New Orleans Noir: The Radio Plays
7 p.m. Thursday
Southern Rep, The Shops at Canal Place, 365 Canal St., third floor, 522-6545; www.southernrep.com
Southern Rep tests the airwaves with New Orleans Noir: The Radio Plays, a double-feature radio drama production that will be recorded during a live performance Thursday and broadcast later by NPR affiliate WWNO-FM. The show features pieces commissioned for the occasion by New Orleans mystery writers Julie Smith and Greg Herren, creator of the Chanse MacLeod and Scotty Bradley series. It is Southern Rep's first foray into the old world of radio voice-overs and Foley sounds.
The theater hopes local drama fans won't touch that dial, says Southern Rep artistic director Aimée Hayes, who aims to tap in to the talent pool of local writers for future radio dramas. "We were asking, 'What other ways are there to do theater?'" Hayes says, "We wanted to expand the vocabulary for local writers to include radio dramas. We want to see what could happen, see if there's an audience for it."
Hayes will join Smith and Herren onstage Thursday for a question-and-answer session after the performance. WWNO will also record interviews with both authors. The cast includes James Bartelle, Mandy Zirkenbach, Matthew Mickal, Vatican Lokey and others.
For the best-selling and prolific Smith, the project is a return to the mystery genre.
"I quit writing mystery after Katrina," she says. "Well, not so much quit as paused. I like to think I'll start doing that again." Since the storm, Smith edited New Orleans Noir, a 2007 compilation of locally grown noir fiction, she has been working on a digital publishing project and she completed her first young adult novel, Cursebusters, due out in May.
Southern Rep approached Smith to work on the project after it secured funds dedicated to developing a radio drama series. "I'm a radio virgin," Smith says, but she can lay claim to expertise on all things NOLA-noirish. "The defining thing about New Orleans noir is its preoccupation with death," she says. Beyond that, "We like our dark bars, and we like being out on the streets and being out all night."
Those bars and dark streets gave the Faubourg Marigny resident inspiration for the character in her New Orleans Noir contribution. "In the back of my mind, I've always wanted to create a drag queen detective," she says.
Enter Private Chick, aka Diva.
"And when it suits her, she's Donald!" Smith says. "In a way, I really backed myself into a corner. With a drag queen, everything that comes out of her mouth has to be funny. That's a challenge."
Even more challenging, she says, is the radio-drama format. "If you're even writing a short story, you've got a lot of words to work with," she says. With radio drama, "There just are not that many words on the page. Everything is done through dialogue and through sound effects."
Smith credits the technical staff at Southern Rep for providing the necessary aural backdop through its use of the Foley sounds — clacking heels, creaking stairs, clinking ice cubes — that are so critical to successful radio drama. "Fiction writers work with the senses to make a scene come alive," she says. "You want to work with all of the senses. But in this case, there's just one sense: There's just the hearing. It's fascinating. I love the sound effects."