Wednesday, September 23, 2009


This piece was written for the "Radio 4 Director's Diary" and originally published on the BBC4 Radio website, when the play TRADITION was first broadcast back on 2/23/03.

When Pamela Fraser-Solomon called to ask if I would take a part in the play 'Tradition' I leaped at the chance. As something of an actor-manager, nothing would be more appealing than dropping the 'manager' aspect of my life for a few days and concentrate on just being an actor. A holiday I couldn't refuse. And the fact that it was a radio play made saying "yes" all the easier.

In This Photo (above): Mark Redfield, Seth Gilliam, P.J. Benjamin

You see, we Americans used to have a great tradition, so to speak, of radio drama. Drama and comedy. But as a species, radio drama in the United States is all but extinct. From the adaptations of novels and plays by the Mercury Players and the great Orson Welles, to the comedy of W.C. Fields (sparring with wooden-beaded Charley McCarthy), and Fibber McGee and Molly (don't open that closet!) we Americans, throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, tuned in and turned on.

It's virtually all gone now, with few exceptions. How glorious it would have been to be an actor in New York fifty years ago! I am reminded of the tale of Orson Welles having to bustle from one recording studio to another, during the days of live broadcast. After finishing an episode of 'The Shadow' ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"), he'd only have minutes to get across town to perform a dramatization of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in another studio. How did he do it? He hired an ambulance, as there was no law to forbid a civilian to do so, and, with siren wailing and bells clanging, went screaming across town to make the appointed air-time!

So Pam (after having been introduced by our mutual friend, Clarke Peters) asked if I was interested in playing the vile, racist McBane in 'Tradition' expertly dramatised for the radio by Cheryl Martin, from the 1901 novel "The Marrow of Tradition" by Charles W. Chesnutt. I said yes (hopefully not too quickly and eagerly!). I had never heard of Charles W. Chesnutt or the novel, but this was a chance to act a part in radio, and Pam could've offered me a part in an adaptation of the West Virginia telephone directory, and that would have been fine by me.

In This Photo (above): Pamela Fraser-Solomon.

I had done some radio work before, but most of my experience in voice acting was the usual run of radio and television commercials that we actors sometimes must do to pay the rent. Luckily, the explosion of video games has afforded me the chance to play multiple characters (I was once assigned the task of creating the voice for an underwater, blow fish-like alien for a science-fiction game!) but that's the closest I've come to a full-blown radio drama. As I rode the train from Baltimore to New York for the four day recording session, I felt that I might be the least experienced in the cast.

The other thing that began to worry me a little was the character of McBane itself. Having read the script a few days before, I was overcome by a rich, epic story dealing with two families living through a terrible time in American history: the violent days of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. Many of the other characters were well written and had some depth, with fine arcs of emotion and growth. But here was the villain McBane, a violent, uneducated, hateful man, who didn't utter a sentence without using the "N-word". Oh dear. And when McBane does come on stage, it's usually to do something really terrible to another character. Melodramatic traps lay in wait for the actor! I was in trouble.

I arrived the first day of taping at Back Pocket Studios in New York, only to find that I was the first actor to arrive. (Perhaps it's from too many years as the "manager" in my "actor-manager" equation. You know, first on the set…last to leave..)I took the lift up from the 8th Avenue entrance with Lee Sparey, who introduced himself as the chief engineer and studio manager. Lee, brought over from the BBC, is an affable and incredibly conscientious fellow, and proved to be a great friend and ally, not only to me, but to all the American actors engaged for 'Tradition.'

Once in the lobby of Back Pocket, I was quickly sized up by a tall, blond beauty who tossed a revised script at me and introduced herself as Helen Lamadrid. Helen would prove to be invaluable during the next four days, as she worked as the general assistant under Pam, and was the glue that kept the actors and the show together.

The other major studio technician that I met was Back Pocket's own Butch Jones, a large, good-humoured man who knew just how everything at the studio worked. (Advice to actors: make friends with the technicians, because if you get into trouble, they'll be there for you to help you out!)

So far, so good. I settled onto the sofa in the lobby and began to re-read this new, revised script. Then in walked the director, Pam Fraser-Solomon. The moment we met, I felt immediately at ease, as if we had known and worked with each other for a long time.

Now, whether or not that was our natural chemistry at work, or Pam has a talent for making actors feel relaxed and important for the job at hand, I can't say. All I know is that, instead of feeling like the new kid-on-the block, I couldn't wait to get going!

By 9.45 (the call time) the actors began arriving. And what an impressive company was assembled by Pam and Clarke! There was Phylicia Rashad (whom you may remember from "The Cosby Show") Carrie Preston (who was a wonderful Miranda for Patrick Stewart's Prospero a season or two ago). Lois Smith (I had just seen her delightful turn opposite Tom Cruise in the greenhouse scene in "Minority Report") and P.J. Benjamin, Michael Emerson, Lizan Mitchell, Seth Gillam and on and on… I was stoked, as the saying goes!

I was stoked, that is, until about fifteen minutes later, just ten pages into the read-through. Pam stopped me cold after I had read only my second line. She didn't like the direction I was taking the villainous McBane! Oops! Out the window went all feelings of strength and ability. Maybe Pam made a mistake in hiring me?

The reader will pardon me if this report seems very "actor-centric." Please understand that the first day on the set (or the studio, in this case) can often feel, for an actor, like the first day of school. The actor wants to please; "get it right". There is a new teacher, and new students…….

The company broke as Lee positioned the mikes for the recording of the first scenes. Pam caught me as I was sneaking into a corner, and took me aside. Uh-oh. Here it comes I thought. "Charming fellow. Nice to meet you. Here's a ticket back to Baltimore. It's early enough to get someone in here that can act." (Have I mentioned how we actors can be a bit insecure?)

To my delight, she said nothing of the kind. What she did was what all actors hope that good directors can do for them: say the one thing that will free them and given them permission, as it were, to create a memorable character.

Pam diagnosed my problem perfectly. It was simply a question of that unfortunate "N-Word." Pam pointed out that with McBane, the word would be second nature. Part of his vocabulary. He wouldn't think twice. But when Mark the actor said it, it came across as tentative, and indeed, a bit embarrassed.

Relief washed over me. It would be some time before I would play my first scene. Ample time to re-think McBane, and not let him get the better of me. You need a racist, red necked hell-raiser? I'm your man!

This problem out of the way, I was able to observe the rest of the company, all of them new to me. For that matter, most of the actors were working together for the first time. As the first few hours of work unfolded, I watched (and listened) as the company began to gel.

To my surprise, 'Tradition' was performed and recorded 'out-of-continuity' much like a film is made. Having been making nothing but films over the last couple of years, this didn't throw me a bit. I am used to working out of sequence. If you've done your actors homework, you know where the peaks and valleys are emotionally for your character. As we progressed, I realized that the need to work out-of-continuity was really a result of the actors' availability and schedules. A nightmare in film: equally a headache for radio drama. Again, Helen seemed to keep the schedule together, and Pam seemed always to know where the emotional and story arc was.

The greater surprise, however, was twofold. First, it seemed that I was one of the actors with the most 'mike' performance experience! Basically, acting is acting in any medium, and once one is able to grasp the technical requirements, the rest falls into place. The actors were able to grasp the technicalities rather quickly, and create rich characterizations.

But how we all became nostalgic for something that most of us have never had in our lifetimes: radio drama!
In This Photo (above): Phylicia Rashad, Carrie Preston, Lizan Mitchell, Lois Smith.

I think the experience of this new medium (for us, anyway) galvanized us into doing the best that we were able. As the days of recording continued, I found myself wanting to be at the studio, where the action was, even if we weren't doing a McBane scene.

It was during these sessions that I didn't perform in, that I was able to gauge the use (and limitations) of the studio we were working in. There often simply wasn't the physical space to create the right tone, or ambiance, for the sound recordings. Lee Sparey worked miracles to create the feeling of room-size, or the feeling of being out of doors. Radio drama in the States just isn't done enough any more, and the studios have changed and shrunk reflecting that fact.

The cast, however, soon turned into a fine ensemble. One of the best professionally minded groups I have had the honour to work with in some time. And the story that we gathered to create is a stirring one. Filled with the drama of class and race conflict, family love and sadness, that resonates with modern listeners and their lives.

Oh!, if I only could hop into my own awaiting ambulance and be whisked across town to another studio, and do it all again!

The original article and more photos can be found:

(c) Mark Redfield

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