Broadway recently announced its doors will remain closed until Labor Day, with many theater experts believing that audiences won’t be able to enjoy live performances prior to fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Until then, artists, actors and crew members have found themselves without jobs and answers, and audiences have scoured the internet for ways to replace the theater-sized hole in their hearts. Enter: “Playing on Air,” a podcast and radio show that brings the theater wherever you are through the simple push of a button.
“Playing on Air,” created by Founder and Artistic Director Claudia Catania, is not new. In fact, the show has been around since its 2012 launch, just a couple years after Catania — a former actor and dramaturg herself — noted the rising prices of both the tickets and budgets for full-length productions.
“Theater was supposed to address people from all walks of life, and [it] should speak to all sorts of people and common humanity,” said Catania. “I wondered … How can we make theater, like music, more of peoples’ everyday lives?”
Her “aha” moment came when she was moved by six actors simply reading a script in 2010. Catania realized short plays clocking in at around 12 to 20 minutes could work perfectly as bite-sized audio performances. Since its humble start, “Playing on Air” has hosted a myriad of award-winning actors and playwrights, including Timothée Chalamet, Adam Driver, Audra McDonald, Rajiv Joseph, Lynn Nottage and Jesse Eisenberg (the last two also standing in as part the “Playing on Air” advisory board).
Of course, listening to a play is not a new concept. Since the advent of radio, creative writing pieces performed on-air have marked history — sometimes even infamously so, like a 1938 reading of H. G. Well’s “A War of Two Worlds” from Orson Welles that supposedly led America to panic, thinking New Jersey was under attack at the hands of Martians. Now, in place of airwaves and FM dials, podcasts and audiobooks have found comfortable homes alongside curated Spotify playlists. But for such a visual art form, and with endless streaming services bringing viewers pre-recorded performances, how can plays-via-podcast compete?
“I think listening to these plays would … give the audience the chance to be the imaginative set designer and lighting designer and costume designer,” said Michael C. Hall, known for his title role in Showtime’s “Dexter.”
Hall can be heard as RJ in Barbara Hammond’s “June Weddings,” out May 17 as part of the new “Playing on Air” season. The short play centers on RJ and Sonja (Marisa Tomei), who meet early in the day at a bar in Washington Heights. As conversation unfolds, it appears RJ — a disgruntled, divorced father — has temporarily bowed out of his son’s wedding party for a much-needed drink. Sonja, a mysterious Russian woman reading a novel and drinking champagne, pries for information, only to find that RJ believes his son is rushing into a long-term commitment that will inevitably end.
“I would describe [RJ] as the guy who fancies himself a bit more sophisticated and self-aware than he actually is,” Hall said, continuing, “in a way that’s endearing and that is required for him to have the interaction that he has with this woman, being so unwittingly susceptible to her charms.”
Hall received the script only a handful of days before the recording, so preparation for the role was simply reading it over a few times before going into the Midtown Manhattan studio. But the casual “Playing on Air” setting allows for a lot of freedom, and of course, no necessary make-up or costuming.
“It’s fun,” he said of the experience. “June Weddings” is Hall’s second performance with “Playing on Air,” the first being the role of a production assistant in Hamish Linklater’s “Nudity Rider” in 2019. “You have neither the luxury or the indulgence of sort of doing anything other than just making a choice and going for it. It’s a great way to spend a day.”
Echoing the sentiment, Amy Ryan (Holly Flax in “The Office”) said: “What I really love about the format is that the voice doesn’t lie. You know, with film or even a stage … there are so many tricks and other elements going on, but when it’s just your voice and a sound engineer maybe adding in some ambient sound, [and] that’s it? That’s awesome.”
Ryan plays Special Agent Angie Mallinson in “Clean Slate” by Rajiv Joseph, a companion piece to an earlier production titled “Fake News” by Doug Wright. “Fake News” follows two radio anchors who are live on-air when gunmen wearing Kabuki masks storm the studio and murder a colleague; “Clean Slate” expands on the original story as one of the anchors is then questioned by two agents who seem less interested in finding the truth as they are in shaping the narrative.
“Every day, a headline is more surreal, or seems like it should only be a sketch on ‘Saturday Night Live,’” said Ryan of the double feature. “But unfortunately, we’re living it. And I think what the writers have both done … beautifully is [that they’ve] made it palatable and entertaining as opposed to outright infuriating.”
Each production on “Playing on Air” hosts a number of actors, a director, and a writer, with Catania and sound engineer John Kilgore standing in as the official “Playing on Air” touchstones. According to Ryan, the process begins with a discussion and a small rehearsal of any parts that may need special highlighting. Then the actors enter the recording room as the other creatives and “Playing on Air” staff stand on the other side of the glass panel, listening in. There’s also an interview with the artists about the play, moderated by Catania and recorded for audiences’ enjoyment. The whole procedure takes only about a few hours before it goes into post-production with Catania, Kilgore, Associate Producer Michele O’Brien and music composer Tom Kochan.
“When I get there, it’s really about the playwright in my mind,” Ryan said. “It’s like: Why did you write this? What are you hoping to achieve? What surprised you [when] we actors took it over? What do you like? What don’t you like?”
Still, at its heart, “Playing on Air” is really a collaboration of artists working toward the same goal: bringing strong, short plays to listeners around the world. While actors may look to writers and directors for guidance, there’s a need, even from the lighthouses of the production, to “relinquish control,” said actor and playwright Ngozi Anyanwu.
“I don’t tend to pick people who say ‘yes’ to me all the time,” she said. “I pick people who say ‘yes’ to the work, who will read something and just will go [forward] and take ownership of the work … And I tend to pick people who challenge and know how to challenge, who go, ‘Ngozi, what about this?’ And I go, ‘You’re right! Try it.’”
Anyanwu wrote and stars in “G.O.A.T.,” the final production of the spring season. First commissioned through the 2017 “Park Plays” initiative from Queens Theater, she was asked if she’d like to adapt her script for “Playing on Air.” She said “yes,” and on May 31, audiences will be able to follow Jay, Bonita and Row as they perform a ritual on a rooftop to summon a win for the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) Serena Williams.
“This is basically an ode to Serena Williams, the G.O.A.T., the greatest [athlete] of all time,” Anyanwu said. “I don’t even know why it’s a question.”
To Anyanwu, Williams is not only a great athlete, but an icon for “thick and sexy and strong” Black women who understand that femininity is not wrapped up in old stereotypes of outdated gender roles. “G.O.A.T.” is her way of going on the record with her appreciation for the star tennis player, and stands as a comedic ending to “Playing on Air”’s eclectic spring season.
And though “Playing on Air” on the whole started small, it has since expanded to a “crackerjack team of millennials that mastermind a lot of what needs to be done,” according to Catania — things like publicity, searching for more board members and donors, reading countless scripts, among the many other tasks it takes to put on a show. So while Broadway may remain closed until next year, there are still episodes being readied for this year’s fall season of “Playing on Air.” Not to mention, Catania is already thinking of ways to continue “Playing on Air” without a studio.
“It would mean delivering equipment to all the people involved, and that’s another expense we’ve never had before,” she noted. “And everyone has to be in the room, even though they may be in eight [separate] rooms. But we’re going to do it. And … I’m sure we’ll stumble now and again, but we’ll get it down.”
Until then, those looking to incorporate theater into their routines can dive into the many worlds “Playing on Air” has brought to listeners over the almost-decade it’s been around.
“I’ve been starting my mornings with some ‘Playing on Air,’” Anyanwu said. “It’s like a wake-up period or a washing-dishes period or a take-a-walk period. You’d be surprised how [a story] changes your day.”
To learn more about “Playing on Air”’s spring 2020 season, visit their website. To keep up with episodes and future seasons, subscribe to the podcast and follow on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).