There's drama in the air

When a shocking episode happens, it is rarely the case that only those immediately involved are implicated. A new Dunedin play charts the ripples of responsibility, writes Tom McKinlay. 

Hostage cast members (from left) Vinny Batt, Helen Fearnley, Emer Lyons, Sofie Welvaert and Alex...
Hostage cast members (from left) Vinny Batt, Helen Fearnley, Emer Lyons, Sofie Welvaert and Alex Martyn (seated). Photo: Kassandra Lynne Photography
Watch with your eyes open or closed, it's up to you, says the director of a new play to be performed for the first time next week.

And indeed, Jonathan Cweorth, the director of Hostage, has done much of his work on the production with his own eyes closed.

A peculiar approach? Only until you know that Hostage is a radio play. So while it will be performed at Dunedin City Library on Thursday by a live cast, the effect they will be shooting for is predominantly aural.

Jonathan Creorth
Jonathan Creorth
The play has been created by The Playgroup, a five-strong collaboration that grew out of a University of Otago Summer School course on writing for radio. It will be performed live by Suitcase Theatre in the library's Dunningham Suite, where the audience will be able to see the actors, who will be in costume for the occasion, and observe the sound effects being created in real time. Later, the play will air on Otago Access Radio.

Cweorth, a Playgroup member, says the hostage incident at the centre of the play is something that could happen anywhere.

"It could happen now. We haven't been specific about where in New Zealand, but it could happen anywhere."

Each of Playgroup's members - Cweorth, Joan Anderson, Gail Marmont, Beverly Martens, and Nicola Thorstensen - has written one or two characters for the play, which takes up the theme of collective responsibility behind "seemingly random, shocking events".

"Violent events don't happen in isolation," explains Cweorth. "There are always contributing issues.

"We're telling the story from the point of view of people seemingly on the periphery of an unfolding hostage scenario, who are all more involved than they think."

Hostage is the first stab at radio drama by The Playgroup. The actors too are new to the format.

"I have never directed a radio play before so it is all new and exciting for all of us," Cweorth says.

Since doing the Summer School course - which was led by playwright Caroline Lark - members of the group have been working on other projects, he says, mainly because there are not many outlets for radio drama.

"But then we had the thought of doing one and approaching Otago Access Radio to see if they would be interested in hosting it and they were very interested. They have been very encouraging and supportive, so now there is a local outlet, we felt emboldened to actually write a play."

Writing it took the best part of a year. The process of writing collaboratively had been great, but slower than might otherwise have been the case, as members of the group went away to write their pieces, then brought them back to be meshed into a coherent whole, Cweorth says.

There were characters that were in and were taken out; all this keeping in mind that they had to keep to 26 minutes, the slot allocated by the radio station.

"Writing to a very specific time limitation is a new experience for all of us, because usually it doesn't matter if you are four or five minutes over or under. That's been a real challenge to get it to stick within that timeframe and still tell a full story.

"It is quite different from writing a play for a performance on a stage. You can't rely on scenery or costumes or movement or facial expressions to tell any of the story, so you have to be even more focused than usual on the words, on the actual text."

That can bring with it a temptation to overwrite, so a lot of the writing process has been editing.

"I have certainly been finding as a director, that I have been directing with my eyes closed, which is a new experience.

"It is almost like working on a piece of music, in a way. Things like the speed and the volume and the emotion that is brought into each phrase is almost like a musical process."

While radio dramas might not be quite the cultural force they once were, Cweorth says the advent of podcasts means a potentially larger audience is possible. The audience does not have to be sitting next to the radio at an appointed time.

"Interestingly, new technology has made radio drama in some ways a more viable form of expression than it used to be, maybe 10 years ago."

"We are hoping that the production model we are using would be adopted by other authors in Dunedin. We are hoping to start a trend of people writing radio drama in Dunedin. We think that would be a really great outlet for writers and actors in a City of Literature, to have radio drama as a flourishing genre."

It's a format that avoids many of the usual production expenses of theatre, and once made available as a podcast, can be accessed by anyone anywhere in the world, without needing to bring the theatre company in.

"We hope it would be quite a sustainable form of theatrical expression."

As the clock ticks down towards opening night, the group is still working on sound effects, drawing inspiration from, among other things, Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre on the Air productions of the 1930s.

The most notorious of those was his adaptation of The War of the Worlds, penned by Howard Koch, which caused a stir when some listeners panicked, thinking the world was in fact being invaded from Mars, as the performers presented H.G. Wells' sci-fi classic with inscrutable verisimilitude.

"Which is still fantastic," Cweorth says, "if you listen to some of the things that he did. They are still vital and dramatically interesting and gripping to listen to."

For Hostage, trying to get the gunshot right has been a challenge.

"[We're] still working on that one to get exactly the right noise."

The Foley, or sound, artist won't be firing a gun.

A further inspiration for the play is the Talking Heads character monologues of British playwright Alan Bennett, which screened on television in the 1980s and 1990s, featuring just a single actor in each, and which are still considered the gold standard for this type of drama, Cweorth says.

"We thought that format would suit the collaborative model [of The Playgroup] because we could just give someone a character and they could go away and work on the character and bring it back."

At the debut library performance of Hostage, the characters, all seven, will be seated around a table and get up one by one to perform their monologue.

"People are welcome to watch the actors," Cweorth says "it is an extra bonus that they will actually be able to see the actors."

Or they might like to close their eyes.

The play

Hostage will be performed live at Dunedin City Library's Dunningham Suite on Thursday, at 6pm. 

• It will then air on Otago Access Radio on Friday, June 29, and then be available as a podcast. 

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