By Terry Clarey
Today people have a large number of ways in which to access entertainment including desktops, laptops, smartphones, e-readers and other mobile electronic media devices. But in the days between the invention of the radio and wide spread television ownership most people in this country could only get their electronic entertainment from a small wooden box with dials and transistors to listen to stories of adventure, comedy, horror, and suspense with only their imagination to allow them to visualize the scene.
It is in this spirit that the Post Meridian Radio Players (PMRP) put on science fiction, horror, suspense and comedy shows in the old time radio format in and around Somerville since 2005.
By minimizing the use of electronic sound effects and featuring a “Foley Table” containing every day items to recreate sounds to enhance the action of the voice actors, they hope to recreate the days when people listened to radio shows such as The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and most infamously the 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, by Orson Welles, which sent some Americans into panic because it seemed as if Martians were really invading.
This Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening, the PMRP will present the second week of The Spring Sci-Fi Spectacular at the Responsible Grace Church in Davis Square, which consists of two plays: Red Shift: Interplanetary Do-Gooder in Crisis of the Cuddlykins and a radio adaptation of the 1954 science fiction cult classic movie, THEM!, in which ants, irradiated from the 1945 atomic bomb tests in New Mexico, grow to an immense size and terrorize humanity.
Although THEM! may be more well-known to a general audience, Red Shift, in its sixth installment, is an original series written and directed by PMRP co-founder Rob Noyes.
“Red Shift is a broad Flash Gordon parody,” said Noyes, who also plays Dr. Alberts. “It involves a very square jawed do-gooder who does right with a sidekick named Lumpy” and includes very recognizable characters like the cranky scientist Dr. Alberts and Penny Parker, the intrepid newswoman.
Noyes, along with Neil Marsh, who is the “man behind the curtain,” as the Artistic Director and Sound magician of this week’s show, founded PMRP in 2005 after viewing another radio play production
“We worked together at Theater At First,” said Noyes, where they had discussed their mutual love for old time radio theater. In 2005 they both attended a benefit for a filmmaker friend that included an old radio style recreation of Revolt of the Worms. “There was a point during the show when we both turned to each other and said, ‘we can do this.’”
Soon the PMRP was born and have since performed shows at the Regent Theater in Arlington, the Somerville Theater in Davis Square and smaller venues in the area.
The shows involve voice actors with scripts in hand, on stage, dramatically reading into microphones and, although there is recorded music and a sound system, the PMRP utilizes the Foley table to create original sound effects as much as possibly can be done.
“Making sound effects out of random objects and doing it in front of a live audience,” is how Emerson College junior Austen Wright describes working as a Foley artist in a PMRP production.
Wright and one or two assistants use items like a miniature door with a knob and locks to replicate door sounds. They also they use shoes on tile and a tray of gravel to simulate people walking and also a gavel for hammering sounds. One of her favorite props is celery.
“The celery is a classic (sound) for breaking bones and mangled body parts,” she says with a devilish grin.
Marsh adapted the movie screenplay of THEM! to a radio style version, but telling the story presents some difficult challenges for first time director Jay Sekora, who has acted in previous PMRP productions, and the rest of the cast and crew. First, making the vision of giant ants menacing the actors a visceral experience is hard enough to achieve, but there are other factors to contemplate.
“One big challenge with THEM! is it’s very much a product of it’s time,” Sekora said, adding that in the 1950’s there were “different social dynamics, different attitudes toward government, different fears and it’s tricky to make that accessible to a modern audience without distracting them.”
All the participants in a PMRP production are volunteers who make ends meet in a variety of different occupations, so for them, this is a labor of love.
PMRP veteran and this show’s Producer and House Manager Chris Dekalb said says, “We get to do incredibly creative stories that really reach the audience,” he said.
Jacob Sommer, who portrays the “absent-minded professor,” Dr. Medford in THEM! and who also does some voice-over work, says he likes to “use his voice to entertain people.” He notes facetiously that, “having a script is much better now that my memory isn’t what it used to be.”
The thing he likes best is the people. “These are some of the best people I have worked with,” said Sommer.
Austen Wright echoes those sentiments. “I get to meet all sorts of fun people I would have never otherwise met.”
In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that the writer has several small parts in THEM! Shows are Thursday, April 11, Friday April 12 and Saturday April 13 at the Responsible Grace Church of Somerville, 204 Elm St., at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. There is a 15 minute intermission between performances. There is also an encore performance scheduled for 2 p.m. at the MIT Museum in Cambridge as part of the Cambridge Science Festival. Go to huboftheuniverseproductions.com or pmrp.org for more detailed information