Teaching Drama

Audio Drama in the Classroom

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 95: Audio Drama in the Classroom

In this podcast we talk about how to use audio drama for project-based learning, as a play review activity, an interesting exercise for directors and more!

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for drama teachers, drama students, theatre educators everywhere. I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.

Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.

So this is Episode 95 and you can catch the links for this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode95. Very convenient, that.

So it’s a best of today. But don’t click away, don’t do it! Stay with me. So we wanted to replay some of these podcasts over the summer because first because they’re a good listen. And second, if you’re looking toward next year and what you’re going to do in the classroom all our replay podcasts that are going to be helpful in that regard. This is the summer of Resources for you, yes you, the drama teacher.

Today is a perfect example. It’s gonna be all about using audio drama in the classroom. Here’s my interview with Jack Ward.

Lindsay: Okay. So, I have got a very interesting guest today. His name is Jack Ward. Hello, Jack!

Jack: Hi!

Lindsay: Awesome. And so, the first thing I want to ask you is where are you in the world?

Jack: I’m in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Lindsay: Ah, Halifax! I love the east coast and I wish that I could go out there more. Have you always lived out in the east coast?

Jack: No, I’m actually from Ontario, originally. I grew up just north of Guelph, just around Fergus-Elora.

Lindsay: Oh, okay! Awesome! How long have you been in Halifax?

Jack: Oh, a long time now. I think I figured it to be thirteen years.

Lindsay: Awesome. And tell us about your day job.

Jack: I am a high school teacher in the Halifax Regional School Board. I teach English but I am an English Drama teacher by training.

Lindsay: Okay. And what is your specific, what is the thing that we’re going to talk about today?

Jack: Oh, the thing that is my juice is audio drama, radio drama. Yeah, bringing back the art form of the spoken word, but mostly in radio dramatic form, not just speaking theatre or reading theatre, yes.

Lindsay: And why do you love it?

Jack: Oh, it’s fantastic! I mean, I grew up, as many people did, in teaching I think listening to CBC and listening to some of the CBC radio dramas and listening to some old-time radio. My parents bought me records of old-time radio plays like Superman and Buck Rogers and all those kinds of things and, as I went up through university, I started getting more involved in radio and doing some shows there – always in the back of my head, wanting to create my own radio plays. And, with the new technology that’s out there, it’s so easy to record, to edit, and to put together new shows. In fact, I’m so excited because today, actually, I am releasing the 350th episode of my now nine-year running podcast series called The Sonic Society where we showcase radio drama from around the world, and the 350th episode will showcase two of my own original shows so I’m very excited.

Lindsay: Awesome. Okay. So, it seems like you have a history with this and I have to tell you that my very first car came with only AM radio and I neighed many across Canada trip listening to CBC which was lovely except the news got very monotonous because the hour after hour’s the same. But that’s neither here nor there. So, tell us, what do you think is the best piece of radio drama that you have heard?

Jack: Oh, my goodness. You’re really putting me on the spot.

Lindsay: I am.

Jack: As somebody who is a lover of radio drama, I have over 150 different groups and companies in the last nine years that have sent me their radio plays. So, if I pick one of them, they will kill me.

Lindsay: All right. Well, then, let’s go back.

Jack: But I’ll tell you. I can cheat this way. One of my favorites is a professional – most of these people that have sent me are “amateur” people that love doing this and that – one of my absolute favorite groups is Colonial Radio Theatre out of Boston and they do radio drama, all sorts of stuff from historical and adventuresome, and one of my most recent favorites is the head of Colonial Radio Theatre, Jerry Robbins, who is a phenomenal actor, writer, director, doing his one-man show Barrymore on John Barrymore’s life and they actually did, it was a stage show that Christopher Plummer did and the writer actually had, Jerry had done the stage show for many years and the writer and him are good friends, and he rewrote it as a radio drama and it’s a triumph. It’s amazing to listen to that show.

Lindsay: So, what is it that makes radio drama special? What is it about the format?

Jack: Oh, I could go on and on and on. They’ve done some studies which is really quite cool. If you’re watching television, for example, they can do a brain scan and very little is going on as you’re watching it because everything’s being fed to you so your brain isn’t doing much work. If you’re reading a book, you’re recreating the words on the page and creating in your head the images. So, a lot more is going on. Radio drama actually, there’s more going on in that than even reading because what happens is that you’re recreating a world only using the actors, sound effects, and music. So, a sound effect can absolutely alight somebody’s thoughts and imagination that creates and they have to develop basically the entire soundscape from that. So, just for example, if I have two people talking outside and I have some light wind, but then I have the sound of crickets playing in the background, that alone sets, you know, time, place, basic location, time of the year – all those kinds of things just by that simple sort of sound effect of the crickets. So, it’s fantastic for those kinds of things and it’s so easy to put together compared to trying to put a movie or a video.

Lindsay: Right. Do you use audio drama in your classroom?

Jack: Absolutely! I use it in a number of different ways. In my English classroom, I actually have a little worksheet that I use which is, you know, like an audio drama, almost like a movie review sheet where I have students actually, you know, circle various things and then pull out from the things that they’ve listened to specifics on was the acting believable, why or why not?

Lindsay: Ah, I see. So, what you have is you have students listen to an audio drama and then complete a sheet about it so that they are sort of analyzing and assessing what they were listening to.

Jack: Absolutely, yeah! What I do in my English classrooms, specifically for that, is instead of just playing an audio drama in the classroom – because audio drama is the most intimate of art forms, it really is the closest thing to your own thoughts – the best thing to do is to stick in your headphones, or listen in your car, or something like that really simple.

So, one of my students actually gave me a little hub where I plug it into my laptop and I can have six people listen at the same time. So, during the beginning of my period where I might have students do independent reading, I’ll have a signup sheet in the back for them to be able to sign up to, you know, a pile of different radio dramas that I’ve got listed that are maybe six to twelve minutes long at the most. So, that ten to fifteen reading period at the very beginning, five or six students can actually go in and listen to the audio drama, you know, respond to the acting, respond to the writing as the story, and respond to the sound effects and music whether they find it appropriate, what kind of things they found really helped with the story, what hindered with the story. Just getting them to identify the different elements which make, you know, a good story and what propels it along.

Lindsay: Because it seems that audio drama is so connected to the radio format which would seem – maybe to today’s students – to be antiquedated – antiquedated? – old. How do your students respond? Do they key into it because it’s they’re listening on an iPod so that they don’t make that connection?

Jack: Yeah, like, I’m really happy to say that things are turning around in a very big way when it comes to audio drama. Like, when I first started this nine years old, I still got a lot of people going, “Audio drama? Didn’t that die with radio?” First of all, I just watched an Ideas Channel video where they said, “Yeah, you know what? People are still listening to radio by huge numbers.” A lot of people don’t realize that but radio is nowhere near dead. The second thing is people don’t have a whole lot of time to sit down and watch long-term movies as much anymore. They’re moving around doing stuff. So, being able to get into your car and just not listen to the same top twenty music but actually throw on a twenty-minute or twenty-five-minute, thirty-minute show, and listen to it as you’re going and commuting on the bus, doing the dishes at home. So, kids are pretty plugged in with the idea of listening to something, and especially with the stuff we have now. Like, my podcast you can get straight through iTunes.

Lindsay: Well, podcasting is the new radio, isn’t it?

Jack: Absolutely!

Lindsay: It’s the same, I think, the same emotional experience, only it’s all within your control. Like, it’s the most… I love it and I love being able to listen to interviews that I want to listen to, or music that I want to listen to. It’s radio within your control, isn’t it?

Jack: It’s like TV-on-demand for radio.

Lindsay: Yeah! Yeah, for sure.

Jack: So, yeah. And so, what ends up happening is I’ve noticed in the last nine years, like I said, that I’ve been doing this, more and more kids are going, “Hey, this is really cool,” and I think it’s because they’ve kind of divorced themselves from the idea of listening to stories on radio. They didn’t realize that was available. And now, with Welcome to Night Vale being like this monstrous hit, people are starting to look even further around for this kind of spoken word sort of dramatic way of being able to tell stories. You know, it’s fun because I’ll give students outside of my English classroom, say, things like, you know, “Well, try this as a challenge,” and they’ll go and listen to it and they’ll go, “I couldn’t finish that show, Mr. Ward. It was too scary,” and I went, “I know! Isn’t it more terrifying?” because, when you have visuals and it’s actually not as scary because nothing is more terrifying than the things that you imagine in your head.

Lindsay: Oh, 100 percent, 100 percent! I guess it’s a little bit refreshing because we have this presumption that teenagers of today, they know everything – well, not that – but nothing surprises them, I guess. And, to hear something as simple as an audio program would create that kind of emotion, I quite like that!

Jack: It’s fantastic! I mean, I just gave them a taste because I had only one scene available of this new show that’s coming out for the 350th and I had a couple of my great tens just for fun sit down and listen to it and I asked them what they thought afterwards and they bugged me three or four times asking when the rest of the show is because they were really interested and really wanted to get involved, and, I mean, I’ve used audio drama in other ways too that I wouldn’t mind talking about.

Lindsay: Oh, absolutely. I was going to get to it but…

Jack: Yeah.

Lindsay: Let’s segue.

Jack: Sure.

Lindsay: Okay. So, how else do you use audio drama in your classroom?

Jack: Well, I partner up with some of the other teachers because I love cross-curricular work so I’ve been partnering up with Greg and what we’ve done is he will – I’m sorry, Grant is his name, Grant Frost in my high school, he’s the head of the Drama department – and he will take my script, he’ll take my grade eleven class and I’ll teach them how to write scripts. By the way, you can do script-writing for free. I don’t know if you did a whole thing on script-writing with Celtx. Celtx is a program that is made out of Canada which allows you to do scriptwriting from stage, from movies, from animation, from comics, and from audio drama.

Lindsay: So, does it do the format? Is that what it’s specifically that it’s used for?

Jack: Yeah.

Lindsay: Ah!

Jack: It’s not just the format. I’m lucky that I helped them develop the audio drama side of it so I got it on the ground floor because I wanted a universal one that worked for Windows and Linux and Apple products that was free that people could be able to work together and do stuff.

Lindsay: Jack, how do you spell that? Because then we can put a link up.

Jack: Sure.

Lindsay: How do you spell that?

Jack: C-E-L-T-X.com.

Lindsay: Okay.

Jack: And they’re great to be able to interview too and talk about some of their success stories with the product. It’s been something that we’ve actually used across the school board too, that Celtx is on all the computers.

So, the students get a chance, I teach them how to be able to write a script. We take a theme; I get them to work together in groups of three or four and then they each write a scene for their radio drama that they’re doing, or audio drama – usually a two-minute scene is good – so we get about, you know, a six to eight-minute drama, some of them get a little industrious and want to do more and that’s great. And then, I take those scripts after they’ve been edited and the whole bit, and I take them to Mr. Frost, and he puts them in front of his Drama class and they perform them, and record them, and then we take them to Communications Technology class and they edit them together, and then we take them back to the English class and say, “Yeah, this is how it sounds.” And there are times when, you know, the nature of the production, maybe you had to change a change a character because you didn’t have the actor that would fit that particular character, maybe you had to drop a line here or change a line that didn’t sound right, and the people who did the original writing, they could go, “Well, wow! That was awesome! But, whatever happened to this?” and you say, “You know, that’s the nature of the business. You know, once a director gets your work, they’re liable to change things around. So, they get a real feel of how this kind of works out.

Lindsay: And it’s a real, they’re sort of dropped into the process because I find a lot with when I work with student playwrights is that there’s not that opportunity to take it to the next level. They write the script and then, when they get to the end, they think it’s done and it’s like, “No, no. There’s workshopping, and then putting it on its feet, and making it live, and then putting it in front of an audience,” and what an opportunity for your students to actually go through the entire process from the writing to the performing and then hearing it, not just live but recorded so that they get the whole shebang.

Jack: Exactly, and that’s one of the biggest problems, this little fire-and-forget thing, right? Where, you know, the kids finish the thing and they say they’re done. But when they get a chance to actually go back and listen to it after it’s been completely produced together, one of the things they say is like, “Oh, I wish I could have taken another pass at it because I think I could have done this differently now.” So, suddenly they’re bought into it far more because it’s not just something that’s written on the page and handed off. It’s something that comes back to them that’s a live thing.

Lindsay: What else do you think your students learn from audio drama specifically?

Jack: I think one of the huge things that people are really appreciating when they get into audio drama is the aspect of dialogue and dialogue is one of the biggest problems for a lot of writers to be able to get a handle on. Some people do an awful lot of cheating in novels because they’re really good at writing the fiction aspect but the dialogue doesn’t come as real. You know, you get people like Elmore Leonard who can just do it like [snap] just resonates well. So, if you can practice getting dialogue down pat and boiling it down and boiling it down, it’s really powerful. But, I mean, it’s also fantastic because it allows people to sit there and say, “Okay. If you have too much going on in this audio drama, you will lose people. So, how can you tell this story in a way by telling it through sound with – maybe at the most – six characters that are different and unique and engaging and will keep people listening?”

Lindsay: It really is, it’s one of the hardest things to sort of, because you can’t tell them. You can’t say to anyone, to any writer, not even just a teenager, you can’t say to a writer, “Well, this is what’s going to happen when this gets in front of an audience.” You have to actually put it in front of an audience sometimes and have that happen. So, how great that they are able to, well, it’s the only way to learn, I think.

Jack: You want to hear another really neat story?

Lindsay: Of course.

Jack: After we’ve been doing some of this for a while and I’ve been sort of getting Grant Frost really excited about this, he said to me, well, you know, we have the Drama Fest here in Halifax where all the different high schools come together out of the University at Dal and the students come together and they bring something that they want to do. Well, Grant said, “I think I want to get my group doing audio drama,” and I’m like, “But I want them to do it on stage,” which, by the way, I’m actually doing a radio play on stage for Christmas with another group called Lions Den Theatre – we’re doing It’s A Wonderful Life during the Christmas season. So, if you’re in Halifax area and Dartmouth area, come and see us on the 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th. But anyway, so, last year, we went to Drama Fest and I was a little nervous because I was wondering, “Well, how are all these high school students going to handle people just standing on a stage and doing this performance without all the actions and everything like that?” because live radio drama has always been a thing that people have enjoyed. Well, what Grant did was he got them to write their own script because that was a requirement and then they closed the curtains and shut off everything.

Lindsay: No! Did they shut off the lights?

Jack: They shut off all the lights.

Lindsay: Oh, man!!!

Jack: Did it completely in the darkness and, at the end, opened the curtains and turned on the lights so people could see who was doing the roles, and they got a standing ovation!

Lindsay: Wow!

Jack: People were so amazed and so fantastically thrilled about this, everybody stood up in the house and gave them a standing ovation and the actors were taken aside. They had no idea they were going to get that kind of reaction.

Lindsay: Well, of course! Because it’s never been, like, you don’t, it’s not done, right?

Jack: Exactly!

Lindsay: You just expect, “Okay. This is my theatre experience. My theatre experience is I go and I sit in a seat and then the lights are going to come up on the stage and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m plunged in darkness. Oh, this is happening, like, all around me.’” What an insane, wonderful thing, a risky thing for your Drama teacher to do. Oh, my God! That is just fantastic!

Jack: And, you know, it was funny because it’s a weekend thing, Drama Fest, and for the rest of the weekend, I could hear people in the hallways going, “Who played this part?” because, even though they saw the people afterwards, they were still trying to figure out which voice went where which was very cool.

Lindsay: Yeah, because they had an image in their head.

Jack: Absolutely.

Lindsay: So, they were trying to see if the image in their head fit the person who said the lines.

Jack: Absolutely.

Lindsay: Oh, what an amazing experience. What a great thing to share with our other drama teachers here. Okay. So, which leads me to a great question. What advice would you give to other teachers out there who, if they’re like me and got really excited by that last story and they might want to try audio drama in their classroom?

Jack: Well, there’s a number of different routes. You can go to The Sonic Society, sonicsociety.org, download the shows – every week we have a new show. Right now, I’ve been so far behind with stuff, I’ve been clumping in new shows every two weeks, or I mean twice a week, I should say. You can go listen to other people like Decoder Ring Theatre is fantastic out of Ontario. Guy’s been doing it nine years. Fantastic old-time radio feel. You can go to Crazy Dog Audio. There’s a little audio there that’s called How To Write Audio Drama and it’s a funny little audio drama, a nine-minute audio drama, telling you specifically how to do it. Go download Celtx. I set up the audio drama directory with some of my fans and then you can find a whole bunch of stuff there. I also set up the rating system so it’s like a movie rating system. You’ll find that there as well. There’s AudioDramaTalk.com which is a forum for audio drama people from around the world who like to put this stuff together. Again, some of our fans put it up after my co-host and I were complaining that there wasn’t one place to do all this. So, we’re putting the tools together to do this.

And I want to tell you about something that I’ve been really wanting to do for years now. I would love to be able to and I’m happy if there’s other teachers out there that want to help put this together with me and make it a reality. I would love to be able to do what they’ve done with improv with the audio drama games and I would love to be able to do a live stage thing where – and I have ideas of what the events would be – but it would be a perfect little beginning for anybody at the beginning of the year when you’re trying to get your drama students to get started early, have them start working with voice, with audio drama. They don’t have to worry about anything else. They could bring their own character on the stage, but really they’re working specifically with voice. And, if we had an early audio drama games that was going just sort of locally in your area, and high schools came up and you got CBC radio personalities there as judges or whatever, we could have, you know, clips of old-time radio that they did and try to re-enact, they could have original sketches that they do, and then part of it also is being able to bring onto the stage your own sound effects. So, not having digital sound effects but having live sound effects that work exactly at the right time – that becomes a character and a flash point for people to watch at the same time.

Lindsay: That sounds really exciting. It sounds like it’s a wonderful idea and so, all right, it’s out there and I hope that something like that happens. And so, let’s end on I like this notion of live sound effects. So, what are your two or three of your favorite ways to make a live sound effect? Like, you know, the rainstick and the thundersheet are the two that come to my mind but you must have a couple of tricks up your sleeve for some interesting sound effects.

Jack: Well, that’s the thing. I don’t do enough stage stuff and there’s really good websites out there to make a sound box where you can do a ton of different things. I was very lucky and grateful to be…

Lindsay: Oh, what’s a sound box?

Jack: A sound box is sort of like almost like a homemade box where you can do everything. It’ll have, like, three or four hinge doors. It’ll have, like, a little sandbox where you can put shoes n to make it sound like you’re walking through sand. It’ll have the sound effect to make it sound like you’re firing a gun by hitting a hammer against the right kind of metal. You’ll have all those kinds of elements. You can hook up a little bell to have a telephone sound because all those things are really important. I know that even in It’s A Wonderful Life we’re using just simple sort of cans to be able to speak into to give that kind of a resonation that somebody is on the phone line. So, you know, just giving that little deeper sort of sound here. I actually used something like that sort Alone In The Night that I’m releasing tonight because one of the main characters is in a spacesuit. So, you’ve got to have that helmet sound that his voice is muffled somewhat.

Lindsay: I just really like that idea of a sound box where it’s just sort of everything is at your fingertips and it’s all made live as opposed to, you know, pushing a button.

Jack: Yeah, absolutely. Go to YouTube and check out Chatterbox Theatre. They do most of their shows live and they have films, some interesting little clips about how they do it and what they do. If you want, as a drama teacher, to go check up Chatterbox, there’s like a little news item about five minutes of them showing a variety of different shows, how they record it, how they do the live music, how they do all that kind of stuff. It’s really a very, it’s such an engaging art form and it’s such a revitalized art form that really never quite died despite the fact that it was pretty hobbled when television came along.

Lindsay: Ah, they keep saying things are dying, they keep saying theatre’s dying, they keep saying…

Jack: Yes.

Lindsay: You know what? Nothing is going to die as long as there’s folks like you and folks like me. And you know what? And then there will be somebody else who will come along.

Jack: Absolutely.

Lindsay: And be just as enamoured and passionate and that’s the wonderful thing, I think, that makes the arts is that as long as somebody feels for it then you can’t kill it.

Jack: It’s funny because, in Audio Drama Talk, you always get a new person that’s really excited. Like, “I’m here to bring back radio drama!” and there’s like a hundred of us sitting there going, “Okay. Here comes another one.” You know, because we’ve been doing it for so long and people before us have been holding the torch and it’ll keep going forever.

Lindsay: I think so, I think so. Well, excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming on today and sharing a little bit about this world. I think it’s something that quite adapts so well to the classroom and I hope that everyone out there got a good listen and, just so you know, we have so many resources on this talk today that they’re all going to be in the show notes and there’ll be a transcript so that you will be able to go and have a look and have a listen to everything that Jack talked about today.

And just give your site one more shout-out, it’s SonicSociety.org, correct?

Jack: That’s right! The Sonic Society.

Lindsay: Perfect. Awesome. Thank you so much, Jack.

Jack: Thank you so much, Lindsay. Have a great day

Thank you Jack! Lots of links in this episode so make sure you go to the shownotes at theatrefolk.com/episode95

Before we go, let’s do some Theatrefolk news.

OK. Your students are bugging you to put on a talent show. You want something with a little more structure. Or, you’re doing a play and your students are begging you to let them put in their own scene. And as much as you’re happy that they’re inspired, you know that you can’t do that. You know that right? You know that you can’t put your own words in someone else’s script willy nilly? You know you can’t change the words in the play? I know you know. I know.

Well I have the play that is going to solve both those problems, both scenarios in one fell swoop. We Open Tomorrow Night by Michael Wehrli is a scripted talent show. So that means there is a frame for the play, it’s an actual play with characters. AND there are built in places into the script for you to put in your own talent acts. And better yet there’s a full length version (you know what – if you were considering a dinner theatre I think this would be a perfect show for that) and we also have a competition one act version. That’s right, two versions to meet all your talent show student writer needs, whims, wants, loves. OK so check out We Open Tomorrow Night. Go to the show notes click the link, read the sample pages, buy it now.

Finally, where, oh, where can you find this wonderful podcast?

Well, we post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk. You can find us on the Stitcher app and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search on the word “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

About the author

Lindsay Price