Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A flood of information is playwright’s inspiration

Songwriters and stand-up comics, columnists and choreographers — they all have a unique way in which they summon the creative process. For local playwright Kay Reimers, she does the heavy lifting in her sleep.

“We’ll be sleeping and all of a sudden, I’ll hear her say, ‘Oh, get the children!’ or ‘Look out there’s a dead horse flowing down the river!’ and then she’ll go back to sleep,” said Reimers’ husband, Gary. “The next thing I know, she’s writing it down on paper.”

Fans of Reimers’ work won’t care how she invokes the muse. They’ll only care that there’s another production ready for public consumption.

The End of Emerald Street will air on WYSO, 91.5 FM, from 9 to 11 p.m. on Thursday, September 25.

After spending ten years playwriting in Los Angeles, Reimers has been on a local playwriting roll since July 2003 when she contributed to the Antioch Area Theatre production of The Peculiarly Salubrious…History of a Natural Spring and the Community that Grew Up Around It as part of the village’s bicentennial.

In 2006, she produced All Blood Runs Red, at the Schuster Center’s Mathile Theatre in Dayton. The play focused on the life of Eugene Bullard, the first black military pilot in history.

Her next play, Sacred Fire, was performed at the Antioch Area Theatre in 2007. This time her focus was the wealthy and influential supporters of abolitionist John Brown. After its run, she was approached by Jerry Kenney, WYSO’s Morning Edition Host and News Director, to do the play as a radio drama. The conversation-heavy script easily lent itself to a stageless performance and the cast enjoyed the experience. Afterwards, Kenney told Reimers about his wish to revive radio drama.

For those who read the words “radio drama” and instantly envision a Garrison Keillor-type set-up on a stage with cast members huddled around a microphone in front of a live audience with a sound man manipulating props and creating voice effects to simulate slamming doors and rushing water, Reimers can relate.

“That’s what I envisioned at first,” the Keillor fan admitted. “I really wanted to do it live but nobody else wanted to and I’m not the one performing it!” she laughed.

Even without the live audience or stage, a pre-recorded radio drama has its share of challenges.

“With a theatre performance you have the actual physical performance space,” explained Reimers. “Doing a radio drama is a lot more nebulous. One or two people might come into the studio and do their lines. Then the next day, maybe three more people go in and do their lines and then it all gets spliced together.”

With a cast of 20 and scenes being recorded out of sequence days or weeks apart, a radio drama can be a challenge for the actors’ momentum and the play’s continuity.

“You have to have a sense of drive and urgency if you’re going to hold the audience’s attention,” explained the play’s director, Dan Davis, who plays four different roles. “In a traditional space production, you can pace yourself and earn a dramatic pause. You can’t take that chance in radio drama. A pause would have everything come to a screeching halt.”

Reimers’ husband, another actor in the play, saw an eerie similarity between the Dayton flood and other more internationally-known water tragedies. “It’s a lot like the Titanic which happened a year later,” he said. “I think there was a bit of cockiness about the Titanic — an ‘Oh, it can’t happen here,’ kind of thing. In comparison with [Hurricane] Katrina and the levees, it’s really very contemporary. There’s a scene where one of the houses is going by the streets of Dayton like a ship.”

Another actor felt a connection even closer to home.

“I grew up in Kettering, Ohio,” said Doug Hinkley, who plays John H. Patterson in the play, founder of NCR (National Cash Register Company), a longtime Dayton employer. “In Kettering, on Patterson Road,” explained Hinkley, “there is a statue of Patterson sitting on a horse.” As a child, Hinkley played in the park where the statue still stands. “John Patterson is actually the hero of the Dayton flood. He and his employees were responsible for saving a lot of people.”

Hinkley has an even deeper connection to the script. “My grandparents had just moved to Dayton shortly before the flood,” he said. “I remember them talking about it being this horrible, horrible thing.”

A great deal of documentation exists about the flood, including books, photos, and personal letters, which Reimers used to flesh out her characters. “I tend to do a lot of research and let it settle in my head,” she said. “Then I create the characters that would fit into the research.”

Having served as director for two of Reimers’ productions, Davis values the way she works with the actors to craft a believable script.

“Kay wants the actors to feel comfortable with their lines,” Davis explained. “She says, ‘If these words aren’t comfortable for you, go ahead and change them until they are.’ I don’t think you’ll find a writer like that anywhere. It’s sort of an ego-free zone. Even as a director, I’m not comfortable in the position of director. I like to think of myself as ‘monitor of the rumpus room.’”

To add to the spirit of the event, the YS public library will present “Old-Time Radio Night” on Thursday, October 2, at 6 p.m. and will feature an encore presentation of the recording.

“Our family didn’t have a tv until I was at least 5,” said Radio Night coordinator, Carolion. “I have good memories of sitting around and listening to the radio together. For the library’s Radio Night, some of the actors will be present and library patrons will have the pleasure of hearing their neighbors act on radio. They’ll also get in on some of the stories from behind-the-scenes.”

In Garrison Keillor’s mythical town of Lake Wobegon, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” The strong, good-looking, and above-average are all invited to bring bag suppers and handwork such as knitting, needlepoint, whittling, jigsaw puzzle, or sketchpad.

And BYO rocker.

Susan Gartner is a freelance writer and photographer for the News.