress, Claire Whitworth Kiernan, was able to do, without any sound effects or rework, the distinct voices between her internal monologue and her external dialog. You can hear the difference. You know it’s the same character, but you can tell when she’s talking to herself and when she’s talking to other people.

She did that with excellent acting and with mike technique, where she would put her mouth differently in relation to the microphone to achieve the slightly different audio quality. It was an amazing performance. She brought tears to my eyes at the denouement, where she basically thinks she is sacrificing her life to save her rival. She literally brought tears to my eyes and I wrote that piece. I’ve read the story many, many times, and I rehearsed it dozens of times, and she still brought tears to my eyes, every single performance she did of it. It’s an incredible acting job on her part.

Also, when we performed the piece on the road, horror movie star Brinke Stevens did a very good job as the rival. Then when we performed it here in town, Fiona Leonard did an excellent job, also as the rival.

Then, for her best friend, we had Karen Barrett. She’s another woman in her thirties. She did an incredible job as a teenager. She had just the right kind of slightly Californiaesque teenage sound.

I cast Daniel Taylor as the lead character in “The Man Who Travels in Elephants.” When we were going out of town—we only have so many actors when we’re going out of town—he normally does Foley sound effects; he’s a very good Foley artist. He had been keeping his talents hidden. As it turns out, for a certain kind of underplayed acting role—acting that requires control and non-histrionics—he is an incredibly good actor, too.

We figured we were going to hand this lead character part over to Harlan Ellison, so he knew that he was temporary doing this. He performed with lots of subtlety of character; he has to age twenty years over the course of the piece.

The story alternates between flashbacks and flashforwards. There are times when he’s tired because he’s on his last legs. His wife is dead, he’s lost all faith in the world. There are times when he’s with his wife traveling and is very happy. There are some times when he is in the big top in the sky although he doesn’t realize it, when he’s suddenly becoming more and more happy and energetic.

Linaweaver: Let me jump in here. I’ve got to finish this off because I have a little more distance from it than Bill does. When I first heard the tape—which Bill was playing for me when he picked me up at the airport—I wasn’t at all wedded to Daniel Taylor in this role because I figured this would be the role that Harlan would want. Harlan fell in love with the role of the Ringmaster, which is actually much more appropriate to his style. But I wasn’t thinking that at the time.

As I listened to Daniel do his performance, I was thinking “Wow, he really is appropriate, you know. If they do a show where Harlan’s not available, he should probably stick with this role.” Then Harlan ends up wanting to do the role of the Ringmaster which freed up Daniel Taylor to do the role of John Watts. Bill loves him in the role.

We’re going to have a show to be proud of where we both have some very big name people, who are very good performers, side by side with what you can call the ARTC repertory company.

Monsen: Can you give a little history of the Atlanta Radio Theater Company?

Linaweaver: The ARTC has been getting more and more professional over the years, and they even had some of their stuff put on the Sci-Fi Channel website, where you have Science Fiction for the Ear. I even managed one night to click on and got to hear myself, because I did some acting in an adaption they did of an H.P. Lovecraft story, “The Dunwich Horror.”

The ARTC has won two major awards in this area. I know from having done some long road trips that sometimes you get tired of just listening to the radio or just playing music. The thing is if you put in a tape of someone reading a book to you, that can tire as well. I really think that there are times when radio drama, full dramatizations of works is such that there’s nothing better. Audio tapes that are in the bookstores are simply actors reading books. I believe whenever you put up a dramatization side by side with a straight reading, the dramatization will do better if people know what it is and that it is there.

Ritch: About 14 years ago the ARTC started in Atlanta by performing on the air. They actually had a gig at a radio station called WTST. They produced a weekly science fiction, mystery, horror series, and it went over very well. They had a growing listenership, and they were scuttled when the radio station decided to go to an all news-talk format, and they were going to get rid of all their music, all their radio drama, and basically anything else.

That was how the ARTC started. They had many stage actors who had decided they wanted to do something different, and so there are some people who have been with the ARTC for about 14 years now.

About five years ago I started to get involved to do the technical stuff. I started doing sound effects. I started doing a little bit of directing, and then finally a little bit of writing. I brought in some actors that I had worked with from a repertory science fiction company called MRAP, which had been doing science fiction parodies at various science fiction conventions.

They took the best actors that I had available and started turning them from high end amateur into professional actors. Clair Kiernan was one of them, Fiona Leonard was another one, and a few other people. What has happened is sort of like the old television show The Avengers, where you have trained professionals and talented amateurs working together. The professionals have turned all our talented amateurs into professional actors. It’s an amazing thing to behold for a repertory company.

There are about 30 core people who do most of the work. It is a real family type organization. We all know each other too well. We spend once a week here at my basement, rehearsing and getting projects ready for conventions and for tape, so we are a real repertory.

Linaweaver: Yes, they go to Bill’s basement every week.

Ritch: That’s our rehearsal hall.

Linaweaver: The dungeon, the dungeon...

The thing about the professionalism is, when I got Brinke Stevens to work with them, in the adaption of “A Real Babe,” the story that appeared in the HWA anthology, Ghosts, edited by Peter Straub, Brinke—she had seen some of their performance before, but hadn’t got to work with them—she talked to me when we were back in Hollywood. She talked to me about how very professional she found the ARTC. Of course, she’s been a professional actress for a long time. I know they were very happy when I told them. Brinke was the first Hollywood professional that they had worked with, the first person at that level. They’ve got some local actors to do professional acting here locally in Atlanta.

Ritch: Right, that’s what I wanted to clarify here. About a good third of ARTC are stage actors who are doing work on stage either now or have done so in the past. We have in fact three actors who are equity, who are members of the Guild. One actor who is a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild, also. So, we have real professional actors and directors involved with us, and a bunch of amateurs, too, so it is a combination. Brinke was the first movie star that we had worked with.

All the other people are local Atlantans, which is not a very small pond.

Linaweaver: I know Brinke’s big time because her picture was on the cover of Prometheus!

Ritch: We’ve been performing at DragonCon for a good eight or nine years now, and we’ve gotten some good comments from lots of professional writers who have worked with us, or who have just seen them [the audio dramas]. About two years ago, an organization started that is dedicated to science fiction audio drama. It has a convention that meets in the midwest every year. It was founded by a bunch of people who have been involved with mid-western radio theater workshops, as well as members of the Firesign Theater, a radio comedy group from the 1960s and 70s.

Linaweaver: They had some of the greatest titles, like “Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers,” “How do You Know You’re in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?” And a great Sherlock Holmes parody, “The Giant Rat of Sumatra.”

Ritch: They were the leading comedy troupe of the 1960, and appeared only in audio format. Later on they did a couple of films, but they just weren’t as good. They pioneered innovative uses of the medium in the late 60s and early 70s.

Linaweaver: When Bill and I were college students at the Florida State University in the early 70s it was really the “in” thing to have the Firesign Theater records. The new radio drama being done at that time, when nobody, and I mean nobody was doing new radio drama, was “The Fourth Tower of Inverness.” We listened late at night on the radio. And right now, in the 1990s, there’s a bigger audience for this than when we were listening back in college.

Ritch: There is an organization that was founded to promote science fiction audio drama. Last year they decided to give out an award for the best science fiction play. They decided to give out one award.

Well, they gave out the award and our entry was in there and we didn’t win the first prize. So they created a second prize, what they called the Silver Plate Award, just for our production of H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau, clearly because it was such a wonderful performance. They had discounted us as winners because they didn’t realize that we had performed this live. They were listening to a live production. When they realized that they decided to give us a special award, they created a second prize just for us. The comment of one of the members of the group was “I don’t even know how to do this live.” He said he wouldn’t have tried it. Since we didn’t know any better we actually tried it and did it.

Linaweaver: One of the people in the audience when they did the show was none other than Michael Moorcock. And Moorcock was quite impressed with their production of The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Ritch: This year we sent them a tape of one of our productions, which was “Bride of Dracula,” and they created a special horror category which they also had not planned to do, just for us. Twice they have created awards just to give us, which I think is pretty impressive.

Monsen: This is all very interesting, but why should libertarians care about this?

Linaweaver: Of course, there’s the fact that Bill and I are life-long libertarians, and we are always looking for opportunities to do what I call “slipping it in.”

The fact is that in Bill Ritch’s basement you’re not having to deal with the New York liberal establishment , and that in Bill Ritch’s basement you’re also not having to deal with the Hollywood liberal establishment. This means that when there is something that is appropriate to libertarianism that comes up, there are no watchful dragons to get around.

There have been many libertarian moments in ARTC’s shows over the years, all the way back to the one where Bill and I first worked with them, my short story, “The Competitor,” and Bill’s adaptation; that is a very libertarian story.

We have become good friends with Ginny Heinlein in part because of the libertarianism we share with her. We are a healthy contrast to all the people who are constantly trying to do things with Heinlein’s name, and Heinlein’s reputation, who don’t begin to understand what Heinlein stood for. Here, at least, are some people Ginny can trust to not miss the libertarianism that is in the work of Robert A. Heinlein. She doesn’t shy away from the “l” word, any more than we do.

And of course, there’s this mess we’ve had over the past year with this phony controversy that Paul Verhooven cooked up with his Starship Troopers movie, with people running around saying Heinlein’s a fascist.

Now, of course, there’s a new controversy brewing up, where people are saying, “Well, maybe Heinlein wasn’t a fascist, but he certainly wasn’t a libertarian.” Now we’re having to deal with this nonsense.

The nice thing about these projects is that we are libertarians who are fans of Robert Heinlein. It’s the perfect package deal, if you think about it.

Ritch: Most of Heinlein’s short stories were written back in the 1940s and 50s, and there’s not a lot of what I would call explicit libertarianism in these short stories. Mostly that’s in his novels, and it’s in some of his longer stories, like “If This Goes On,” which is explicitly libertarian.

In “Menace from Earth,” which has actually no libertarianism in the story whatsoever, I work in a couple of oblique references to it. So, rather than expunging libertarianism from a piece the way Hollywood does, I actually put in a little bit into a piece that didn’t have it, and it’s because it was part of Heinlein’s philosophy.

Linaweaver: To properly reflect Heinlein’s use in other works.

Ritch: Exactly. I put in some Heinlein stuff from other works in “Menace from Earth,” just minor stuff.

The ARTC is actually composed of an amazingly diverse amount of political views for an arts organization. Most arts organizations tend to be of the entirely same political spectrum.

Linaweaver: As John Milius said in a talk he gave to the John Birchers when they asked him why he made the film Red Dawn. He told them, “I made that film to offend the complete political spectrum of Hollywood, you know, all the way from liberal to communist.”

Ritch: Most arts organizations tend to be that. ARTC has liberals in it, it really does. It may have one or two communists in it, but it’s also got a strong contingent of Republicans, and a surprisingly large contingent of libertarians.

There’s a wonderful piece called “A Case of Abuse,” by Ron Butler. It is a very libertarian piece. And this is from a person who is a Republican. That’s one of our short works that we put on our tapes, that are for sale. It’s great. I highly recommend it to all libertarians out there.

Linaweaver: Who knows, in the fullness of time, perhaps we’ll end up doing an adaptation of something really long, and we could try to get it nominated for the Prometheus Award. It’s not impossible, whether it is Heinlein or by one of the rest of us.

“The Man Who Traveled in Elephants” is history now. It went over great at DragonCon and Ray Bradbury introduced the show.

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