by Carly Schorman
Theatres around town had to close the curtains on their season early this year as COVID-19 began its murderous rampage during what looked like a very promising year for performing arts in the Valley. Amongst those hit by the social distancing is Phoenix’s beloved Space 55. And while they might be weathering the economic storm, for the time being, the company thought they would have to end their season without the last production of the year, Radio Free Europa, written by in-house playwright Ashley Naftule.
Rather than tossing in the towel, the Space 55 crew re-envisioned the project for the present-day. Instead, the team turned Radio Free Europa into a multimedia theatrical performance that viewers can enjoy without breaking quarantine.
Thanks to a little American ingenuity (and a lot of effort from the performers and other visionaries at Space 55), the theatre will be presenting live-streamed performances of Radio Free Europa from Friday, May 15, through Sunday, June 7. This tale of a late night radio show host who fields conspiracy calls about everything from UFOs to chupacabras is directed by Dennis Frederick, with performances by Amy Garland, Scott Hyder, Julie Peterson, BJ Garrett, Ernesto Moncada, Sarah Starling, Aleks Hollis, Marcella Grassa, Mona Swan LeSueur, Willa Eigo, Cody Hunt, Matt Clarke, and Alex Tuchi.
I was interested not only in the transition from staged production to quarantine production and the play itself so I directed my questions to Phoenix playwright (and part of the ragtag team at Space 55 ) Ashley Naftule who was kind enough to answer…
YabYum: So let’s begin by talking about the play itself which, to my understanding, you are responsible for penning Radio Free Europa, correct? And this is not your first credit as a playwright. What led you, as a writer, to pursue the stage?
Ashley Naftule: Radio Free Europa is my fourth full-length play. My first two, Ear and The First Annual Bookburners Convention, were produced and mounted at Space 55; the third, The Canterbury Tarot, opened last year at Aside Theatre. This is my first stab at writing a radio play. Originally, Radio Free was going to be a stage play- it was supposed to close out our season at Space 55 as our May show. When we went into quarantine, the show’s director Dennis Frederick and I had decided to cancel it… but then I had the brainstorm of adapting it into a radio play.
Most of the play at that stage took place as phone calls, so it really seemed well suited to being transformed into a piece of remote theatre. And as I started rewriting it to work as a radio play, it radically transformed the play: I ended up cutting out a quarter of the cast of characters, added a whole new plot thread that runs throughout the piece, and it ended up becoming a much more together and focused play as a result of this reshaping. An added benefit to all this: I have enough cutting room floor material from its original version that I can turn that into its own thing sometime in the future.
As to the second part of your question: I really didn’t have any stage ambitions as a writer. I grew up reading big dense fantasy novels and sci-fi. That’s what I wanted to write. But then I took Kim Porter’s playwriting workshop at Space 55 10 years ago, just for the hell of it, and it sparked a fire in me for writing and performing on the stage that’s still burning strong.
It’s really interesting to discover how the play was transformed by the process of bringing it to life under these new circumstances. Some writers seem very committed to their original concept and don’t hold to the same adaptability/flexibility. Outside the context of pandemic circumstance, how flexible are you with your work? Do you ever storm about and insist not a word be changed? You can tell us. I know you write poetry too.
I’m pretty flexible- to the point that one of the reasons why I sit in during rehearsals is to make adjustments to the script. Nothing big- but sometimes I’ll hear an actor stumble over a weird bit of phrasing or I’ll realize that a line is just too long and needs to be broken up so they can get some friggin’ oxygen in. Theatre is a collaborative process, and one of the things I learned early on as an actor is that nobody likes someone who resists whenever they get a note. Sometimes feedback is bad and off-track, but it’s always worth considering. These people are dedicating so much of their time and energy into bringing something I wrote to life; I owe it to them to hear what they think about the work and make changes if they see something vital that I’m missing.
That flexibility also helps me with my professional life as a copywriter and a journalist. It keeps me from having an ego about my work, so if a client or an editor asks for rewrites I can just shrug and say “sure, why not?” I’ll only fight a change if I feel it’s really inappropriate or worse than what’s already there.
Much like the lead character, I’m pretty much obsessed with all things science fiction. Do you fall into this category as well? Or did you have to extensively research strange theories about UFOs and Bigfoot while reading Philip K. Dick’s body of work for this play? Basically, I’m calling into question your fangrrrl status.
I lived and breathed sci-fi growing up. Star Wars, Asimov’s Foundation books, and watching The Fifth Element 14 times in the theatre (original theatrical run!) were the gateway drugs: from there I cut my teeth on Vonnegut, Delany, Zelazny, Gibson, Sturgeon, Disch… and of course, Dick. Love love love Dick (*rimshot*).
I was also (and remain) pretty obsessed with the occult and paranormal phenomena. So I read tons of books on UFO’s and faeries and demonology- basically, if it could appear on The X-Files, I was into it. So I was able to draw on a lot of that material while I was writing the script. Some of the more outlandish incidents described in the show (including one involving breakfast food) are actually slightly tweaked retelling of events that “actually” happened, according to UFO lore.
I also did try to research the actual science of the show, which meant I spent a considerable amount of time online Googling questions like “Do black holes make sounds? Exactly how long is Europa? How many years can radio waves travel in space before they fully decay?” But I’m sure someone well-versed in radio/science could pick Radio Free Europa apart in five seconds, so it’s not a hard sci-fi story. Neil DeGrasse Tyson would nuke this show in a heartbeat. To be fair, tho, NDT could be blowing somebody’s back out in bed to the point that they’re saying “Neil, I’m seeing stars” and he’d immediately say “Impossible: the bedroom ceiling clearly obstructs your view.”
What’s your favorite conspiracy theory floating around? If you say “Pizzagate” or “Flat Earth,” I’m breaking quarantine to drive to your place and fight you.
“There are multiple Andrew W.K.s” is my favorite conspiracy, hands-down. I don’t believe it for a second, but it’s a fascinating rabbit hole to fall down (just Google ‘Steev Mike’ and let it rip). I do feel a little guilty about being into it- I interviewed Andrew a few years ago and I asked him about it. He was a good sport about it, but he talked about how it was a little offensive and uncomfortable that so many people think he doesn’t exist.
I also think the “Avril Lavigne died and was replaced by a lookalike” conspiracy is a fun one, too. Dead/doppelgänger pop stars is my jam.
What are some of the other creative wells you drew from for inspiration when writing Radio Free Europa?
The biggest (and most obvious) influence is Art Bell. The play wouldn’t exist without Coast to Coast FM. I listened to old episodes of Bell’s show for inspiration and to help key into that nocturnal, ‘driving down the highway and rapping about otherworldly shit’ tone. I also listened quite a bit to the Desert Oracle podcast for additional inspo.
There’s a CD anthology, The Conet Project, that I spent a lot of time listening to while writing the piece (as well as the music of Joe Meek). All that info about numbers station and those creepy tunes worked their way into the DNA of the show.
And last (but certainly not least): Carrie Behrens’ Night Of The Chicken radio play series was often on my mind. That’s my gold standard for how to do a good modern radio play. Carrie’s a master of the form, and just a phenomenal playwright altogether. Even though the Chicken plays are a very different beast, totally/subject matter wise, I thought a lot about how she structured her stories and worked within the limitations of the radio play format while I was writing my own.
Please tell me about Space 55. You’ve been working with them for a while in different capacities..? How are they managing during this period of human isolation?
My relationship with Space 55 is a decade strong. I started out there by performing whenever I could in their 7 Minutes In Heaven variety show. Shawna Franks, founder of the theatre and its spiritual mother to this day (she moved to Chicago a few years back), invited me to tag along with the ensemble when they went to the New York Fringe Festival. That was like my initiation into the gang- I spent a week in the Lower East Side, flyering for our show (and I got to meet Michael Shannon in the process!).
From there I started writing and producing a monthly late night show called Hollis’s Traveling Treehouse with Kevin Flanagan, I acted in plays, and then eventually became a full ensemble member. I later became an Associate Artistic Director when Duane Daniels took over as the Artistic Director and had my first two full-length plays produced at the Space (Ear and Bookburners). I also served as the Interim Artistic Director for a spell; I’m now back in the Associate AD role, and I’m honestly more happy being in the Rasputin position than being the theatre’s Tsar.
The theatre is actually doing okay right now. We have enough of a rainy day fund that being dark hasn’t killed us yet, and our landlord was kind enough to cut us a bit of a break while we wait this out. We are looking into doing more remote shows in the near future, because we can’t afford to be idle for too long…We’ve got our next season planned out, but it feels weird announcing the dates for them when we don’t know how long we’ll be social distancing in 2020.
But all in all, we’re good: we’ve added three new members to our ensemble (who are in this show), and our new AD BJ Garrett is killin’ it on all fronts.
It’s exciting that Radio Free Europa has found a way to overcome social distancing to bring theatrical art to the people once again. Do you mind telling me what “viewers” or “theatre-goers” can expect?
For us, the big thing was to offer a production value that extends beyond “pointing a webcam at a table read.” Personally, on an aesthetic level, I hate how actors look in those Zoom boxes. It’s cramped and furtive- like a prison video call. I don’t begrudge anyone for doing shows that way- we have these limited tools at our disposal and gotta work with ‘em. But for this show, we realized that we didn’t have to show people- that the radio show works better if the callers are in the dark, visually speaking. So you won’t be seeing people in this show: it’s a radio play in the classic sense- disembodied voices piping through speakers. And we’re going to give it some added flair with sound effects, music, and a slideshow that Dave Matteson is putting together for us.
From a production standpoint, what was it like to orchestrate something like this? Like a play? Or vastly different?
It’s uncharted waters for us, production wise. Dennis and I have worked together as director/writer for awhile, so we have a pretty good process in place for doing rehearsals. We do the rehearsals on Zoom, cameras off, in pairs since all the scenes are two-handers. In some ways, it’s advantageous because nobody has to commute. But it’s interesting to direct, cause Dennis has to give notes entirely based on their pacing and their emotions cause there’s no blocking or physicality to contend with. Plus: we’re troubleshooting technical problems as we go, all of us adjusting to dealing with the weird quirks inherent in conferencing and streaming. So far- knock on wood- it’s been a pretty smooth process. And the cast (Amy Garland, Julie Peterson, Scott Hyder, Marcella Grassa, Matt Clarke, BJ Garrett, Sarah Starling, Aleks Hollis, Alex Tuchi, Willa Eigo, Cody Hunt, and Ernesto Moncada) have been absolute troopers throughout all this. They’re doing stellar work.
And a big shout out to Kyle Olson, a fellow playwright and ensemble member, who gave us a lot of invaluable tech tips and advice to make this thing actually work.
(To my understanding) The actors aren’t seen during the course of the play, but rather David Matteson provides visuals to accompany the project. What led you to working with Matteson for this endeavor?
It was BJ’s idea to bring in Dave. Matteson’s designed some of Space 55’s posters in the past –Charlie Steak, one of our past Artistic Directors, used Dave quite a bit in that respect– and he’s got a great eye and talent for design. We’re very excited to see what he comes up with for the show.
How can people get tickets to this production?
We have a Google Form set up where people can sign up to get an invite to the show. Once we get the hosting page for the stream finalized, we’ll also share it on our website (Space55.com) and our socials. The show is free to attend, though we’d be more than happy to accept any donations folks want to make (and we’re a non-profit so those donnies are tax-deductible, baby).
Any new plays in the works that theatre aficionados can look forward to when the curtains open once again?
We got some real cool stuff planned for next season. We’ll announce the full schedule soon, but I can spoil one piece of it- in Spring 2021, they’ll be producing my next play, Peppermint Beehive, which is basically my love letter to John Waters movies and Rocky Horror/Hedwig.
Uh, Peppermint Beehive sounds amazing and I can’t wait to see it. Is it a musical, ’cause I feel like it should be a musical?
It isn’t… yet. But maybe? I’m open to the idea of it being a musical. As a matter of fact, the more I think about it…. Dammit, Carly. Now I gotta really think about this.
Do you feel like you’re living in a Philip K. Dick novel right now?
In all fairness to Dick and every other fiction writer in existence: I don’t think anyone could have imagined someone as crass and ridiculous as Trump. Even Alfred Jarry’s Ubu seems reasonable in comparison.
So… do black holes make sounds?
Technically, they kinda do? When black holes are near each other, they create these immense waves of pressure that radiate outwards that scientists can convert into soundwaves (spoiler alert: if you wanna know what these soundwaves sound like, we play a clip during Radio Free).