Radio-on-the-Lake is working to revive old-fashioned radio drama for the podcast age.
By Grant Segall
In an age of ubiquitous video, Radio-on-the-Lake Theatre is a throwback, staging sounds without sights. From their Scottsdale Road home, theater veterans Caroline Breder-Watts and John Watts are working with professionals and students to revive old-fashioned radio drama.
Radio-on-the-Lake works with a Shaker nonprofit called Story Forum to turn elementary through high schoolers into writers and performers.
During a Zoom rehearsal, John tells Shaker Heights High School student Grace Wilkinson, “We’re going to need you to actually say swear words, so we can put beeps over them.”
Grace responds with rather mild words, but John will beep over them later anyway to suggest stronger ones, as the plot requires.
Radio-on-the-Lake is the region’s only company specializing in radio plays. It performs old-time scripts as well as new ones in the old style.
John likes working without visuals. “It makes your imagination start ticking.”
The high school participants agree. Budding playwright Kendell Berry says, “It challenged and helped improve my skill of writing dialogue, as well as showing me how important the dialogue is for a story.” A series called “Inspired by…” dramatizes articles from Shaker Heights High School’s student newspaper, The Shakerite. Berry’s “This and That” was inspired by racial identity.
Grace Wilkinson says, “It’s a little more of a collaborative thing. You write down whatever you want, and it’s up to everyone else’s interpretation.”
“I love being here in Shaker,” she has a fictional teacher say. “There is still some segregation, but there is also diversity. I see the kids, Black and white talking to each other in the hall, being partners in class, they’re doing things I never got the chance to enjoy.”
John and Caroline like Shaker, too. “As we are an artsy, liberal family,” says Caroline, “it’s the perfect environment for us.”
John had spent all his life in Florida and she nearly all of hers, before they moved here four years ago so Caroline, could lead membership campaigns for ideastream. They praise Greater Cleveland’s diverse and creative theaters, its proud radio history, its hills, its friendliness, even its snow.
They brought along their Arts Radio Network Theatre, a 2002 outreach program for public radio, and renamed it in honor of Lake Erie.
Caroline also produces a podcast for the Columbus Moving Picture Show. John designed the sound for a Gates Mills Players radio show last year and was nominated for a Broadway World Regional Award.
The couple bought a 1936 brick home with a mid-2000s family room. They turned it into a theater room, with lots of sound-making devices, including some vintage ones from the NBC and CBS studios. John uses a triangle, chimes, two dial telephones, a water tank, a horn, and other gadgets to help bring the shows to life.
Among other shows, Radio-on-the-Lake has recreated the famous The Time Machine in the Shaker Arts Council’s Stay-in-Place Productions series. It also collaborated with Playwrights Local in Waterloo on “Entanglement,” written by Shaker resident Les Hunter.
Soon the couple hopes to recreate early radio shows written and performed by African Americans before racial stereotypes in white-made shows like “Amos ‘n’ Andy” prevailed.
To hear Radio-on-the-Lake shows for free or learn more, visit radioonthelaketheatre.org.