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Review: “The Veldt” Radio Play at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Hello, dear readers!

I have a somewhat special treat today, and I’m excited to talk about it. Last night, Anastasia and I went to the Chemical Heritage Foundation to see a performance of an old-timey radio production of “The Veldt,” a famous short story by Ray Bradbury. The production was staged by the Hear Again Radio Project and The Mechanical Theater.

I feel it’s helpful to have an example of how the X-1 radio play sounds to get a feel for the performance.

This is the first time I’ve ever watched a performance like this. I’ve listened to radio plays on YouTube before, like the one I’ve linked above, but there’s something special about going to a spectacle made of one. These kinds of radio plays exist on YouTube, and in the form of podcasts to be downloaded in the privacy of your own home, but how many of us actually own radios in our homes anymore? To be completely honest, the only reason I have a radio is because I found a stereo for free on a random sidewalk in Philadelphia. It was broken, but popping off the metal casing and a quick examination allowed me to bring it back to perfect working order. I don’t even use it for the radio, I use it for the CD player and tape deck.

By the way, in terms of modern radio plays on podcasts, I recommend the relatively new “Mission to Zyxx,” which is an improvised science fiction comedy.

To get back to The Veldt radio play, what I liked most about it was that it was designed from the down up to mimic an old-time radio production. They started with a promise to transport us back to the 1950s, and they delivered. They had old microphones like you might see in old radio stations. The performance started with one of the performers shouting that the production was about to start, and another counting down the seconds until they went live. A host started to introduce the program, even adding a jingle and commercial for a toothpaste.

There was piano accompaniment, and a person that was responsible for the sound effects. They had metal cups to alter voices, shoes to mimic steps, a plate and cutlery for eating. A wooden box to simulate doors and banging. It was a pretty well-staged production, and it’s very true to the its roots as a radio production.

The actors had great comedic timing, which was necessary because the play deals with deep, somewhat disturbing content and themes. The acting was actually pretty fantastic, and it made me really believe that, if I was listening to this over a radio, it would be authentic. The timing was right for the sound effects, and the actors played their parts seriously.

What I really want to focus on is the effect of making what is naturally a performance meant to be delivered in an aural media in the privacy of your home into a communal event on a stage. Partly I think watching the performance on a stage detracts from the way the play was meant to be experienced, because the visual stimuli overtakes your ability to imagine the events as they’re happening. You’re focused, for instance, on the man making the sound effects (so you know they’re just sound effects), or the people on the stage reading their lines from a script. I do not think, however, that this makes the experience poorer, it just makes it different.

What it adds is the experience of listening and watching the play with an audience who may react differently than you. You also get a view of how a radio production like this may have been made (though, of course, only small facets of that). The spectacle itself can be said to be a commentary on our modern society, and on the way that new forms of media have done away with old forms like this. There’s a certain kind of creative necessity on the part of the listener when you’re listening to the radio that’s not present when you’re watching movies or television.

In some ways, our society is oversaturated with both medium and message. Our brains engage in different ways over times as media delivers more sensory experience. I don’t think this is necessarily to our detriment, but losing these old forms does come with a price. These radio shows are an interesting part of our history, and I do think that it’s worthwhile to explore them every once in a while.

Just think: some day people may go to “Television Parlors” to partake in a rare opportunity to watch a “television program” on “old lightboxes with speakers.” Imagine how they’ll marvel at how primitive it was. 4K with surround sound? How primitive.

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