Radio Free Europa challenges the adage “Truth is stranger than fiction.” The online play, penned by local playwright Ashley Naftule, is loosely based on a late-night call-in radio show called Coast to Coast AM that was hosted by a guy named Art Bell out of his living room in Nevada starting in the 1970s. Bell didn’t screen his callers or try to poke holes in their bizarre stories or theories.
Originally slated for the stage at Space 55, live productions of Radio Free Europa moved online in the wake of the coronavirus crisis – and the internet has turned out to be the perfect platform for it. We recently chatted with Naftule about the play, the challenges of putting on a purely remote production and why people are connecting with this story.
What’s the plot of the play, in a nutshell?
Radio Free Europa is a series of phone calls taking place on (and off) the air between Delilah Peel, host of the late-night AM radio talk show Midnight Wildlife, and her listeners and family. Del fields calls from listeners who’ve got stories about UFOs, Sasquatches, dead pop stars and other weird phenomena while also dealing with personal calls from her estranged mother and her on-again, off-again boyfriend. While Del struggles to make room in her life for the people she’s close to while honoring her responsibilities as a radio host, she also has to deal with strange disruptions in her program: ominous noises and voices that keep interrupting her broadcasts… noises that she starts to suspect are coming from beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
This is Space 55’s first-ever completely remote production. What have been some of the challenges with that?
It was definitely strange rehearsing remotely. It was fascinating watching our director work through all this and figure out, in real time, how to direct people without seeing them at all. We stopped using cameras a week into rehearsing; we figured we weren’t going to use them during the show itself, so we may as well get used to playing blind. And the actors all rose to that challenge, especially Amy Garland — as Delilah, she’s in every scene, so this play would not work if we don’t feel invested in her character. She did a tremendous job being the steady bass line, the irresistible beat, that holds everything together and gives everyone else room to riff as these deranged phone callers.
One of the things that really helped us put this together is the form we’re working in actually fits the material perfectly. It’s a play where all the action is happening over the phone, where none of the characters actually physically share space with each other. The actors are working blind because the characters are as well. There isn’t this disconnect where you’re trying to do an Edward Albee play where none of the actors are near each other but they have to act like they’re all stuck in the same living room together. Everyone is apart in Radio Free Europa on the page, so our isolation from each other in the real world feeds into that and supports it.
How many people are involved in the production?
It’s 100 percent a group effort. This show would not be possible without the sharp direction of Dennis Frederick, Kyle Olson’s technical consulting, David Matteson’s visuals and the hard work of our ensemble: Amy Garland, Julie Peterson, Scott Hyder, Marcella Grassa, Willa Eigo, Alex Tuchi, Ernesto Moncada, Aleks Hollis, Mona Swan LeSueur, Cody Hunt, Sarah Starling, Matt Clarke and BJ Garrett (who also helped David put the visuals together).
Tell me about the visuals David Matteson designed for the productions.
David got photos of the cast and used them as models to create digital art. With BJ’s assistance, David put together a slideshow of over 600 images for the show. Each character has a different set of facial expressions that we can switch from slide to slide – Delilah even has costume changes! And the slideshow isn’t automated: It’s another live element of the show. BJ manipulates it throughout the show while I do the live sound effects/music for each scene.
The feedback on the show has been extremely positive. Why do you think people connect with this play?
Doing a show remotely is weird because you don’t get instant feedback from audiences. There’s no laughter, no applause; you don’t hear the air being sucked out of the room when a really dramatic moment hits just right. So, it’s extremely gratifying for all of us to see folks write about the show online and express their thoughts about it.
It’s a show about loneliness and the desire to connect with people, and that hits close to home for all of us right now. I also think people respond strongly to it because it’s something they haven’t seen before. The combination of digitized art and sound and the radio call-in station format… it’s not just a table read. Which, don’t get me wrong, table reads are great! Table reads can be artistically rewarding and fun and interesting in their own right. But we wanted to offer something that feels like it can and should live online, that isn’t a theatrical consolation prize: “Sorry we can’t actually do this in person! This will have to do, I guess.” We wanted to make something online that we would have been proud to program into our regular season in the format it’s in now if COVID-19 had never happened.
Radio Free Europa began its run on the Space 55 YouTube page on May 15 and the final performance takes place Sunday, June 7. Visit the Radio Free Europa event page on Facebook for show dates and times. The play is free, but donations are appreciated.