J. Nicole Brooks

J. Nicole Brooks, writer and director of "Her Honor Jane Byrne." 

The pandemic-born resurgence of radio plays gets a boost on Thanksgiving Day when Lookingglass Theatre Company's “Her Honor Jane Byrne” premieres on WBEZ 91.5 Chicago.

If the title sounds familiar, it's because ensemble member J. Nicole Brooks' drama about Chicago's first female mayor's three weeks living in the Cabrini-Green housing project in 1981 actually had its world premiere at Lookingglass back in March. But COVID-19 shut it down after only a few performances.

Brooks, who had spent three years developing the project, had no idea where to go from there. “The play was so visual I knew it wouldn't work virtually,” she said. “Trying to figure out how to produce theater was so painful, I had to put it out of my mind.”

Then Lookingglass, which was “crushed that the play didn't have the life it was supposed to” according to artistic director Heidi Stillman, asked Brooks if she was game to adapt it for radio. “I thought that was great...and the worst idea ever,” Brooks recalled. “I'm a radio person, but I know how hard it is to translate something so visual into an aural experience. Still, it's just another way of storytelling, and a very intimate one at that. Radio also is good for people who are visually impaired, and it can reach a wider audience in other ways, too.”

With Brooks' okay, the theater pitched the idea to WBEZ, Chicago’s National Public Radio Station. “We were grateful to be part of making the story of Jane Byrne accessible to people over the Thanksgiving holiday in a whole new way,” said Israel Smith, managing director for programming and audience development. “The pandemic has created new opportunities for organizations like WBEZ and Lookingglass to serve and reach audiences.”

Once the theater got the green light, writing, rehearsing and recording “Her Honor Jane Byrne” took a total of about three weeks, a little more with post-production. “We started from scratch,” explained Brooks, who also directed, as she did for the original production. “Though the radio play is an adaptation of the stage version, all the visual elements had to be reworked. The go-ahead came on a Monday, and I had to turn the script in by Wednesday. There was no real rehearsal, and it was very difficult, because you don't know if things are working until you listen to them.”

Brooks added that the process required roughly six drafts versus nine for the stage play. She trimmed the script down to two hours from two and a half, and WBEZ handled the recording. Everything was done remotely via Zoom.

Happily, Lookingglass was able to reassemble the original cast led by Christine Mary Dunford as Mayor Byrne. The other actors, most of whom play multiple roles, included Thomas J. Cox, Tracy Walsh, Robert Cornelius, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Renee Lockett, Frank Nall, Josh Odor, TaRon Patton and Willie “Mudlife Roc” Round.

“We missed being in the same room together, but otherwise everything went smoothly,” Brooks said. “I'd give WBEZ audio producer Joe DeCeault suggestions, and he really knew how to do the sound effects.” The creative team also included composer Michael Huey, sound designer Christopher M. LaPorte and dialect specialist Jason K. Martin, among others.

Besides sound effects, Brooks said the main adjustments involved finessing the text. As an example, she pointed to scenes in the play of Jane being visited by the memory of her first husband, an aviator. “They are highly visual, so for the radio play, I have her talk about him more explicitly,” she explained. “I was happy to make the change. It was a new challenge and kept me on my toes.”

In general, Brooks found that most scenes translated quite easily to radio. “The play goes from when Jane moved into Cabrini-Green to when she moved. At its core, it is about people and the things that haunt them,” she said. “It's not hard to conjure up the settings from the dialogue, and listeners can use their imaginations to fill in the blanks. That's what I love about radio.”

On the other hand, Brooks has no plans to write any of the other plays in her four-part series about Chicago mayors as audio or virtual dramas. “Right now I'm just taking a break and trying to get through the mess we're all in,” she said.

Lookingglass does have other radio plays on its roster, however. They're part of The Secret Passage digital membership program ($50 for access through Aug. 2021 or $8 a month). Released monthly, they include David Schwimmer’s adaptation and direction of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” recorded in 1992 in a co-production with L.A. Theatre Works, with 11 ensemble members; Mikhail Bulgakov's “The Master and Margarita,” adapted by artistic director Stillman, directed by her and David Catlin and featuring many ensemble members; and “The Scarlet Letter”by Nathaniel Hawthorne, adapted by Thomas J. Cox.

Stillman pointed out that the challenges of turning a play into a radio play are many, especially for a company like Lookingglass that uses spectacle and visual metaphor. “We have to figure out how that information comes across to the listener,” she said. “Is it put into dialogue? Can the aural sound bed convey it? Do we need to cut some of the more abstracted sequences, or 'straighten them out' to a more realistic scene? Also, without the visual information, how do you help the listener with location of the scenes and transitions to different locations and keeping the characters straight?”

Nonetheless, Stillman likes radio as a medium because it encourages audiences to actively engage and participate to complete the world. “That type of imaginative work, and sense of release and escape, is very welcome and relevant in this pandemic-riddled moment,” she concluded.

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