Writer, Broadcaster

“Birth” of a Radio Play

One of a series of posts about working in radio back in the day.

(Here’s some more).

Phil Akin, Rob Sawyer, Michael Lennick, Joe Ziegler
recording “hubbub” for the CBC Radio play Birth

We spent a few weeks flinging notes back and forth, refining the script for our radio play Birth. A couple of sample notes:

Page 7, Line 3: Does Juan always say “goddamned” bugbots?  This is twice in a row.  Now, if he says it every single time, that could be funny…

And…

Is there any reason why Dr. Askwith couldn’t be a woman?  To balance the cast…

(I didn’t realize at the time that the character was an homage to producer, writer, interviewer Mark Askwith of Prisoners Gravity and Space Channel fame.)

After signing off on the final polish we began to ready Birth for production. Michael Lennick, co-writer of the play with Rob Sawyer, let it be known that he was interested in directing it. Considering his background in television and film production he would have made out just fine. Where he might have lacked the grammar of radio drama production I could easily have helped out. But I was producer of the project. As such, I had the right to direct it. Because it would constitute my first opportunity to direct a radio play, and because I’m a selfish bastard, I wasn’t about to pass it up. I hoped it would be a stepping-stone to more such projects.

I explained this to Michael. He took it graciously.

Casting Director Linda Grearson helped us land some fine actors, including Phil Akin (The Sum of All Fears), Joseph Ziegler (founding member of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre), Jean Yoon (Kim’s Convenience), Andrew Gillies (later of Orphan Black, and who had been featured in my adaptation of The Cold Equations), Brenda Robins (Heartland), Jani Lauzon (Saving Hope, A Windigo Tale, and with whom I had worked on Six Impossible Things).

It typically takes one day to record a full cast for a half hour radio play such as Birth. On cast day I felt confident. Wayne Richards was my recording engineer. It was good to have a friend at the controls. The ebullient Rosie Fernandez was our Associate Producer. Such a positive presence. Michael Lennick, Rob Sawyer and I sat with Rosie behind the credenza in Studio 212. I would be able to consult with both Michael and Rob about the script if need be. I had spent several years watching various directors do their thing in this very room. If they could do it, I could do it. Right?

The cast of Birth: Jean Yoon, Phil Aiken, Joe Ziegler, Andrew Gillies

How hard could it be?

Harder than I expected.  

Wayne opened the mics on the Euphonix System 5. He hit record on ProTools. We did a take of the first scene. Afterward, I didn’t feel we’d gotten what we’d needed. I went out to the main floor of the studio to sort it out with the actors, among them Phil Akin. I knew Phil a bit, having worked with him before. I’d cast him hoping that along with being a talented actor his (relatively) familiar presence would help put me at ease.

Phil happened to have a Black Belt in Aikido. Once, I’d overheard him offer up some martial arts advice: “In a fight, the first thing I’d do is kick my opponent in the inner thigh. Give them a Charlie Horse. It would hurt like hell, disable them right away.” It so happened I was studying Matsubayashi Ryu Karate at the time. Once, at the dojo I attended, a black belt had asked me if I’d ever experienced a Charlie horse.

“No,” I said.

“You should,” the black belt told me. “So you know what it feels like.” Without warning, he kicked me hard in the inner thigh, giving me a Charlie Horse.

The pain was excruciating.

 So, I agreed with Phil on that point.

One of the shows I’d worked with Phil on had been an episode of The Mystery Project. I’d been the recording engineer. I’d had an issue with the first take of the first scene on that production too, but the problem had been technical. Something wrong with the quality of the audio. The actors had all sounded off mic. After confirming that nothing was wrong with the console, I checked out the Dead Room where Phil was waiting around the MS stereo microphone with the other actors. The problem was immediately obvious.

“Did you figure it out?” Phil asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Someone hung the microphone backwards.” (It might have been me.)

Phil mimed smoking a cigarette. Not just any cigarette. “Have another toke!” he said in strangled voice.

Back to the recording of Birth, shortly after the first take of the first scene. The actors were talking loudly amongst themselves and I was having trouble getting their attention.

“Take control, Joe,” Phil instructed, if not exactly conferring authority upon me, dangling it before me, at least.

Okay.

But how?

I didn’t know what to say. I knew that something wasn’t working in the scene, but I had no idea how to fix it. No clue what to tell the actors. Other than give them line readings (saying the line for them) but it was my understanding that actors typically resented line readings, so I didn’t do that. All those years watching other directors, arrogantly thinking , “I can do that.” Every bit as naive as a director thinking they could sit down, roll up their sleeves, and operate the multitrack audio console just because they’d sat in the same room as an engineer for years.

I muddled through.

At lunch, I asked Michael how he thought it was going.

“It’s like being chauffeured in a Rolls Royce,” he told me.

Given my obvious lack of experience directing it couldn’t possibly have been true. Michael must surely have been wishing that he was directing the production himself. But he was far too gracious to say so.

Recording Engineer Wayne Richards at the controls

I was glad to get the cast recording over with. Once we finished taping I had far more control. I edited and mixed Birth in my favourite studio, Sound Effects 3 (SFX 3). As with my previous pet project Faster Than Light, I turned over every stone to get it perfect, or at least try to. I edited the dialogue tracks (picking and choosing from various takes) and laid in the sound effects. Michael showed up to help with the final mix.

Shortly before working on Birth I’d convinced my boss John McCarthy to purchase new plug-ins for the ProTools in SFX 3 (plug-ins are essentially special effects for audio). The usual plug-ins, the Gold Wave bundle, were good but limited. So, I had some great tools to work with. The only problem was, playing with the plug-ins, and trying to get everything just right, took me twice as long as it would have on a regular project. 

The upshot is that I didn’t finish the project in the time allotted. I had to come in on a day off. I worked all day, futzing around with the voice of the killer robots, trying to get it just right. Using my new plug-ins I finally managed to create an original treatment for the robot’s voice that I was happy with, that I didn’t remember hearing anywhere else on either TV or film (which had been my goal).

A few days afterward I had a meeting with one of our departmental managers about something else entirely during which I happened to mention that I’d come in on a day off to finish mixing Birth. I thought he’d be impressed by my dedication. Au contraire.

“You can’t do that,” he told me.

“Why not?” I asked. “It’s not like it cost the CBC anything.”

“It’s not fair to your colleagues,” he said. “Because you come in on a day off and they don’t, your work winds up sounding better than theirs.”

I mentioned this conversation to producer Bill Lane. “Talk about a culture of mediocrity,” he remarked. 

Birth premiered, Friday, July 8, 2005, at 10:00 p.m. across Canada on CBC Radio One as a part of a limited anthology series called Deep Night, executive produced by Gregory J. Sinclair.

Tragically, Michael Lennick passed away in 2014, way too young at the age of 61. Michael and I had hit it off, working together on Birth. Yet I never saw or spoke to him once afterward.

I really wish that had not been the case.

Rosie Fernandez, Michael Lennick, and Yours Truly behind the credenza in Studio 212

2 Comments

  1. Chris Cutress

    The magic of Radio Drama where even a novice producer can “fake it” on their directorial debut with the help of a room full of knowledgeable colleagues. You grew into the job quickly especially if you had the freedom to edit everything yourself after the fact. The joy of multi-track digital recording and editing.
    Once, during an interview, John Juliani said that “When the doors to (the Drama Studio) close the job positions blur”. Each and every member of the production team take on multiple roles ranging from technical quality to script adherence to microphonic perspectives and sound effects to create something beyond what is found on the page of the script.

  2. ilanderz

    I couldn’t agree with John Juliani more. That was part of the great pleasure of working in CBC Radio Drama.

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