Like many venerable works of science fiction before it, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a book-turned-movie. But did you know before it was a book it was a TV series? If you did, perhaps you didn’t know that, even before it was a TV series, it was a radio show? In fact, on March 8, 1978, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by famed British author Douglas Adams, made its radio debut on BBC 4 in Britain. On the 42nd anniversary of that date, local radio theater producer and South Philly resident Bill Arrowood will bring his version of the radio show to the Tokio Ballroom in Society Hill this weekend on March 8. A second show will be perofrmed the following week on March 15 at the same venue. The Review caught up with Arrowood to talk about the medium of radio theater, the versatility of HG2TG and why he started his new radio theater company, Liberty City Radio Theatre, in 2016.
I, probably like most people, have not been to a radio theater performance. Can you explain what the medium is like? I imagine if there’s an audience there must be some kind of visual aspect to it, no?
So, radio was for television as much a public event theater as it was on the airwaves. People would line up and come see all the stars like Lucille Ball and Bob Hope perform live like a stage show. The shows that they would do over the air. And those shows are done with a sense of theatricalness that you would expect for a live show. The major difference between a radio show and a regular theatrical play or comedy is that the actors are allowed to have their scripts in front of them. So they’re reading. It gives them a sense of urgency and a sense of fun because they’re a little looser than they would be, and it’s not as much stage direction and moving around and action. So our actors do a lot more with their voices, they do a lot more with their interactions with each other. And maybe actors do multiple parts. So you have one actor that will read two or three parts in a show so there’s a lot of comedy in that, seeing people do multiple different voices. In addition to the live actors on stage, there’s a live foley table or sound effects table that’s doing in-show live sound effects like gunshots and door closings and people running down the street, people trapped in a well – things like that. That adds to sort of the illusion of the sound. Radio used to be called the theater of the mind because you would hear everything, but you’d have to invent the pictures for yourself. So what we do onstage is sort of a recreation of that.
So there’s more room for imagination.
Exactly. Your imagination is just as strong as any other play. You’re allowed to do a lot more with narration and action, and your actors are doing exposition than you would in a normal play. You don’t have “exit being chased by bear” as a part of your stage direction, but your actors will portray that with their voices and with the story itself. This particular story that we’re doing, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, before it was a very successful movie and before it was a series of one of the most successful science fiction books ever, and before it was a TV show, it was actually written as a radio play. And so that’s one of the reasons our company chose to do this. In fact, as I say in the press release, for those who know the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the major jokes is that they’re in search of the true answer to life, the universe and everything. And the people in the play build a giant computer to learn what the answer is, and the answer that it gives them is simply the No. 42. It’s a running joke in the show. But the date that we’re performing the show is the actual 42nd anniversary of the original air date on BBC Four on March 8, 1978.
So are you trying to recreate the radio show the way it was in the late ‘70s? Or is there going to be a modern twist to it?
Certainly, whenever we do a show, we are mindful of dated material. So there’s some new jokes in there. There’s some stuff we updated to sort of rebrand it for a slightly more contemporary audience. But the jokes are all pretty true. A lot of what we find with the material is that we choose stuff based on the fact that funny is funny. You know, if a joke works, you don’t have to do a whole lot with it. And a lot of stuff that Douglas Adams wrote is very, very funny. It’s very dry. This particular show is definitely in the vein of a Monty Python meets Doctor Who. So if that is something you like, then it’s perfect for you. For people who don’t necessarily think that kind of humor is funny at all, it’s still very funny because we make it acceptable to the modern audience.
Obviously this story is very versatile since it’s been a radio show, a TV show, a book and a movie. But what in particular do you think makes radio theater such a good medium for this story?
For this particular story, because that’s its origin. It was written as a radio story before it was anything else. So the source material is rooted in this style of performance, so it makes it all the more better. In general, I think radio theater for me allows me to get great actors available on a limited schedule, which means I get my choice of actors who are otherwise busy. But more importantly, it allows us to be a little more loose with the material, make sure that we’re still very professional but also loose and fun. In general, what draws me to radio theater is that there’s a timeless quality to it. We’ll take a hardball detective story from the ’40s and update it and put some bad puns and jokes and skew it a little, but I found that a lot of what you found in the original days of radio became the tropes of television and movies for generations to come, so it’s all very familiar.
Where did the idea come from to start a radio theater company?
I started this company in 2016. The reason we started the company was because at the time I was working in the South Street area and I met Deen Kogan, who was this amazing woman who for 50 years had run the Society Hill Playhouse at 8th and Lombard and in the process of meeting her and getting to know her just a little bit, I found out that the theater was going to be going dark. She was in her 80s at the time and was ready to retire and ready to move on. But she was going to close the theater without any fanfare. Just put on the last show, turn out the lights, close the doors and go home. The more I learned about her and the extraordinary story of the things that the playhouse brought to the Philadelphia theater community and arts community, I took it on myself to do one show here and announce it as the last show and let people come and see her and see the theater and understand that this building had great history and it was important to recognize that. She was this very formidable woman who basically ran her own playhouse. Nobody does this anymore. She owned the building. Her and her husband, Jay, bought the building in the ’60s and they ran their own theater company for 50 years. That just doesn’t exist in our world anymore. They did that without huge support from the outside. They had their own fundraising, they had lots of contributors, but mostly just these because these two people brought amazing theater to the city. So long story short, I got to know Deen and decided we really wanted to do something to pay tribute to her, so I wrote a show, backwards from the last date that I could get at her theater before she had to close it down so that we could announce it and people could come see her and hear this amazing story. She should be proud. And I wrote a radio play because I had a little less than a month to put it together and I knew I could get actors that could do it in that format and I knew I could write scenes in such a way that we could hit the notes that we wanted to hit. Trying to pick a play and doing it that way would’ve been more complicated. That was in 2016, and we’ve done 10 shows since then.
For more information about Liberty City Radio Theatre and its performances, visit libertycityradiotheatre.com