Radio Acting, London: A & C Black ISBN 0-7136-4631-4. Available on Amazon. CLICK HERE
You need speed, commitment and accuracy. You need studio technique PLUS the other skills of acting. You 'lift it off the page' and create your bond with the listener. You do less, but you do more with less. Radio often demands 'instant' results.
'I'm dancing on radio' - Sophie Tucker, in her cabaret act
Sophie Tucker joked about 'dancing on radio' as the easiest job going for an actor. Radio acting is a contradiction, creating character and movement from voice, in a blind medium. But working at the microphone is surprisingly physical and as much a matter of technique as film acting. Most obviously it breaks the unity of the actor: voice is parted from body and face, for what a character says seems to be separated from what he or she does. Devoted audiences of radio drama for the nearly seventy-five years of its history have not suffered from a contradiction, getting as they say, 'the best pictures on radio', and actors work with intense and creative energy to 'lift it off the page'.
So the message of this book is that the radio actor is not less of an actor. True, you do not memorize lines and you read from the script to the microphone. Rehearsal and production are fast, with one day in a BBC studio equalling thirty minutes of a broadcast play. There is not the time as in stage rehearsal, say two to five weeks, to discover and build the character and ensemble, and you work on these with shorter concentration, back and forth from rehearsal to recording. Skill is not reduced to voice alone, for radio has its own 'body language' and movement. This, however, is not to deny the contradiction. Radio is not just an indirect medium, like film, where the actor is not bodily present to the audience, but is solely the blind medium.
Each part of the production chain is categorically different. For the radio actor, 'in the beginning was the word', that is, he or she has to be committed to the text from the beginning and the character is revealed in language. Does that leave room for subtext and radio's body language? Absolutely yes, for you to become expressive and convincing. You work without scenery, sometimes without getting hold of the sound props which are manipulated by studio technicians called 'Spot'. So what of preparation and sensory techniques pioneered by Stanislavski, to endow your play environment and fellow actors with meaning? You will discover below that many of these techniques are available, essential to radio I believe, where the actor's task is supremely one of imagination.
An acting manual cannot teach creativity or inject talent where none exists. There are neither rules nor a right way of acting. What my book offers is an insider's guide to the radio drama studio, making available to you the views and experiences of many practitioners, to whom I am deeply grateful for their input. I give you the range of choices from when you open the script, and as you prepare, build your character and perform. Above all, I hope you find here a full spectrum of radio skills, of radio technique at the microphone, including commercials, voice-overs and book readings. You cannot be expressive, believable and creative without skills, though again I stress that these are choices and questions only finally for you to bring into your performance.
When we say a radio actor has a good technique, we mean having a 'must-be-listened-to' and articulate voice, a skill in language, dialect, pace, pitch and rhythm. He or she is able to make the character live in their language, even to live in the pauses, and to 'keep in' the dialogue while others speak. Directors talk about avoiding the 'ping-pong' effect in radio dialogue, that switching abruptly from speaker to speaker, and about avoiding its 'talking-heads' nature, where the listener gets the impression that the scene lives only from the neck up.
Because radio is blind, it takes skill to create the movement that goes appropriately with dialogue, even to give the listener the 'face' that goes with the words, in a series of 'sound pictures'. Scientists claim that in real-life talk, the visual accounts for 75% of the communication. Present-day acting in other media is also very visual and a lot of training goes into movement skills. Radio acting often means doing less, but creating more with it, working from the style and conventions of the play. It also means working on a succession of one-off productions, in what actors have always praised as the most creative of environments, with exciting new material reaching mass audiences, and often with the playwright present, in the case of new 'originations'.
Radio technique also means working effectively in the radio drama suite, and that is where chapter 1 starts with a tour of the studio set-up, leading to chapter 2, production in the studio. There you learn of the two main production systems, 'rehearse-record', which moves back and forth between rehearsal and recording, like film and TV, and less frequently, 'rehearse-all-then-record' ('at a run'), where all is rehearsed before beginning on the takes. Chapter 3 tells you of different radio directing styles, of the read-through, and the 'loss' of the director from the studio when recording. Chapter 4 teaches microphone work and the five positions at the microphone, along with perspective and movement within the sound picture 'frame'. Chapter 5 leads you to more creative work, especially in your radio body language or 'embodying' as I term it, and explains the speed, flexibility and commitment needed. Do you work on the character from the outside-in or inside-out? You'll probably use both pathways. In chapter 6, you learn of the main aspects of the voice relating to radio: pitch, volume, breathing, tempo and rate, and voice qualities. Then how to work on dialect and relaxation. Chapter 7 aims at your creative interpretation: the key questions to ask yourself in preparation, profiting from your five senses, visualisation without scenery, and using your partners effectively. I also ask 'what is bad radio acting?'. In chapter 8, I bring you into the market, radio commercials and audio books, and you hear the language of production through producers themselves. I also advise you on how to get started, and on your show reels and voice tapes.
Where the product is the voice, a radio actor can be physically any size and any look. 'Short fat actors can play long thin roles', it is said, and type casting enters less into radio. Reading this book will help you to extend your range. There is always a radio market for the actor with skill in dialect and the studio, and who can make fast and radical adjustments. What matters is the ability to take the listeners into the world of the characters through their language.
The United Kingdom is the outstanding employer of radio actors with coming up to seventy-five years' tradition in the BBC, going back to the first radio production of 16 February 1923, the quarrel scene from Julius Caesar, and the BBC richly merits its title of 'The National Theatre of the Air'. From the golden years come stars such as Marjorie Westbury, Carlton Hobbs and Tommy Handley, and radio directors are always able to assemble 'dream' casts for major classic productions. Now is an exciting time of diversity with growing independent drama production, which could rise further than the present 10% quota bought in by the BBC. It means radio actors meet all kinds of directors and in studios sometimes smaller that the BBC's, but so much becomes possible through the magic of digital production.
Radio drama is a huge industry with a wonderful tradition, employing some 14,000 actors a year, and a turnover in fees of about £6 million, according to Equity (1997 figures). It has sometimes called itself the Cinderella of drama since television took over in popularity in the mid 1950s, and its plentifulness and constant high standards can make it seem familiar and securely available. But it needs protecting as never before, in the new age of the BBC's Producer Choice and independents, as it is almost, but not quite, the most expensive item on radio, costing £20,500 an hour for a Radio 4 play and down to £11,500 for some Radio 2 Light Entertainment (1997 figures). The statistical breakdown is as follows. Equity reports that BBC Drama and Light Entertainment issued 13,716 actors' contracts in 1994, the last year figures are available. Add to this the Radio Drama Company of between sixteen and twenty, traditionally known as the 'Rep', and the World Service and BBC Education (a bi-media department). Fees earned by London contracts in 1993-4 amounted to £2,840,783. The daily fee is £105 and the weekly salary for the Radio Drama Company is £320 to £445, with students at £258 (1997 figures).
Radio drama is famous for providing the most professional working conditions, and a camaraderie shared with trusted and skilled directors. You summon up intense, highly concentrated energy for one-, two- or three-day productions, and have the satisfaction that comes with the completed take and when everything is 'in the can'. Then you are broadcast to audiences of 200,000 to 500,000 or even over a million. Radio is generous about contracts, usually booking from within three weeks of the studio, as agents will not commit their actors sooner. Weekend and day work suits availability, especially if an actor is in a stage run.
My book comes only in the wake of professional voice training and manuals, especially by experts such as Cicely Berry and Patsy Rodenburg. I take up from the point where the voice is in readiness. You have developed so far that your voice is freed, and accurate and articulate in dialogue and dialect work. In chapter 6, on voice, it is useful for me to go through some relevant aspects of voice production, but I concentrate on developing your voice further to the demands of the microphone and the studio. Being 'on' the words in radio most often means being more intimate, 'bringing it down', and judging, for example not just rhythms and timing, but even whether to use an inbreath or an outbreath. You direct the flow of energy in the voice stream in crucially different ways, depending on what I term the five positions at the microphone and on how 'opened out' the sound set is. The microphone cruelly exposes technique, imperfections of the vocal mechanism and insincerity.
The actor and actress of today work across all the media, from stage to screen, TV and video, and radio, and have to be able technicians. Two very different forms of acting are demanded by stage and screen. The stage energises the actor much more by projection to the audience, in movement and often most of your work is in speaking. The camera often demands subtextual acting, psychology more than the words, a lot of 'face-making', keeping tightly within the frame, and often realistic 'invisible' acting.
Radio is a crossover of both but is truly the third form of acting. There is a complete focus on the words, the voice stream and dialogue, and the actor's energy must be expressively and economically channelled there. Without stage or screen costume, scenery and movement, you seem to do less, but that less is more. You will also discover that radio acting involves a lot of energetic and precise movement, including 'turns' from the waist, head moves, running, and shouting behind screens and into corners. It is not 'stand-and-deliver' acting. This third form of acting is also unique in that you can work simultaneously as both character and actor, as the studio gives that freedom. You can also communicate and signal to others as both. You benefit because most often your concentration is on one thing - the words - unless you have what are called moves. You 'make it real' in a substantially different way, acting in your mind's eye (or ear), a listener as well.
I have written this book for all developing their skills in radio drama, comedy, book-readings and voice-overs, in fact, for all actors, directors and production staff who work at the microphone. It is a first, because although radio drama has been on our airwaves since 1923, no training manual has ever before been published. I hope that all actors, whatever their c.v., will benefit, as an actor never stops training. Students usually complete a radio module and some conservatoires compete for the BBC Carlton Hobbs Award, allowing the winner a contract with the Radio Drama Company. It is worrying that only a very few schools appear to teach in an adequately-sized studio, affording enough space for microphone work and moves off. The result is that basic studio technique has to be learnt when at professional work and this is not an adequate situation. It is not enough merely to have made friends with the microphone and tried out an audition piece or two. Trainees are usually given many more hours with film and video. I hope my book will go some way to cover this gap. No matter how many training manuals are published, actors work from instinct and from experiences which have become naturalized and finely tuned as such. There is only so much teachers can do.
In an obituary to a wonderful actor and supreme radio performer, Sir Michael Hordern, the Radio 4 'Kaleidoscope' presenter Brian Sibley, who worked with him as the adapter of Tolkien, summarised him as 'an actor who brought very little intellectual baggage into the studio and didn't necessarily fully understand the emotional complications. He never said "what's my motivation?"' As Sibley explains, 'Radio acting is telescoped. The actor has to respond much more immediately and switch on a performance.' Walter Matthau, after his first experience on radio with Fay Weldon's 'The Hope in The Top of the World', grumbled, 'Like all megalomaniacs I thought it would be nice for posterity, but radio is the kind of fake acting I don't like. Of course, all acting is fake.' Radio acting is fake only if you make it so for the listeners and I hope that with the help of this book you will be better able to act - and dance - on the radio.
This book would not have been possible without my students and my publisher Tesni Hollands - enthusiastic and helpful from the start.
This site is 'Radio Drama - directing, acting, technical, learning & teaching, researching, styles, genres'. See INDEX to navigate also. Complete curriculum of scripts, techniques (acting & directing & post-production & genre styles), advice, sound files - effects and atmoses (with no copyright and so free to use), detailed script commentaries, etc.
Academic material on this site is Alan Beck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Learn about radio drama on this site along with my book - Beck, Alan, Radio Acting, London: A & C Black ISBN 0-7136-4631-4 Available on Amazon. CLICK HERE.
Any opinions expressed in this site are the personal opinions of the owner of the site. IF YOU HAVE COMMENTS, PLEASE EMAIL TO : firstname.lastname@example.org