In the United States, stages mostly remain dark. But there is another option for finding that full immersion into the magic of the theatre, and that is through podcasts. These shows, available on most listening apps, will challenge the assumption that you need to be in a theatre seat to be transported into another world.
“Free Shakespeare on the Radio: Richard II”
Shakespeare in the Park is one of New York City’s most beloved traditions. Every summer in Central Park, world-renowned performers act out the comedies and tragedies of the Bard in the open-air Delacorte Theater. But the pandemic this summer prevented live performances of this year’s play, “Richard II.” Instead, it aired in four parts on radio station WNYC, and now anyone can now enjoy “Free Shakespeare on the Radio: Richard II.”
At the heart of this history is a deeply fractured society, a wrongfully murdered man and a demand for justice, revenge and revolution against broken systems — themes that are all too timely. Through masterful performers like André Holland (“Moonlight,” “Selma”), the story of taking power comes alive with impeccably mixed audio and clever adaptations for the ear, like the addition of Lupita Nyong’o as narrator, not just of stage direction and the play’s action, but of brief context for each scene.
The podcast’s host, New Yorker magazine theater critic Vinson Cunningham, bookends each of the four parts with his interpretation and convincingly makes the case for this show’s relevance amid the Black Lives Matter movement, to which the performance is dedicated.
L.A. Theater Works
Since its founding in 1974, L.A. Theater Works has had a mission to bring new plays and playwrights of cultural and historical importance to the people and elevate underrepresented voices. In the ’90s, they began to use audio in order to accomplish this. Their well-honed expertise in stageless performance has built up a fabulous, star-studded catalogue of plays recorded live and distributed for free. With a tap in your listening app, you can listen to Nathan Lane in “Mizlansky/Zilinsky” or Mark Ruffalo in “This is Our Youth,” among many others.
The plays often come with a bonus episode interview with a member of the cast, the playwright or an expert in a subject related to the play. For example, “Donny’s Brain,” starring Jared Harris as a crash victim who wakes up with no memory of the last three years of his life, is accompanied by a conversation with Dr. David Hovda, director of the Brain Injury Research Center at UCLA.
Earlier this year, Playwrights Horizons Theater in New York City commissioned some of America’s greatest modern playwrights to write one-act audio-only shows. This anthology of short — episodes are between 14 and 40 minutes long — and original works brings together a broad array of genres, styles and subject matter. You might hear a soaring musical interpretation of a morning prayer or a story about having nightmares in a space station.
In one particularly creative contribution from Jordan Harrison, “Play For Any Two People,” the listeners literally become the protagonists as dual episodes are played simultaneously into two separate sets of headphones, guiding you and a partner through the blocking and dialogue piped into your ears.
The Parsnip Ship
If you miss the joy of discovering an up-and-coming playwright or witnessing performances that challenge your expectations of what theatre can do, look no further than the live-event-turned-podcast “The Parsnip Ship.” The Brooklyn-based organization endeavours to elevate marginalized voices and emerging playwrights, staging their works before a live audience with musical performances and an interview with the playwright.
Each new show spotlights the experiences of marginalized people, like the Japanese transgender woman in Ashley Lauren Rogers’ “The Last Ring” or the San Francisco lesbian couple navigating in vitro fertilization and bipolar II disorder in “Delicacy of a Puffin Heart” by Stefani Kuo. Before each show begins, the organization’s artistic director and the podcast’s host, Iyvon Edebiri, asks the playwright, “What would the world be missing if it did not have this play?”
Fireside Mystery Theater
In “Fireside Mystery Theater,” a troupe of actors and host Ali Silva have come together once a month for nearly a decade to put on a delightfully stylized variation of the classic “old-timey radio” tradition. The episodes feature sound effects, musical acts and a fully improvised score to bring the nostalgia to its fullest. Each play also brings a laugh and a chill, as the group’s specialty is the eerie and macabre.
Although the group has cancelled live performances in the pandemic, delve into a rich catalogue of serialized radio plays and loosely connected series, like the four-part journey of “Anita the Fortune Teller” or the current “All Aboard!” series (set on cross-country trains), which are easy to binge.