Old Time Radio

I’m a big fan of Old Time Radio (OTR). It started when I was a kid, with my parents allowing me to listen to an episode or two of CBS Mystery Theater late at night. Later, I discovered OTR cassettes, and then CDs, in the audiobooks section of my favorite bookstores. Now I’m happy that I can subscribe to a few OTR podcasts for free. I especially like to listen to OTR on my commute, on long car rides, and even on my iPhone when I’m at the dentist.

For the past several years, I’ve been teaching a theater arts class in addition to Latin. I’ve accumulated a number of Old Time Radio episodes that I like to pull out from time to time. Radio drama works well in the classroom because the stories are short enough to play in a single 40-minute class; because 99% of my students have never heard one; and because the best of them are more powerful than you’d think a 70-year-old form of drama ought to be.

Today I tried a new lesson, and I was pretty happy with it. It started with a recent episode of Relic Radio’s The Horror podcast: Episode 455: “Little Old Lady” by Lights Out.

Here’s what I did.

I set the scene for the students: we have two characters at the beginning. Alice is calm and reassuring, while Mona is excitable and argumentative. We meet them in the car, driving on break from college to go to visit Alice’s Aunt Harriet, who hasn’t seen Alice in a decade. Then I started the recording, asking the students to focus on how each character is revealed through dialogue.

I paused the recording shortly after the car got a flat tire on the lonely unpaved road to Aunt Harriet’s house. Alice decides that it won’t matter if they just leave the car on the road, and they grab their bags (after some grumbling from Mona) and start walking. Alice stops, noticing the sudden darkness and some odd mist that “looks like thin white fingers”. Mona reminds Alice that there’s a scientific explanation for everything, if Alice would just remember from their classes at school.

When I paused the recording, we had a quick discussion about their characters. We talked in particular why it made sense for calm Alice to be the one concerned about the darkness and the mist; as one student says: if it were Mona, it would just be one more thing for her to complain about.

I started the recording up again as Aunt Harriet’s house looms into view. Mona is impatient about Alice’s timid knocking, so she takes over. She begins to get exasperated, when finally the door slowly creaks open. We hear a hesitant voice: “Yes? Who’s there? Who is it?” After a bit of back-and-forth, Aunt Harriet recognizes Alice and invites them both in. Harriet brings them to a room, but quickly leaves to fetch some tea. While she’s gone, Mona is surprised that Harriet doesn’t pepper them with questions about school.

That’s when Alice stops Mona short: she sees something moving in a dark corner of the room. We hear the low sound of a very large animal. At first, Mona thinks it’s a dog, then realizes it must be a cat. But, Alice points out, it’s much to large to be a housecat. It’s the size of a tiger. Aunt Harriet bustles in with the tea service. When Alice starts to question her about the animal, Aunt Harriet’s tone immediately shifts. She is no longer the kindly old lady; she becomes sharp-tongued, and refuses to directly answer Alice’s questions.

This is where I stopped the recording. I had my students write for a few minutes about how they would continue the story. I told them to focus on the characterizations of Alice, Mona and the newly-secretive Aunt Harriet. After a few minutes of writing, I put out another challenge: how would they continue the story if it had to have a happy ending (or, at least, a non-horrible ending). Remember the car on the road, I said: what if someone found the car and went to investigate? I asked the students to include a description of what sound effects they would need to finish the story.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a group of students who were so eager to share their stories as this group was. Some were gruesome (the tiger ate Alice and Mona!), some were romantic (the tiger turned out to be Mona’s boyfriend!), some were Halloween-y (the tiger was Alice’s long-lost Uncle, under a spell from Aunt Harriet the witch!), some were prosaic (Alice and Mona ran away!). By staying active as the story unreeled, I helped keep the attention of even my sleepiest students — the class was first period — and got them engaged. It also helped that this story has a relatively intriguing opening, but a not-very-interesting conclusion.

Our next lesson will be for the students to write their own script with sound effects, which will eventually be recorded in GarageBand.

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