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"Playing on Air" Delivers Short Plays with Top Talent on Demand

By ALLEN MOGOL

FEB 23, 2015

Theater on the radio? Sounds crazy, no?

America’s best actors and playwrights have discovered that some of the most compelling theater doesn’t happen in a theatre at all. It happens on the radio, and now as a series of free podcasts too.

“Playing on Air” records short plays written by top playwrights and performed by outstanding actors. The podcasts, available now, make great American theater just a click away for anyone, whenever they want to hear it.

The project is the brainchild of Claudia Catania, the artistic producer, who also hosts. “The reason ‘Playing on Air’ works is because there’s a need for it,” she says. “Playwrights need to be heard. Actors need to flex their theatrical muscles. And a wider audience needs to be exposed to theater, not just a particular stratified group of people.”

“Claudia is the great party host who puts us all together,” says Tony Award– and Academy Award–nominated actress Amy Ryan (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Office). “She chooses the plays and gets great actors.”

Some of the short plays are recorded in a studio with barely enough room for the actors to sit. Others are read and recorded live in front of a small audience at Brooklyn’s BRIC Media Arts.

Then Catania leads a discussion, also recorded, with the participants. “It’s like having Matisse as a docent at the museum,” she said.

Why do top actors and writers line up to work on “Playing on Air”?

Christopher Durang (Tony Award winner for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) was the first playwright Catania got in touch with. The first play recorded was his Mrs. Sorken, a short monologue with Dana Ivey — and he’s been happy to return again and again. Next up for him was Wanda’s Visit, with Jane Krakowski as Wanda. “That was a lot of fun to do because it was longer, “ he says. “We worked very hard on it. I get these wonderful actors who work quite a lot but can give three hours for something they can fit in.”

Playwright David Ives (All in the Timing, Venus in Fur) is another fan of the format. “Radio is a wonderful medium for theater,” he says. “Playwrights live on the sound of words, and what is radio but the sound of words? It’s been a joy. The actors are always superb and you get a great permanent recording of something that’s ephemeral. Having these plays recorded is the same as Gutenberg inventing the printing press. You didn’t have to go to the town square to listen to poetry. Claudia is the Gutenberg of theater.”

What does Ives think of the speed of the process? “Having a limited amount of time is always good. Theater is often best when it’s fast. You have to put your best foot forward right at the top.”

Playwright David Auburn, winner of the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Proof, agrees. “The process of putting them up live is a lot of fun. You do it with very little rehearsal. It’s pickup basketball, but with NBA players — people operating at extremely high levels. Because it’s radio, it comes out polished out of proportion to the time. And then audiences fill in the missing pieces.”

Amy Ryan has performed for “Playing on Air” both live and in a studio. She especially appreciated the benefits and challenges of the latter after minimal rehearsal. “We sat in a very small recording booth around a little table, very intimate. And we had to make theater. If we had all those people in a theater, we wouldn’t have had the same intimacy,” she says. “I preferred the small space because I don’t get to do that very much. Being in the booth, it’s just your voice, and you have to make it work.”

Actor and playwright Jesse Eisenberg (Academy Award nominee for The Social Network) has brought both talents to “Playing on Air.” As an actor, he says, “you get all the benefits of performing without any of the vanity or anxiety. The first play I did was with David Ives. I was surprised at how the first reading of the play seemed so much more alive and advanced than I expected it to be. I hope audiences get the same thing they get out of going to a play, except with the added element of filling in the blanks and adding their imaginations.”

As a writer, Eisenberg is drawn to short plays as “the most distilled form of dialogue and performance without distractions.”

Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins (Jelly’s Last Jam, Caroline, or Change) hopes “Playing on Air” can expand the audience for live performances. “These recorded short plays are always wonderful ways to introduce new audiences to theater,” she says. “They should listen because they’re hearing great stories by great writers. The short form is the way a lot of theater writers get their start. ‘Playing on Air’ brings us back to the beginnings of great writers. It’s a great way to keep theater alive.”

And that’s the whole idea, says Tony Award–nominated actor Bobby Cannavale (The Motherf**ker With the Hat, Blue Jasmine). “Telling stories is the oldest form of entertainment. The mastery of writing a short play is challenging and this format is right for it — sitting around a radio, listening to a short play, a good story well told.”

Playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros is also attracted to the format and the process. “You’re still doing theater, but it’s not precious. Let’s make it beautiful. There’s not time for resistance. Playful. Play-ful.

She found working with actors such as Jerry Stiller and Bob Dishy a joy. “Sometimes it takes a while to capture the more delicate moments. ‘Oh, let’s try it like this.’ They were happy to do it. Great to see such actors who know what they’re doing, and sometimes they just stop. Which doesn’t happen in long rehearsals.”

Gersten-Vassilaros sums it up this way: “These short works on the radio, it’s like a play is a mint. ‘Taste this!’ Sometimes people just want a taste. It exposes them to great writers who they might not know. They can take a little story on the train with them, anywhere they want.”

How to Listen

It’s easy to find, download, and listen to these performers and plays, and to many more at playingonair.org. Actors including Ed Asner, Hope Davis, Olympia Dukakis, Harriet Harris, Audra McDonald, Lois Smith, and dozens of others have all participated. Playwrights including John Guare, Warren Leight, David-Lindsay-Abaire, Jacquelyn Reingold, Paul Rudnick, John Patrick Shanley, Tennessee Williams, and Lanford Wilson are all represented.

Stream full episodes or download from iTunes.

For iPhone users, use the Podcast app.
Android users can get Pocket Cast or Beyondpod from Google Play. 
Click on the app, search for “Playing on Air,” click on Subscribe (free) and start listening. You’ll get new podcasts from “Playing on Air” automatically as they’re produced.

Listen below to a preview of an upcoming episode: Paul Rudnick's My Husband stars Harriet Harris & Michael Urie.

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