Have you ever tried writing a radio play? No? Well, I’m here to tell you why you should.
COVID-19 has been all about change, and most of it hasn’t been good. It’s hard to find anything positive about a pandemic, but when it comes to writing for the arts, it’s been a hammer blow.
Even the stuff that seemed so positive in the beginning – “NEWSFLASH! PEOPLE READ MORE BOOKS IN LOCKDOWN!” – begins to look like a lot less of a boon for writers when you consider that so many book launches were postponed this year that we’re now looking at The Great Book Massacre in September, when precisely all of the big books in the world are going to be released in the same 2 weeks, which could mean big losses for mid-list authors.
And then there’s the crucial live aspect of written works. What on earth can you say about that? Theatre is decimated. Book readings and festivals seem like historical fiction. Even stand-up comedy feels like it may never get up again.
Film and TV are now back to work, but the first sign of a virus cluster on set, anywhere, and we’ll be longing for the bad old days of writer’s strikes, when at least we knew something was getting made somewhere else.
Sure, things have moved online. But whereas we used to share humour as a break-from-reality LOL, these days it feels like if that’s where comedy lives now, you’re not sure you want to visit.
I’ve tried live theatre on a TV screen, and although it’s better than nothing, I’m just not able to suspend disbelief in the same way. Plus, my eyes have had enough screentime now. They’re very tired.
What is working for me on every level, is radio. For one thing, it’s absolutely brilliant for when you’re doing something else. Driving, walking, cleaning, weeding, staring at the weather like it’s the only thing which has meaning anymore, realising at 3am that you’re just not going to sleep… radio goes with you every step, every mile, slotting itself into the corners of your mind which need a bit of stimulation while the rest of you is doing (or denying) something else.
Small wonder, then, that when I finally did get back into writing after COVID-19 stole my mojo, it ended up being radio drama. I’d never written a radio drama before. I’d tried my hand a few screenplays, but never considered writing solely for audio production.
That said, I’ve a tendency to be a terrible wordy sort of animal, and a couple of my screenplays felt very radio-friendly, as though visual elements were an embellishment, rather than flesh. But I’d never done anything about it, firm in the belief that a screenplay was a screenplay, nothing else will sell, and who the hell listens to radio drama anyway?
Me, is the answer. I haven’t been able to get enough of radio. I’ve been mainlining podcasts. And if you consume as much as I do, you’ll find out very soon that content is limited.
Sure, there’s fifty million podcasts out there from influencers and reality TV stars, but they’re just not for me. When life is ridiculous, I find myself looking for good quality serialised true crime, well-shaped documentaries, interesting interviews done by truly talented interviewers, and comic radio drama. Sadly, there’s still not much to be had. They’re there, but just not enough of them to consume at the rate I would devour them.
Which means there is a screaming gap for content. Granted, nobody’s going to throw out an excellent serialised documentary in a couple of weeks – the best of these are years in the making, and it shows – but a one-off radio drama is infinitely doable. Not only that, but it’s doable in a pandemic. Radio drama can be made in the safest, most socially distant way, without any need for quarantine, tests, Perspex, or politicians.
15 to 20 minute radio dramas are perfectly acceptable, and more than palatable. A full-length drama of 45 to 50 minutes is a peach. And all of them take far less time to write than a book or a full-length feature film or a 6-part TV series, which I think we can agree is a blessing now that we all have a lockdown attention span of hungover, narcoleptic goldfish.
Until I started writing radio drama, I hadn’t been writing anything this year. I just wasn’t bothered. I was so not bothered, I couldn’t even motivate myself sufficiently to mock people who had mad plans for self-improvement and world domination during lockdown.
My lethargy ended when I got the lucky opportunity to make a proper actual radio play with a local drama group.
Their idea was to develop a short comedy sketch I’d initially written for my blog a while back, about an affable character called Mr McGuffin who runs a shop for troubled writers called Mr McGuffin’s Plot Device and Writer Unblocking Emporium, from which he sells everything from character motives to mass killing devices for horror authors. (Just don’t ask him for an Unreliable Narrator.)
And now it’s done, ready to be broadcast on www.scariffbayradio.com on Sunday 30th August 2020 at 2pm Irish time, with a repeat at 7pm.
Obviously, a radio play is nothing without the talents of a director, cast, sound engineer and editor, and Mr McGuffin was fortunate enough to find those talents in spades. More importantly it was SO much fun to make. Even though COVID constraints were obeyed at all times, sometimes it felt like so much fun we were sure we had to be breaking a law somewhere.
Remember that drama groups are hungry to practice their art, too, and radio drama allows them to keep active and engaged without endangering anyone’s health. If you don’t know any drama groups, there’s still time to enter RTÉ’s PJ O’Connor Awards for radio scripts (deadline 11th September 2020).
I can only suggest you have a go. And tune in online on Sunday to find out how the most bizarre ideas which seem to have no natural home could be a shoe-in for radio… if only you write them down.
(c) Tara Sparling