An East End ‘Christmas Carol’ on the Radio

Michael Disher will direct his first radio play for Peconic Public Broadcasting with “A Christmas Carol,” the first broadcast of which will be tomorrow at 4 p.m. on 88.3 FM.

    Beginning tomorrow at 4 p.m., East Enders will have an opportunity to experience a classic story in a bygone way when Peconic Public Broadcasting at 88.3 FM presents a radio play of “A Christmas Carol,” produced and performed by members of the community.
    The hourlong piece, with British accents and sound effects, is the brainchild of Bonnie Grice, a host and producer at the radio station of shows such as “The Song Is You” and “Eclectic Cafe.” Michael Disher, a theater director for the Southampton Cultural Center and a drama teacher on the South Fork, is directing.
    Last week Ms. Grice described the project as “theater of the mind,” in which the actors provide the voices and the engineer provides the sounds, but the audience must employ their imaginations to bring the play to life. While many may have heard about some of the more famous radio plays of the past, such as Orson Welles’s 1938 production of “The War of the Worlds,” which had news bulletins so convincing that people thought they really were under attack from Mars, most have probably never heard a radio play performed.
    After scanning some 15 scripts at the Drama Book Shop in New York City, Ms. Grice found a radio play “beautifully done” by Welles. That script became the template for her as she added scenes and changed others, adding, too, the role of Scrooge’s sister, which is in the book and the movie adaptations but was missing in the Welles version.
    Although it is his first time directing a radio play, Mr. Disher understood immediately that “the American audience is not geared for this anymore. Everything we do today is visually driven, whether it’s iPhones, BlackBerries, or computer screens.” He wanted “a variety of sounds. Every character must sound different from any of the others. . . . There could be no ‘Who is that?’ When two or three people auditioning sounded alike, it was of no interest to me.”
    He said he readjusted how he thought about acting. “When there are acting deficits in a regular play, you can bend the rules and alter the damage by doing visual or physical tricks that you can’t do here. On radio, it’s all vocal. The 12 people who are a part of this cast have gotten a crash course on how not to be visual.”
    During auditions and rehearsals, Mr. Disher did not watch the actors. “What’s great is that some of these actors so vividly capture their roles but do not look like iconic ‘Christmas Carol’ characters.”
    The cast includes Daniel Becker as Scrooge and Terrence Fiore as the Ghost of Christmas Present, both of whom have acted in previous productions directed by Mr. Disher.
    The play brings Mr. Disher together with Josh Gladstone, the artistic director of the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, and Barbara-Jo Howard, the director of marketing and public relations there. Mr. Gladstone has three roles in the piece — the narrator, Jacob Marley, and Mr. Fezziwig. Ms. Howard plays Mrs. Cratchit.
    Ms. Howard said last week that she used to act when she was younger and had some lines on a few soap operas. The business part of acting “was a bit overwhelming to me at 20,” she said, “so I retreated and got a degree in English lit.” She described the production as “a wonderful opportunity for me to explore where I left off so many years ago and return to a passion. I was surprised and delighted to learn that I had the part.”
    Other cast members include Paul Bolger, Tristan Vaughn, Brooke Alexander, Rosemary Cline, Brendan O’Reilly, Meryn Anders, Katie Kneeland, Rupert Stow, and Julia Tyson.
    Some 40 aspiring Scrooges and Cratchits came out for the audition. Ms. Grice said she was overwhelmed by the response. “It’s so exciting to hear their voices and see how committed everyone is.”
    She said the idea to do a radio production came from an effort to find ways to interact with residents. The new studio on Hill Street in Southampton Village is on street level and not as remote as when they were broadcasting from the former Southampton College campus. It was important to recognize the change and harness the new energy in some way.
    “We want to be a gathering place and a megaphone for the community. The play is a great way for the community . . . to be creative and have fun and show what they can do. The level of talent here blows my mind.” She sees this as the beginning of a series.
    The cast rehearsed three times last week and taped the play on Monday. Ms. Grice said Kyle Lynch, the station’s engineer, would add sound effects in postproduction.
    The effort has brought in five sponsors, which will cover the cost of the production and allow the participants a small stipend. Although the details involved were sometimes staggering, Ms. Grice said the biggest surprise was how easily everything fell into place and how well people responded to it.
    Although the auditions stipulated that actors should have British accents, Mr. Disher said it was not that difficult to find able speakers. “Not everyone will have that 100 percent spot-on accent, but even if they did, their dialogue would not be that intelligible to American ears.” He said 80 to 90 percent of the actors manage to pull it off and the rest flavor their speech with key words. “It’s really about placement,” he said.
    Mr. Disher was also excited about the number of people who came out to audition, most of whom were new faces. He said he hoped to harness the untapped potential in other productions, including live theater. In the meantime, he praised the “luxury of radio, the built-in benefit of stopping when you hear something you don’t like” — not possible in a stage production.
    “It was a real interesting experience for me. It was not really more or less challenging or more or less difficult than the theater. It’s like the difference between choosing a dog or a cat for a pet. You have the same overall responsibility: to nurture a group of people to hear what you hear in your head.”            
    The broadcasts will continue on Saturday at 5 p.m., Dec. 16 at 7 p.m., Dec. 23 at 11 a.m., Dec. 24 at 4 p.m., and Dec. 25 at noon. The play will also be made available on the station’s Web site, peconicpublicbroadcasting.org.