With tech savvy, students bring radio drama into modern age
A group of Peters Township students is bringing an old-fashioned art form into the modern day with a technological twist.
Students in Ryan Perrotte's Digital Audio Production class are the producers and stars of the audio drama “The Secret of Willows Grove,” a four-part series focusing on a once-quiet town experiencing odd and mysterious happenings after a lunar eclipse. A group of friends, with the help of a magical book, seek to restore normalcy to the town.
“It's like ‘Lost,' ” says Perrotte, who is also the school's director of choirs. “You don't know what's going on until the pieces come together.”
Modern technology is helping the largely forgotten radio-drama format regain popularity, students say. Podcasts that can be heard on a slew of mobile devices make shows easier than ever to hear.
“It's more accessible now,” says Alex Luketich, 17, a senior who plays Lou, one of the friends tasked with saving the town.
Students learn all aspects of production, from sound effects to editing. They choose which part of the show they'd like to be responsible for and hold blind auditions for the performance parts. They adhere to strict production deadlines.
“There's a group ownership to it,” Perrotte says. “If they don't do their part, there's a domino effect.”
Eleven people have lent their voices to the show thus far, including teachers and community members, who read roles of adult characters. Students record their parts in the high school's choral room with one microphone. Perrotte writes music for the underscore.
Katie McGovern, 17, a junior and lead writer of the series, says the project has inspired her to “think outside the box.”
“It's cool to have what I imagine it to sound like to be actually happening,” she says.
Also lending his talents to the project is well-known voiceover artist Bob Souer, whose bass-baritone is featured in a wide range of productions including commercials, documentaries, audio books and instructional videos. Souer lives in Peters. His son, David, is one of Perrotte's students.
“I love telling a story, and I particularly like things that are well-written,” Souer says. “This is exceptionally well-written. It's delightful to be asked to be part of it.”
Souer talks to students about the importance of reading with expression, as well as fully understanding their characters and their backgrounds.
“A character is a whole person. The way they sound is only a little bit of it,” Souer says. “Voiceover acting is acting in a very real sense, but all you have is your voice.”
Students intend to make “The Secret of Willows Grove” a series. Two parts of the first episode are complete. Two more will be completed by the end of the school year.
While the story is shrouded in mystery, the underlying themes of kids overcoming social and personal issues is prevalent throughout. One character fears funding cuts for his school will mean the end of free breakfasts, the one meal he eats during the school day. Another is coping with the incarceration of a parent.
“There is always something the kids have to deal with in their lives,” Perrotte says.
Bill Cameron, professor of theatre and communication at Washington & Jefferson College who teaches a class on radio drama, says while today's youth are accustomed to visual-based entertainment such as video games, audiences can still find value in the audio-based art form.
“It works your imagination in ways television and motion pictures can't,” Cameron says. “It's like reading. You have to be so engaged. It really challenges the listener to use a whole different set of skills.”
Cameron also appreciates the realm of possibilities radio dramas allow their writers.
“There are so many opportunities to do things you can't do in theater,” he says. “In theater, you're bound by the stage. In radio drama, you can do anything.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.