For decades, radio was Americans’ primary source of news and entertainment, before being largely superseded by television, and eventually the internet.
Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, radio theater has returned— with the goal of conveying Catholic themes in highly-produced, entertaining, 10-minute packages.
The Merry Beggars is a Catholic theater company based in Manhattan. Peter Atkinson, a stage actor and CEO of the Merry Beggars, banded together with several fellow actors to help found the nonprofit in 2019.
Atkinson described The Merry Beggar’s mission as bringing together “professional artists who are excellent at their craft and seeking to tell stories for the glory of God.”
As anyone who has worked in the entertainment industry knows, it can be very difficult for writers to get their work produced, especially when it comes to films, plays, or television. And this is especially true for works that convey an authentic Christian message.
Similarly, it can be difficult for Catholic actors to make their way in the entertainment industry— a world in which many projects may clash with a Catholic worldview.
“I've seen so many Christian and Catholic artists want to go into the acting industry and the entertainment industry, and it's a really hard industry to make your way in,” Atkinson told CNA, adding that he knows many Catholics who have given up acting careers, or have abandoned their faith in the hopes of advancing in the industry.
“One of the things that I'm really passionate about is supporting Catholic artists and Christian artists to make work that can transform our culture,” he said.
Before the pandemic took hold, The Merry Beggars were planning numerous in-person events for 2020, including a conference for high school drama teachers and local events for artists in New York and Washington D.C.
When lockdowns and restrictions made in-person events impossible— or at least far less popular— Atkinson said he and the nonprofit’s board of directors set about adjusting their plans, while keeping their mission the same.
Atkinson has long been a lover of radio theater, having grown up listening to classic programs such as "The Lone Ranger" and "The Shadow." So, he suggested the idea of producing radio plays as a way to support actors and writers while theaters remained closed amid the lockdowns.
Moreover, they decided to make the initiative a competition, calling on prospective playwrights to send in scripts for 10-minute radio plays. The plots would be entirely up to the playwrights, prompted only by the theme: “quarantine.”
Atkinson said the idea for the theme came from one of the board members, a Catholic priest, who noted that some aspects of quarantine are similar to cloistered religious life.
The response to the contest was almost overwhelming, he said— they received over 120 submissions, from all over the world, even as far away as Kenya. Atkinson assembled a team of 37 judges to pore over the scripts and select their top three.
The plots of the 10-minute plays, despite all being inspired by “quarantine,” varied widely— from allegorical retellings of Adam and Eve in the garden, to astronauts conversing on the International Space Station, to something as simple as two young people’s inner monologues during lockdown in New York.
While not every play they received was good enough to produce, Atkinson said it was so difficult to choose just the top three, they committed to producing their favorite twelve. As of Jan. 2021, The Merry Beggars have released three plays so far.
The first play The Merry Beggars released is titled “Do You Remember? With Relaxabot 938.” The play features a fictional radio broadcast within a post-apocalyptic soundscape.
The latest play to be released, “I Do Like The Rain,” follows the interplay between members of a young family stuck in a late-night traffic jam, and touches on themes of resentment and grace.
“It's a really simple script, but it's really beautiful,” Atkinson commented.
“The script is about a husband and wife's interior journey to some old family wounds that they have, and then the beginning of a journey of healing.”
Atkinson worked with the artists whose plays they picked, to hear from them about their ideas for how to turn the script into a compelling radio play.
Producing the plays presented technical challenges, as the voice actors they selected— out of many hundreds of auditions— each had to record their own voices in home studios, with the editors stitching the dialogue together in post-production.
Atkinson coached the voice actors as they were recording, observing and offering direction to the actors via video chat.
Despite the asynchronous nature of the recording process, Atkinson’s coaching and careful editing helped make the dialogue sound natural.
The setting of “I Do Like the Rain” features a family of four— including two child actors— in a minivan, none of whom ever actually occupied the same space during the recording process.
“Even though they were never in the same room and they're recorded at completely different hours of the day, it sounds like they're all in the same minivan together. And it's just magical to me,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson says they plan to release a new Quarantine Play every month, along with smaller plays called The Dailies. He said The Merry Beggars hope to eventually put on workshops for Catholics looking to connect with entertainment industry professionals, in New York City and beyond.
“To me, the way that you heal the culture is you tell the truth about the human person. And the truth about the human person is that we're made for God,” Atkinson said.
“I think these stories do a really tender and beautiful job of touching upon our need for God and how, in quarantine, that quiet desire for God can surface in a really beautiful, tender and fragile way.”