“Ladies and gentleman of Radio Land, it is six o’ clock. The sun has set. Soon darkness will be all around. Yes it is six o’clock and evening has fallen, an evening of thrills and suspense.”
For nearly eight years, every Saturday night, these words have been broadcasted from WRMC’s radio tower, the introduction to Middlebury Radio Theater of Thrills and Suspense (MRTOTS). Situated between two music shows more typical of WRMC, MRTOTS is the College’s very own live radio theater group, performing a two-hour collection of plays — some of which are student originals — each week.
Even with a group of 10 to 20 regular performers, the cast is never consistent, rotating each week to accommodate whichever actors volunteer to perform for that episode.
“Since we do multiple scripts in each episode,” David Seamans ’13, one of the group’s “co-dictators,” said, “we make a point of casting evenly each week and assuring that everyone who shows up get at least one role.”
When Seamans and the two other dictators, Brigit Carlson ’13 and Michael Davies ’15 refer to themselves as such in a casting email, I didn’t think twice about it. But sure enough, they use it as their official title.
“We like to think of ourselves as democratically elected dictators,” Davies said when I showed up to the WRMC studio last Saturday night.
Dictators only in name, the three run the club with fantastic efficiency. Each week, three to five plays are selected, the casting call goes out and actors are given their parts. Rehearsal takes place on the night of the show, in the two hours before they go on air. And by the time the clock strikes six in Radio Land, the actors are in their positions around the microphone, the director ready with an arsenal of sound effects. In my correspondence with Seamans about the club, he invited me to the studio and I was handed a role; I wouldn’t just be observing, I’d be participating.
Headphones on, just after Alpenglow had finished recording in the studio, seven actors and I sat around a single table in the small and cozy, but a-bit-too-warm WRMC studio, one microphone hanging above the center of the table. The first play, The Dark Tower, written by Alexander Woollcott was a thriller, a story about an actor and his retelling of the murder he got away with. William Starkoff ’15, who played one of the main characters, demonstrated an impressive array of voices throughout the play, transitioning seamlessly between the voice of the actor Damon and his murderous persona Max.
“Sometimes you’ll be totally surprised by a voice one of the actors pulls out of nowhere, often the actors even surprise themselves,” Davies said. “What’s great about radio is you can make it what you want it to be, you get a lot of people who really want to be there,” Seamans added.
The group performed four plays in total on Saturday, with themes ranging from mystery to comedy. While the three longer pieces had a serious tone to them, the more serious mood was made much more whimsical by a faux-commercial from MRTOTS “sponsor” the Lipo-Lax 3000, an infomercial-style skit in which I played an actor reluctant to be participating in the advertisement of a seemingly dangerous do-it-yourself liposuction/candle and soap making kit. The skit was written and directed by Ben Mansky ’15.
“We always try to put on any original scripts that get submitted, and we mean anything,” Davies said. “Often they end up being all over the place.”
About one third of the plays the group performs are original student works, the rest being vintage radio plays or adaptations of other shows for the radio. Many of the student works are one-offs, but the group has a few recurring and episodic pieces, as well. Each Christmas season, they perform scenes from a continuing holiday saga, written mostly by radio theater alums, featuring characters like Jack Frost, a CIA agent and a cast of holiday-pun names.
Seamans has also written and directed a few episodes of a still-growing mini-series, The Wild You, a story that follows a vagabond who has broken his leg, decides to settle down in a small town in New Mexico and meets an eccentric cast of characters. All of the music for the series is composed and performed live in the studio during the performances by Dustin Lowman ’15.
During winter term, the group puts on a live show in the Hepburn Zoo — this past January’s show being the third ever performance.
Last Thursday, MRTOTS also performed three student-written pieces (two of which were also performed on Saturday) in front of a live audience at Atwater suite BCG, a student-run art house for the display of student-created art on campus.
“[BCG] really feels like what the Atwater suites were intended for,” Carlson said. “It’s a wonderful place for student artwork to be showcased. There are some great people there.”
Attracting actors, writers and anyone interested in radio, MRTOTS demonstrates an undying devotion to what they do while still maintaining a relaxed atmosphere. Their sheer ability to produce an impressive array of skits each week is impressive; every show is performed live and recorded. Their website features an archive of every performance in their eight years of existence. (Their site is experiencing technical issue and while the recordings are all still there, the group is working to restore the interface. To find the recordings, go to this link.)
Sitting in and participating in their live show, I was immediately greeted by a laid-back and friendly atmosphere; a great introduction to a group I feel has not received the attention they deserve on campus.
“What I love about radio theater,” Carlson said, “is that it feels like low commitment and yet it’s incredibly productive. It’s something that I can have fun doing without stressing out too much.”