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Atlanta Journal-Constitution (18/Oct/2008) - Radio drama revival

(c) Atlanta Journal-Constitution (18/Oct/2008)

Radio drama revival

Successful plays range from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to ‘Vintage Hitchcock’

Joe Landry says people often expect him to be an elderly man because of his passion for forgotten films and the golden age of radio. The Bridgeport, Conn., playwright is best known for re-creating Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the format of a radio drama, complete with crunchy special effects.

Last year, American Theatre magazine named “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” one of the 10 most produced plays in the country. This season, the show will receive more than 40 professional and amateur productions —- including a repeat performance at Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit.

Last year, Landry came to town to see what local theaters were doing with “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Turned out he was so impressed with the Legacy Theatre’s production that he gave the ensemble permission to stage his latest radio play: an evening of one acts adapted from three early films by Alfred Hitchcock. Directed by Legacy artistic director Mark Smith, “Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play” opened Friday and runs through Nov. 2. Landry arrived for rehearsals this week. Before that, the Legacy sent him recordings of rehearsals.

Landry —- who at 37 hardly qualifies as a senior citizen —- traces his love of cinema back to his childhood. His first job, at age 12, was sorting and shelving the 16mm movies at the public library in Fairfield, Conn. This was the ’80s, around the time films were being converted to video. But Landry was so captivated by the whir of the projector, the spools of tape, the creaky old audio and the magic of moving pictures that he’s appropriated the media to his devices. (He’s also written an adaptation of the 1936 propaganda flick “Reefer Madness,” to be published soon by Playscripts Inc. But it’s not a radio play.)

We recently chatted with Landry about his Hitchcock project and why imitation radio drama is enjoying an onstage revival.

Q: Hitchcock became famous after going to Hollywood and making “Rear Window, “The Birds” and “Vertigo.” Why did you choose films from the ’30s?

A: It was really the success of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that made me think of putting the Hitchcock films into the radio play format. I basically [made my selections] because of the availability of them and because of their status. They are very early. And public domain status gives me a little more leeway as far as what I can do on my own and how much I can change them... I never had any interest in doing a radio version of “Psycho.”

Q: And you came up with “The Lodger,” “The Lady Vanishes” and “The 39 Steps.” Talk about them a little bit.

A: “The Lodger” is actually a silent film. So turning a silent film into a radio play, which is basically the complete opposite of a silent film, was a really sort of fun challenge... Hitchcock had actually directed a radio play version of “The Lodger.” As far as I know, it was the only thing he directed for radio... The Lodger is a character who may or may not be a serial killer. He comes to stay in this boardinghouse with this older English couple, and they suspect him. [Landry doesn’t want to give the ending away.]

Second is “The Lady Vanishes.” It’s probably the one I know best, yet it was the most challenging to write, because there isn’t a lot of other source material. There’s a novel, but the novel is very different from the film. The other one is “The 39 Steps,” which is the most similar to “North by Northwest” in a way. It’s sort of a 1930s “North by Northwest,” set in Europe instead.

Q: Did you see the Broadway spoof of “The 39 Steps”?

A: I sort of didn’t want to see that. I didn’t want to be too influenced by it. I’m hoping it circulates for a little while and that I’ll be able to see it after this.

Q: Why do you think the radio genre is so popular?

A: It touches the senses in a different way. And it reacts with the audience as a participant and has them connect more and different sorts of dots than they might in a typical evening of theater. I’m sure there’s a percentage of the audience that remembers radio plays and maybe have actually been to live radio plays, but for a lot of other people, it’s completely new.

Q: What did you like about the Legacy’s “Wonderful Life”?

A: I think it was the first time that I had seen a production where I didn’t talk to the director or anyone involved with it. And they went completely off the script, like by itself... I know that might sound strange. But a lot of time people would get in touch with me and say: “How can we do that sound effect?” Or “Can we do this or can we do that?”

It was [artistic director Mark Smith’s] invitation that made “Vintage Hitchcock” happen there. I thought it would be a great fit... He was the first to ask about it, so I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ He definitely has a connection to classic film as well.