By Sue Tiffin
The show must go on and it will do so over the airwaves into your living room, over your car speakers or straight into your ears via headphones beginning April 7.
Canoe FM Radio Playhouse will air on the first and third Wednesday of each month, beginning April 7 from 6 to 7 p.m., featuring a show produced by a local theatre group such as Highlands Summer Festival, Highlands Little Theatre and Rural Rogues on the first Wednesday, and a historic radio play broadcasting on the third Wednesday of the month.
Local radio theatre will help fill a need not just for a community of keen listeners, but for the writers, performers and producers themselves who have been missing the opportunity to delight and entertain due to pandemic restrictions.
“In March of 2020, when everything locked down for the first time, Highlands Little Theatre was just a couple of weeks away from the opening night of a show,” said Kate Butler. “In the early days of the pandemic, a group of theatre folks came together once a week to read plays together on Zoom and while that was lots of fun, it wasn’t the same as regular theatre.”
Rita Jackson, who has been performing through singing and performing theatre for more than 25 years, including the last four in Haliburton County, said the lack of theatre has been disheartening to say the least.
“Well, using that well-used theatre saying, ‘break a leg,’ it kind of feels like I broke that leg, and both my arms, and I am in a full body cast,” said Jackson. She and her husband, John, have been “bouncing around the idea of a radio theatre program ever since the pandemic took its first grip on our lives,” and after being involved in the reading of Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol on Canoe FM this past December, immediately realized the community needed more on-air performances.
“Community theatre is, at its core, about community and camaraderie – a group of people putting on a show really becomes like a family, so in addition to missing putting on the shows themselves and connecting with an audience, we’ve also missed that connection within the theatre community,” said Butler. “A couple of times, we’ve started to edge towards getting back onstage, but it’s just felt safer, thus far, to keep things on hold. So, when the opportunity for radio theatre came up, it seemed like the best of both worlds!”
The pilot show on April 7 will feature a presentation by Rural Rogues Productions of Butler’s short play called Quotation is a Suitable Substitute for Wit, which was performed as a live show in 2018 and has been adapted for radio, and the first part of a play which Michael Clipperton and Butler wrote last year called Too Much Doubt.
“The plan is to draw listeners in, so that they’ll be looking forward to the rest of that one at a later date,” said Butler, noting the second part will air on May 5.
Both plays, said Butler, are inspired by Haliburton County mysteries, and she said it’s “important for listeners to remember that these plays are creative works inspired by historical events, especially since both mysteries remain unsolved to this day.”
Quotation is a Suitable Substitute for Wit was inspired by a story Butler heard before she began working at the Haliburton Highlands Museum.
“It was an account of a woman who had simply vanished from Eagle Lake in 1892, while visiting her daughter and her daughter’s family,” she said. “There was no evidence as to what had happened, so I decided to let her enjoy an adventure. To say much more would be to give too much away, so people will just have to tune in.”
Too Much Doubt is inspired by the 1917 disappearance of Jack Laking, the son of the owner of the Laking Lumber Company, who disappeared along with the company payroll on Drag Lake. While she and Clipperton had been thinking about writing a play about the mystery for awhile, Butler said the pandemic made them decide to get it down on paper.
“I think audiences will enjoy learning something about the history of Haliburton’s mysteries, and how these events can inspire a fictitious response,” said Clipperton. And then, laughing: “Most of the names have been changed to protect the guilty!”
Rural Rogues Productions has had experience bringing theatre to the stage, but also to the air.
“After Rural Rogues presented Re-Generation: A Haliburton Tale in the summer of 2017, we recorded it at Canoe FM the following winter,” said Clipperton. “It was broadcast in two parts in the late evening … It was a fun experience for us, during which we learned something about creating a theatrical experience with the use of only our voices. No costumes, no sets, no hair/makeup, etc. We did incorporate some live music, but other than that it was just the words that the audience heard. And, most importantly, there was no live audience which is so crucial to the face-to-face theatrical experience.”
Clipperton has adapted his work in other ways during the pandemic, pivoting to online teaching to teach drama/dance/creative movement at Lakehead University, as well as a course in directing for the stage for a community theatre company in Merrickville.
“What has been absent from my regular routine is a constant round of rehearsals that would normally occupy two or three evenings a week and some of my weekends,” he said.
Rural Rogues Productions will be presenting shows in April and May. In June and July, Highlands Summer Festival will be presenting a piece, and then in August and September, Highlands Little Theatre will present their work.
“Each theatre group has a slightly different mandate, so they’ll be presenting different types of pieces, which will make the show really exciting, as there will be such a variety,” said Butler.
“Radio theatre has so many different kinds of appeal,” said Butler. “I think that it really encourages audiences to slow down and be fully present with an unfolding story. It also gives a great opportunity to use your imagination to picture the action while you listen. Whatever age you are, there’s a huge appeal in being told a story – I think that’s part of the reason why there’s currently such a growing interest in audiobooks.”
In choosing which plays to produce, Butler said cast size and suitability for radio were the greatest considerations.
“Casts needed to be small – or at least small numbers in any one scene at any one time – to ensure that people could adhere to social distancing guidelines within the Canoe FM Radio Hall,” she said. “With radio theatre, the visual is, of course, in the listener’s imagination, so we also needed plays that told their story in a way that was suitable for the medium.”
The Rural Rogues team will be adapting plays they already have but also hope to offer a workshop on writing for radio later this year, Butler said, “to help cultivate some new material.”
The Canoe FM Radio Playhouse will be hosted by Jackson, who is already well-known to Canoe listeners for hosting on-air alongside her husband John, and having appeared in many local theatre productions, including Glorious: The True Story of Florence Foster Jenkins, presented by Highlands Little Theatre in 2019. She is delighted to take to the airwaves this week, and is grateful for what she called a strong “commitment” from local theatre groups, playwrights, performers and Canoe FM’s production team for keeping theatre alive in the community during the pandemic and beyond.
“There are many supporters of the Haliburton Highlands theatre scene – be it as performers, backstage crew or entertained patrons, and this radio show will offer them something they are all sorely missing,” said Jackson. “Also, on the alternative Wednesdays of the Playhouse programs, will be old radio shows of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s where the listeners take themselves back to the day when a family’s entertainment came from their imaginations triggered by stories over the radio. After all, what is radio but the thrill of theatre.”
Canoe FM Radio Playhouse airs on 100.9 FM on April 7, or can be listened to at CanoeFM.com during or after the live broadcast.