Maspeth students to perform radio drama

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With a few props and a lot of imagination, students at Martin Luther High School in Maspeth are recreating a lost world of living dinosaurs and intrepid explorers through the almost lost art of radio drama.

Inspired by a Sci-Fi Channel performance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's story "The Lost World," English teacher James Clements decided to stage a version with the high school's drama club. A dozen students are in rehearsals for their Feb. 4 performance in the school's cafeteria at 60-02 Maspeth Ave.

"A lot of them are so used to television," Clements said. "This production is an exciting new way to introduce them to a new form of entertainment."

In radio dramas, the actors use only their voices - without the help of costumes, scenery or movement - to convey character and emotion. So-called foley artists create sound effects using assorted objects and their own voices.

"The audience has to expand and use their imagination, too," Clements said.

"The Lost World" tells the story of a late-19th century expedition into the South American jungle in search of a remote colony of living dinosaurs. The students used umbrellas to simulate the flapping wings of a pterodactyl and low groans and growls for the monstrous Tyrannosaurus Rex.

"It was different, but better because you could use your imagination, too," said Tabitha Peterson, one of the student performers.

The Sci-Fi channel performance, which was staged like an old radio program before a live audience, included several actors from "Star Trek" and foley artists using manual typewriters, old suitcases, tanks of water, and Latin drums to conjure up the sounds of a turn-of-the century newsroom and the South American jungle.

The Maspeth show may not have such experienced actors or range of equipment, but the foley artists are scavenging for sound effects, and the young actors have been eagerly talking to their teacher about the motivations of their characters, which include a newspaper reporter, the girlfriend he tries to impress, a cynical explorer and two dueling scientists.

"It's harder to get into character," said Annie Barczak. "It's more mental."

"It's more of a challenge" than regular plays, said Erik Nielssen. "I thought that it was more difficult, but in a good way because it taught us, the actors, to use changes in our voice and tone."

At a drama club meeting Monday afternoon, Clements went over the professionals' performance on video with his students, pointing out the precision with which the sound effects are cued to every word, signaling changes of scene with the rise and fall of a drumbeat or evoking a passenger ship in the dock with just the clanging of a bell and the call of a seagull.

Just as the actors are exploring their individual characters, the foley artists must learn to understand every shift in mood and scene.

"They need to know the character they are creating," Clements said. "The foleys, they almost need to know the stuff better than the actors."

The students seemed enthusiastic about the performance, talking intensely about the different characters and brainstorming for sound effects. Danny Birks, one of the foley artists, said his favorite effect was recreating "a man falling off a precipice onto a bed of bamboo spikes."

While the "Jurassic Park" movies and television program might have award-winning special effects, the students said their radio drama effects demand in some ways even more because they are performed live.

"It's harder doing this," Birks said. "Here you're on the spot."

Unlike most theater, where the sound and light crew are kept backstage, in radio drama the foley artists perform right on the stage with the actors. Instead of distracting from the story, the students said it enhances their appreciation of how sound effects are created.

"It's better because you do get to see the people," said Nancy Hall. "You get to see what goes on."

The student actors admitted that they watch television and film much more than they listen to radio shows. But Hilary Smith, the one public radio-listener in the group, said "The Lost World" had changed the way she thought about radio, helping her understand the effort that goes into every snippet of sound and music.

"It kind of takes away some of the magic," she said. "But then some of the magic is there because you know how to do it."

Updated 10:25 am, October 12, 2011
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