Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Past Projects III: Radio scripts

When I worked at WGBH years ago, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Ellen Kushner, an extremely smart, gifted, and funny writer and radio host. Recurring readers will recall that my novel-in-waiting, The Grave and the Gay, was stylistically inspired by her wonderful work, Thomas the Rhymer. Suffice to say, she has been a friend and inspiration from that moment hence (and I recommend her Green Marinade highly).

Anyway, Ellen was host and principal writer for a marvelous public radio series called Sound & Spirit, a co-production of WGBH and Public Radio International. S&S treated the human experience with wonder and reverence, with text and with song. Each hour-long program was almost a meditation unto itself, a listening experience that somehow engaged all your senses and left you with a decided optimism about humanity.

One day after I had left WGBH for greener (as in $) and meaner pastures, I received an email from Ellen. She was working on a program called "Fathers and Sons" that was intended for Rosh Hashanah, using as its core narrative and thematic springboard the Genesis story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Ellen was asking me and others included in the email for song suggestions. One of mine, Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" (Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"/Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"/God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"/God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but/The next time you see me comin' you better run"/Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"/God says, "Out on Highway 61.") was selected and she gave me on-air credit for helping out.

My appetite for stardom thus whetted, I asked Ellen if I might try my hand at writing a script for S&S. She knew my writing ability from WGBH and invited me to come in and meet the team. They asked if I had any ideas for a show. My mother had died not long before and I had become fascinated with the logic and beauty of Jewish mourning rituals, so I suggested something about mourning. They liked the idea and told me to cover a range of cultural and religious traditions. Just conducting the research was a fascinating experience. You really get an appreciation for the breadth of beliefs and customs in the world.

In addition to the narrative development, there was the music. The S&S team would scan through the WGBH CD library for material and I would be able to suggest music as well. The typical S&S musical cut was in the classical, ethnic, or folk realm. Arvo Pärt seemed to work his way into a lot of shows. I asked an online jazz community I participate in for suggestions, and someone alerted me to a stunning solo piano piece by Bill Evans from the album Bill Evans At Town Hall, called "In Memory of His Father." Evans' father had died just a week or two before the concert and rather than cancel he decided he would improvise a tribute to him. One enthusiastic listener wrote a letter to the station applauding the inclusion of Bill Evans' music in the program! At the end of her narration, Ellen noted that the program, titled "Mourning and Loss," was written by me and was dedicated to the memory of my mother.

The second script I did was called "Prayer." The third and last one I did, which was particularly challenging yet fun, had the happy-go-lucky title, "The End of the World." That program explored how various cultures think about and even plan for the end of days. Pretty heavy stuff.

I had more ideas, but due to budget issues they weren't making a lot of new shows after that and it was faster, easier, and more cost-effective for Ellen to churn them out herself. Ellen is now in New York City being brilliant so I'm not even sure the series is anything but reruns these days. That said, every program is a jewel, so you should check out the Sound & Spirit website for information on where and when it may be playing near you. You can also view a list of all the programs (including mine), view the playlists, and order transcripts.

Writing for Sound & Spirit was extremely gratifying, but writing scripts for strictly timed programs is very difficult and requires a certain touch and an ear and sensitivity for much content a person can hear and ingest when interspersed with excerpts of music. I learned a lot and though I don't think I'll ever write for radio again, I'm very proud of my credits and grateful to Ellen for the opportunity.

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