A History of Paper
by Oliver Emanuel
Unspecified Draft - November 2015
Radio Drama, 78 pages
"Then the postcard falls onto the doormat and everything changes. Sometimes a piece of paper can do that." - Him
A few years ago, a friend directed a live radio play off-off-Broadway. As an audience member, I experienced the show as a sort of staged reading with produced sounds. The actors stepped up to microphones for their scenes and, when they weren't involved in the action, often supplied needed sound effects using unexpected objects. This particular show was a comedy, and part of the amusement came from seeing exactly what was used to make each sound. As far as I recall, that was my only experience with any sort of radio drama.
It seems A History of Paper is a completely different animal. Here the focus is on the words, the story. While there were hints of sound throughout, they were in support of the story and, I imagine, would not be at all distracting. I found the script a very interesting study.
First, the characters were known only as "Him" and "Her." This makes sense. As their names were not used in any of the dialogue, the audience wouldn't have labels for the speakers. As it was a story of lost love, this choice felt appropriate.
Two types of dialogue appeared in the script. The first was written in bold, and it seemed indicate voice over. This was the person telling the story, and the dialogue had a sense of being somewhat removed from the events. The second type was written in normal font. These were the moments relived during the telling, conversations and the like presented as if in the here and now. The distinction was obvious and quite easy to see on the page.
In this particular script, the vast majority of the words on the page were bold dialogue, followed by normal dialogue, followed by the action lines - the last of which, to be fair, were sparse. However, these action lines were what captured my interest the most.
While reading, I sorted them into three categories. First, there were effects, likely added in post, that enhanced the story. The most obvious of these was the music. The script was preceded by a Radiohead quote, and the first song indicated was their version of Creep. Later additional covers of Creep were indicated, including ones by I'm Not a Pilot and Scala & Kolacny Brothers.
The repetition of the song in different versions and voices spoke a bit to the universality of the story. "Him" was without "Her" because "Her" died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. This might be their unique version of events, but it is an event that far too many people experienced - it was the same, only different. I felt the repetition of the song was a nice device.
Along with music were other effects, also things we could hear, like "Pages are turned."
The second set of action lines I categorized as things that the audience wouldn't necessarily know but that could inform actor and production choices, like "A bedroom." or "He blinks."
Then there were action lines containing elements that I couldn't understand being communicated to the audience unless they were read aloud. These were things like, "The librarian breathes through an oxygen mask and walks slowly down a metallic walkway..." I tried to listen to at least a clip of A History of Paper online but was unable to find an accessible copy. I did listen to snippets of two other BBC radio dramas, and, as far as I could tell, the action lines were never read. I remain curious what practical purpose these served in A History of Paper.
The last aspect that caught my attention was the run time. Although the script runs 78 pages, BBC stated that the completed recording ran only 45 minutes.
There is definitely a beauty to the way the story comes to the forefront in a radio drama. I'm interested in further exploring this genre, and I wonder if a US audience would engage with this style through podcasts or other means.