Friday, December 5, 2014

"Magi" offers audience the magic of live radio

Jennifer Blackmer

By John Strauss

A fourth holiday-themed live radio drama performed before an audience at Ball State University proves the enduring fascination people have with radio storytelling, the show's director says.

“The Gift of the Magi” comes to Sursa Performance Hall on Friday Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m., produced by Indiana Public Radio, which includes WBST 92.1 in Muncie, WBSB 89.5 Anderson; WBSW 90.9 Marion, WBSJ 91.7 Portland and WBSH 91.1, Hagerstown/New Castle.

Classic story
"Magi" is based on O. Henry’s poignant story of a young couple's love and sacrifice, and was adapted for radio by Kirsten Fentz, a Ball State graduate of theatrical studies. Fentz was awarded membership in the Dramatists Guild of America earlier this year at the American College Theater Festival.

The show features period costumes, live sound effects - an art in itself - along with an orchestra conducted by Michael Elliott. It's directed by Jennifer Blackmer, Ball State's director of immersive learning and an associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance.

Fourth Christmas show
IPR has aired four previous live radio dramas, including three holiday favorites: "A Christmas Carol," "It's a Wonderful Life" and last year's "Miracle on 34th Street" - also directed by Blackmer.

"They had cycled through the available Christmas stories in the radio-drama canon," Blackmer said. Those scripts, usually Lux Radio adaptations from the 1940s that are now in the public domain.

"We tried to figure out what the next step would be," she recalled. "We thought it would be too soon to do the ones we had already done, so we came up with idea of just doing our own."

Blackmer has taught playwriting on campus for eight years and immediately thought of Fentz, who graduated last year and is now writing professionally. Fentz' "The Last Sunrise" was performed at New York's Kennedy Center as part of the American College Theater Festival.

"She was excited to do this and to work in radio with this wonderful group of actors," Blackmer said.

The challenge of radio
The writer and director both had a lot to learn, though Blackmer had the advantage of her experience in last year's show.

Part of the challenge is remembering that though there's a live audience in the theater, the piece is really written for listeners who can't see the production.

"I spend a lot of times working with my eyes closed, listening to how the soundscapes unfold," Blackmer said. "We really want the audience to create their own imagery as they're listening."

She said listening to radio is an active process, different from television, because the audience has to imagine the scenes they're hearing.

Energy from the actors
That means an extra challenge for the actors.

"It's about the energy you put into the performance," Blackmer said, "You're remembering as you are talking to another person in the play that there is also a whole world of listeners out there who are also part of the story."

Because the radio audience can't see them, the actors don't have their bodies to work with. They have to channel all their energy and emotion into their voices. The show's writer also has to remember, for example, that since the audience can't see a character leave the room, the dialog has to include a reference to that action.

'People seem to want it'
"Magi" may benefit from renewed interest in radio-style storytelling. Blackmer cited the "Serial" podcast from producers of public radio's "This American Life," which has explored a nonfiction story over multiple episodes since October.

"I think there's an audience out there that is still really hungry for this kind of storytelling," she said.

"Whether it be the old-fashioned, feel-good Christmas story or the things you hear on "This American Life," people seem to want it.

"That's because it's truly active storytelling. The listener is an active part of it, visualizing what's going on."

“The Gift of the Magi” is presented by LifeStream Services, with major support from Ball State Federal Credit Union and IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital.

BOX: If You're Going

What: "The Gift of the Magi" live radio play.
When: Friday Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Sursa Performance Hall, Ball State
Broadcast: Live simulcast on IPR beginning at 8 p.m. with an encore presentation on Dec. 22 at 8 p.m. A special video presentation will air on WIPB Public Television Dec. 18 at 9 p.m.
Tickets: $10 ($5 students) and are available in advance at Emens Box Office,765-285-1539, or at Sursa Hall the night of the performance.

Indiana Public Radio is a service of Ball State University, a Public Radio International affiliate, and a National Public Radio member station. Its format includes NPR, news and classical music broadcast on WBST 92.1FM Muncie, WBSB 89.5FM Anderson, WBSW 90.9FM Marion, WBSJ 91.7FM Portland, and WBSH 91.1FM Hagerstown-New Castle. Online audio streaming is available at


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