Close your eyes. What noise does it make when you stir a Cuppa Soup? How is it different from stirring tea? What sounds do you associate with being in a loft? You hear rustling of some old letters. Can you sense the type of paper, and how old they might be?
Today I’m all about sound effects and storytelling through the medium of the radio play.
I am a radio play geek. If I can’t listen to them live, I put them on the BBC iPlayer, one after another for hours, shushing anyone who tries to talk to me. It makes me feel a bit sick afterwards – like a child who ate all their sweets at once. It also makes me hungry to write my own.
This weekend I attended a brilliant Radio Play Writing Workshop led by Zosia Wand. Zosia is a prolific writer and an inspirational teacher. I dutifully turned up on the day with my homework - a five minute radio play with carefully laid out sound FX and scene directions. Group members acted out each others work, to hear how they sounded.
My play was about a young couple about to move to Australia. They're getting rid of the last of their possessions. For him, a collection of Fleetwood Mac vinyls from a previous relationship, and for her, a box of old love letters stashed in the loft. I wanted to explore the emotional attachment we have to stuff. I wanted the tone to be fairly serious. This is where we came unstuck. None of us were professional actors and without time to prepare and read through in advance it was hard to gauge the hoped-for tone of each other’s work. Some serious pieces came out as comedy farces and vice versa.
I wonder which is worse; to find humour where the writer wanted contemplative sobriety, or to remain po-faced and stricken through what they thought were killer gags. I had, like others in the group, tried it out on husband before the workshop. But he started reading the male characters lines with the strangest, most strident Lancashire accent I’ve ever heard, including “t‘loft”, “ayes” and “nay lass”. How bizarre. It wasn’t written like that. Husband said he was trying to “get into character”. (It makes me think we should never resort to roleplay in the years to come.) But it turns out that acting is a Very Hard thing to do. When my piece was read in the workshop, the girl’s part came across exactly as I’d imagined, but unfortunately the male character was read out like lines from a BBC family-time sitcom. It created an interesting effect. Probably not one I’d want to repeat. But it got the lines across and I learnt a lot from my own and others’ scripts (some parts read by me, I must add, equally as badly) about what to cut and what to keep.
There were the usual gags about coconut shell horses hooves and owl hoots to represent all things dark and spooky, but it got us thinking about where words could be replaced with particular sounds for greater effect, and the power of a character not speaking, and careful use of relevant sound effects. And effective careful scripting. Creating a believable world - where the sounds and effects listeners hear enable them to fill in the gaps is an art different to any other.
I was struck by the collaborative nature of the radio play. The script writer puts the words down on paper. The producer, director and actors are equal parts of the process. It is a massive leap from the fiction writing I feel comfortable with; sort of starker, and less containable. But isn’t that an exciting thing?
So I’m working on a full length piece, based around the canals where I live. The BBC writersroom is invaluable for this. They have example scripts on there, as well as other great tools, resources and opportunities for writers to explore.
Oh, and after extensive research, I conclude that the sound created by stirring a cuppa soup is dependent on brand and dried matter content. But a slimmer soup is virtually indistinguishable to tea. Until you taste it.