A Play in Your Ear: A Brief History of Radio Dramas - Western Canada Theatre

You may be wondering why WCT's 2022 holiday production of It's a Wonderful Life has ‘A Live Radio Play’ attached to the title and what that all means. Here is where you can learn a little bit about radio plays and what you can expect to see and hear on stage. 

Radio plays, or radio dramas, are dramatized, acoustic-only performances. They are typically listened to in the ear, rather than watched upon a stage, as they rely on creative dialogue, music, and sound effects, also known as ‘foley’, to tell their story. There is usually less movement and fewer actors needed to tell a radio play, as actors can change their voice to take on the personas of multiple characters. Radio plays originated in the 1920s and rose to their peak popularity in the 1940s. This was because many households relied on their radios to get live news and entertainment, rather than reading a newspaper or a novel. It wasn’t until the 1950s when their popularity slowed due to the next big advancement: the television.

Even though the television slowed their popularity, radio dramas were still alive and well, providing cheaper entertainment than television, movie theatres, or live theatre plays, specifically those filled with many actors, choreography, and music. In some cases, a theatre company would take a radio drama and adapt it for the stage, adding a little more foley and perhaps a larger cast for a little more visual appeal, while still maintaining the radio play style.

Popular radio dramas include Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds, based on the popular novel, and popular series include CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and Dragnet, a famous and influential police procedural series. In 2022, the term ‘radio play’ is much less common than it used to be and has since been replaced by more modern advancements, such as podcasts and audiobooks. Some podcasts are even created as radio dramas, which are more commonly known as audio dramas nowadays. One recent example, a true story, called First Métis Man of Odesa, began its life during the pandemic as as part of a podcast series from Factory Theatre. This audio drama has since been developed into a full-length, staged production, and it will be coming to WCT in March 2023!

Even though they don’t air on the radio as much now, many audio dramas are still available online and on demand to listen to. What can make audio dramas exciting is the actors’ ability to be captivating with their voices and the mesmerizing sound effects. You will see in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play exactly how the actors bring their various characters to life and why tuning into a radio play might be the next new hobby you’ve been looking for.