My Articles

Audio Plays

This article was published in Anjali, Durga Puja 2020 edition

Of late, there has been a renewed interest among theater-enthusiasts to produce “Audio Plays. It could be related to a perception that audio plays are easier to pull off than a full-fledged stage performance.  Other considerations may be cost and the need by actors to memorize lines. I have attended several of these performances. These were presented sometimes in an auditorium and at other times, in front of a camera.

I will not spend much time talking about the history of “Audio Plays” since some of the details, though west-centric, are readily available on Wikipedia and other online avenues.  In the modern era, the revival of audio plays happened because of and after the invention and popularity of the radio. In India, the first audio play was broadcast in 1956. It was “Prafulla”, a play written by the eminent Indian playwright and theater personality, Girish Ghosh. In those days we never called it “audio play” or “radio play” but simply a play. Later, audio plays became an integral part of All India Radio’s weekly programming. Not to be left behind, “His Master’s Voice” published Sachin Sengupta’s “Siraj ud-Daulah” in a set of eight 78-RPM records.  These audio plays were very popular and I still recall fondly listening to some of them growing up.

What intrigues me the most about audio plays is its apparent simplicity of form. It does not have the glamor and visual grandeur of a stage production or cinema but still manages to kindle one’s imagination to its maximum. It compares only to the fairytales told to young children and often acted out, by parents, grandparents and teachers.  Hence, it may be worth taking a deep dive into what could be some of the reasons for its appeal and in doing so, understand what may be some of the pitfalls audio play productions may be tempted to be drawn into.

It may be appropriate at this juncture to introduce the concept of what I term as the Performing Arts Spectrum. We can have various forms of performing arts on one axis and levels of audience’s imagination at play on the other.  Graphically, it may look something depicted in the following figure.

On one end of the spectrum lies reading. Here the reader is the performer as well as the audience. It is entirely up to the reader to imagine the beauty of a character or scenery based on written words. Dialogs are modulated per the readers understanding of the text. Every emotion is developed within a reader’s mind.  Naturally, every reader perceives these nuances very differently based on his/her experiences and biases. The Performing Art Spectrum can have on the other end 3-D cinema and holographic shows/virtual reality. The audience is expected to imagine very little.

As one would expect, two readers may not read the text with the same expression and understanding.  For example, there are multiple ways to read even a simple statement like, “Tomorrow, I will meet you at your Lakewood residence.” Depending on the word or phrase emphasized, the sentence may convey a slightly different meaning. “Tomorrow, I will meet you at your Lakewood residence,” with an emphasis on “I” could convey that no one else but I will meet you at your Lakewood residence.  Likewise, the emphasis could be on the word “you” or “Lakewood” or “Tomorrow” and each variation could convey slightly different messages. Moreover, the reader could modulate the dialog to make it sound funny or sarcastic or angry. The reader is in control and the writer has only written words to explain the tone, meaning and modulation of the text. Likewise, the writer may describe a beautiful woman eloquently, but as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder- in this case the reader.

Audio plays separate the performer from the audience.  The performers have only spoken words and sounds to establish a scene and convey its meaning.  A beautiful baritone voice of a hero and sweet melodious voice of a heroine may give perceptions of beauty. The audience has full control of imagining a scene or character based on the sounds presented without having the responsibility of performing (i.e., reading).  Thus 100% of their attention can be towards listening to the performance.  Through his/her auditory senses, biases and perceptions, he/she is now free to imagine the visuals. Every little sound and sound placement contribute towards building the visual perception, all in his/her imagination.  It may be a car stopping or an actor clearing his throat or a smacking of the lips or the sound of someone walking away- every sound is a clue that helps to create the visual impact. The result is that the level of participation of the audience to imagine is very intense- little less, perhaps, than reading; but it is very intense.

Once a visual component is introduced in a performance, (say, as in, jatra, proscenium theater, cinema, etc.) the onus of imagining shifts from the audience to the director. Sometimes, the audience is disappointed because the visuals don’t match their expectations. This is particularly true with adaptations of well-known literary works.  In an audio play, an actor with a physically short stature may act in the role of a very tall man. Likewise, an old lady may portray a teenager. The audience takes the responsibility of personifying the characters and realizing the scenery and ambiance. Not so, when the visual component is introduced in a performance. Then, there is no need to imagine the visuals or at least, the brain does not recognize implicitly that there is such a need.

The fundamental assumption of audio plays is that the audience will use only their auditory senses to build as well as compensate for the lack of visuals.  Hence, the entire perception of the visuals is carefully constructed using only sounds. Some of the pitfalls of audio play productions arise from relaxing this fundamental assumption.  An audio play done in front of a “live” audience where one can actually see the voice actors, is bound to diminish the demand on the brain to rely on auditory senses only. Instead the audience may start to cast the physical characteristics of a voice actor with that of the role. Even the physical distance between actors due to the seating arrangement on stage may be detrimental.  For example, if two characters are acting out a scene of whispering into each other’s ears, and the audience sees them seated far apart, they may find it difficult to reconcile the visual with what there are hearing. After all, the perceptions are now not only based of only audio clues, but also unintended visual clues. Many a times, audio play actors dress up to make themselves presentable on stage.  Again, that may work against the character he/she is portraying. The voice actor unknowingly contributes to the confusion in the minds of the audience.

In my opinion, audio plays are meant to be for your ears only.  When a visual component is introduced, chances are very high that it will form a barrier to unleashing the imaginative power of the brain to its maximum. A suited-booted voice actor portraying the role of a street beggar or a voice actor wearing a common Indian attire portraying the role of a Moghul king may be too taxing to reconcile for the audience and more difficult for the character actor to portray! Granted, the audience should know better, but then the onus is not on the audience.  I have tried (I might add, successfully) to close my eyes and just listen to audio plays.  The trick works for me. I doubt however, if the majority of the “live” audience does the same.

So, is there a way out? Can we not present an audio play in the presence of the audience? It’s not ideal, but may be possible. One way could be to act from behind the curtain, or act to a darkened stage. The cast and crew may be introduced in full light, after the show.  It’s quite counterintuitive, I know… but I think it should work better!

Copyright © 2020 - 2022, Raktim Sen