Omaha’s Got Talent: Local Radio Theater Group Engages With the Community
Jun 24, 2020 01:59PM
By Ryan Borchers
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Radio Theatre Omaha isn’t just about radio theater. It’s all about Omaha.
“We’re committed to local,” said Kent Garlinghouse, founder and artistic director of RTO. “We are using scripts written by local authors, local voice actors, local sound effects people, and local musicians.
“There’s so much talent here. There’s no reason to go beyond the area.”
RTO produces audio dramas, which, simply put, are scripted stories told entirely through recorded audio. One of the most well-known audio dramas was Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, which was recorded live on stage and broadcast on American Public Media. Garlinghouse got involved with radio theater when he lived in western Minnesota, where he worked with Lakes Area Radio Theatre for 10 years as a voice actor, writer, director, and sound effects guy. He moved to Omaha four years ago to be closer to family, and even though audio dramas were not then being produced in the area, he piqued some fellow creatives’ interest in the form.
“Theaters do readings of plays, that happens in town,” said managing director Stephanie Kidd, who has acted in Omaha since 1997 and works as an adjunct professor at Iowa Western Community College. “But to do audio drama is very different.”
Together, Garlinghouse and she make up the whole of RTO’s regular staff. Garlinghouse writes scripts and Kidd directs and recruits acting talent.
RTO produced its first show, a piece written by Omaha author Jamie Taylor called The Ballad of Anna the Brave, in November 2018 with 10 voice actors, two sound effects people, and live music. The show, held at Gallery 1516, was attended by 130 people. Others that followed also went over well, Kidd said.
“Every show we’ve done has had amazing audience reaction,” Kidd said. “Even regular theatergoers, when they come see our shows, come up and say, ‘Oh my! I’ve never seen anything like this before!’”
RTO typically produces a quarterly event at OutrSpaces with two scripts performed back-to-back. The script is generally “G-rated,” somewhere in the realm of 5,000 words–including cues for music and sound effects–and about 30 minutes long. And all the performers, Garlinghouse and Kidd said, get paid.
“We’ve been very committed to paying everybody in the cast and crew,” he said. “An artist must be paid for their gift.”
Garlinghouse said audio dramas have made something of a comeback in roughly the last 25 years with the rise of mobile phones and earbuds. The popularity of podcasts has also helped.
“Joggers, people working out in gyms, people going for a walk, students studying, everybody’s listening to their phone, or to [their] iPad, or to something,” he said. “There’s kind of a built-in audience already.”
Listening to an audio drama is one thing, but attending the show as it is being recorded offers another kind of experience. Kidd said, for example, if a character in the story walks across a floor, the audience gets to see a sound effects person put his or her hands in a pair of shoes and mimic the sound of steps against a table.
“That, to me, is one of the neatest things that our audience can really participate in,” Kidd said. “Especially kids, but adults, too, really like to come up to the table and watch and then make those sounds themselves.”
Like many organizations these days, RTO has seen its activities and projects disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Garlinghouse said they’ve developed a workaround and will broadcast the shows via video conferencing.
“I think that we will work at doing relatively regular performances again, but via Zoom or something like it,” Garlinghouse said.
RTO produces several genres of stories and is putting together shows about local history. One such project is an adaptation of author Ted Wheeler’s book Kings of Broken Things, a novel that depicts the Omaha race riot and lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse in 1919.
“I spoke with Kent Garlinghouse after he read my novel and expressed some interest in adapting it to the radio play format, as he also is passionate about telling stories about Omaha,” Wheeler said. “I’m intrigued to see what RTO does with the historical material and expands the story. There are so many choices that are made while writing a novel, having a chance to hear a production with the same starting point is an exciting prospect.”
RTO is interested in finding more writers, but one need not have experience writing audio dramas in order to submit.
“It’s my conviction that virtually anybody can write a successful audio drama,” Garlinghouse said. That includes beginning writers and people who have never put together a script, though experience helps. “It just is a matter of learning sort of the boundaries of what works,” Garlinghouse continued.
“We have the talent, right here,” Garlinghouse said. “We don’t have to apologize for being in Nebraska.”
This article first appeared in the "60 Plus" section of the July/August 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.