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From Eye to Ear: Adapting from Stage to Radio

Devon Ellington, an internationally-produced playwright and radio writer, shares insights into adapting a stage play to a radio show, and the opportunity to improve your stories by telling them in multiple mediums.
From Eye to Ear_ Adapting from Stage to Radio

Stage plays use a combination of visual, words, and live audience. Radio uses sound to drive narrative and reveal character..

Several of my radio plays are comic noir mysteries, where tropes familiar from the noir mystery genre in both film and radio’s Golden Age are turned inside out. When I know it’s destined for radio, I hear the play come to life with the sounds as much as character and dialogue. I write by ear first. In subsequent drafts, I fix structure and plot, work beat-to-beat, and layer in further sounds to drive plot and reveal character.

Stage plays usually germinate in character, grow with dialogue, then “what if?” and then the visuals. Different mediums, which require different tools.

However, some stage plays can work both on stage and on air, with correct restructuring and using the tools that serve each medium best. Some of those discoveries made in the restructuring can then transfer back to the stage version.

“Confidence Confidant” moved well between the two formats. “Confidence Confidant” is built around one of Kate Warne’s cases. Kate Warne was the first female Pinkerton in America. Allan Pinkerton hired her in the 1850’s; she was a Pinkerton for 12 years, a spy for the Union, helped destroy an early assassination attempt against President Lincoln, and trained the next generation of female detectives. She was a chameleon, and I joke that if she hadn’t found a calling as a detective, she would have made a ruthless, unstoppable criminal. She, like most of Pinkerton’s original inner circle, thrived on theatrical, intricate undercover work that often lasted for months to flush out their prey. They caught rings of criminals because they understood the long con, and could out-long-con those they hunted.

The case was the theft from the Adams Express Company of $50,000 by Nathan Maroney of the Montgomery office. He was jailed in NY, but the money was missing. The Maroneys were a popular young couple in the city; their friends wouldn’t turn on them, even though guilty. Pinkerton suspected that Maroney’s wife hid the money. He sent Kate to pose as the wife of a well-known forger at the Pennsylvania boardinghouse to which Mrs. Maroney fled, to gain Mrs. Maroney’s confidence, and retrieve the money.

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One of the devices used in the stage version, from early drafts, was a mantel clock, to signify both the passage of time and time running out. That clock was the springboard for the transition to the radio version.

Since the play was originally conceived for the stage, for the 365 Women a Year Project, it relied heavily on visuals. Scenes were set in the parlor, in the garden, in Kate’s bedroom, and on the train between Pennsylvania and New York. Sound instead of scenery would need to drive the radio adaptation.

The first task was to reformat the stage play into radio format. Not only is radio format vastly different from stage format, but there’s BBC Radio Format, US Format, and US Numbered Format. The company that produced this radio play had their own format, slightly different from US Format, so once it was contracted and I got notes from the producer and director, more re-formatting was necessary.

For instance, an excerpt of the stage play would look like this:

ear to screen

When it is formatted into US Radio Format, driven by sound, it looks like this:

Kate: My dear, if they do not support you in your difficulties, they are not true friends. I know this from personal experience.


AMELIA: (murmurs unintelligibly as she reads, then, louder): Of all the. . .

KATE: What’s wrong?

AMELIA: My husband is losing his mental faculties.


AMELIA: He thinks my letters show “decreased interest.” For goodness sake, I write to him every day!

KATE: Do you tell him everything?

Details in character, dynamic, and emotion that would be seen are now communicated via the tearing of the envelope, Amelia’s murmuring, and her pacing. What we see in our mind’s eye is driven by sound placement.

Once the stage script was re-formatted into US Format, it was time to remove any visual cues missed in the original reformatting, and decide where the piece could be driven by sound. What sounds would spark the audience imagination for the setting? What sounds would drive the plot? What sounds would reveal character, either supporting the text or serving as subtext?

How to define scenes in the parlor, other than by the ticking clock? The difference in the sound of the outer door opening and the door to the parlor; the sound of footsteps in the hallway or up and down stairs. Different characters walk differently; their footsteps have a different weight and rhythm. Once the audience can associate a character’s tread with that character’s voice, the audience can connect who is moving around the space before that character even speaks.

In the garden, the sound of footsteps on gravel indicated change of location. The choice where to place the sounds of footsteps when the characters walked and talked and when they stopped punctuated, supported, or contradicted what was spoken in dialogue. It helped frame the character mood along with the tone of the words. The sound of footsteps on gravel outside in the garden was different from footsteps on the wooden boards inside the rooming house. Birdsong was used to punctuate dialogue, and the far-away train whistle was a subtle reminder that this was about a train robbery.

Once the sounds were layered in, and the script read aloud several times for pacing, cadence, and rhythm, it was time to cut. Radio is timed to the second. Most radio dramas are thirty or sixty minutes. A thirty-minute radio drama must come in at 30:00, not 28:10 or 31:30. Even bright, quick repartee is spoken slower, with defined articulation, for radio than on stage, but boosted with energy under the words. One page should translate to one minute of audio time. The writer needs to finesse it before the script goes into rehearsal; during the rehearsal process, even in a tightly-written script, words or even sounds, need to be cut to fit time constraints.

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There is even less room for ego in radio than there is on stage or in television.

The example above was part of a long scene of dialogue between the two women sharing confidences, and the director added in sounds of shared tea. The placement of the poured tea, how a cup was placed on a saucer (lightly or slammed down), those tiny details all enhanced the audience’s imagination of both text and subtext through the sound as the scene progressed and escalated.

During rehearsal, actors and the Foley artist will create more ideas. A solid script provides inspiration with enough room for the other artists involved to build on it. I like to cut words during rehearsal. Once there’s a three-dimensional actor, cut unnecessary words and let the meaning communicate through action, gesture – or, in radio, sound.

The Foley artist is an extension of character, as a partner in the process. The Foley artist understands how a slight difference in the tone of a bell can change the momentum and mood of a scene. How a hesitation in the sound of a footstep can build suspense, or how the way a door hinge creaks indicates if the scene is comic or frightening. The writer sets the tone, but the skill of the Foley artist brings it to life in partnership with actors and director.

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Once the radio version was produced, I revised the stage script. Where some of the sound cues added rhythm and definition to the scenes, I translated them back into visuals for the stage version. During one of Amelia’s pacing scenes, Kate makes a comment that throws her off balance. In the radio version, we layered over the sound of her knocking into the tea table. It was a good punctuation, and, in the stage version, I added in the visual of her not looking where she was going, when Kate distracted her, and knocking into the table.

Revisions make the work stronger. Translating the best of what works from format to format, and understanding how to communicate it in each medium adds wonderful layers. Adapting back and forth between formats reveals strengths and weaknesses in the script, and makes room for stronger, better choices.

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