Theater of the Mind

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A projection on Fireside Mystery Theatre's two-story-tall curtain at The Slipper Room.

A radio show that masquerades as theater. Seems a little counterintuitive, right? Except that it isn’t. Call it what the practitioners call it: “radio theater.” And it’s clearly a genre: in the last 20 years in New York, at least, any number of groups have infused life into the form (Dan Bianchi’s fine Radio Theatre NYC comes to mind).

But the appearance of Fireside Mystery Theatre to the Gotham scene five years ago herladed radio theater operating on another level. Their work is full-throttle, full-throated, with nothing held back. Their radio theater is at once a salute to all that which is aural and art but equally an affirmation that some people like their theater dark. And, best of all, the company’s work is full of mischief and jubilation and swagger, it’s as if they know that the average theategoer wants more than their eyes entertained. Yes, we live in an intensely visual culture. Indeed, watching the members of Fireside Mystery Theater offer a performance has its visual delectations. But the company’s whole point is that it’s not merely about the eyes. It’s about the ears, it’s about the mind; it’s about activating the imagination. The mere name of the company — Fireside…Mystery… — is evocative of something dramatic, a touch of adrenalin and a touch of arrhythmia. (Their shows were originally performed in front of a fireplace at The LIC Bar in Long Island City, Queens.)

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Founded in 2012, Fireside Mystery Theatre is the brainchild of actor-director-producer Ali Silva and writer Gustavo Rodriguez. Not only is there palpable suspense in Rodriguez’s brooding scripts, there is a real hint of suspense in that their shows are recorded live — performed in a single take at the nostalgia-filled Slipper Room on the Lower East Side. (The mastermind of their wondrous podcasts is co-producer Daniel Graves.)

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Once recorded, the show is available for download as a podcast, and it was recently voted one the top 10 New York City-based podcasts by Untapped Cities, beside the likes of This American Life and The Moth. Since the company began podcasting in 2014, shows have been downloaded more than 30,000 times on iTunes.

Here the description that Fireside provided for what one of their performances is like:

As a thick red velvet curtain pulls away, it reveals a row of skilled actors garbed in dark colors standing side by side in front of a line of microphones. To their left three other similarly dressed people including a man at a piano and various sound gear. Using just their voices, along with some musical accompaniment and various sound effects, this group of artists will weave the web of mental imagery needed to lead its audience on it’s journey into the ‘theatre of the mind.’

Each show, anchored by a specific theme, features three radio plays, plus musical numbers (often performed by jazz chanteuse Martina Da Silva) and commercials by real-life sponsors. Frequent members of the cast include Lauren Elder (Boardwalk Empire, Broadway’s Sideshow) and Allison Guinn (Inside Amy Schumer, Broadway’s On The Town), along with James Rieser, Annabelle Rollison, Courtenay Gilean Cholovich and Erik Davey Gislason. Helming each show is Silva, as a kind of guide for the audience. The musical score is improvised live at each show by Steve Blanco, while sound effects are the handiwork of Greg Russ.

Here is Silva’s bio — talk about fidelity to your ideals!

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As a child, Ali Silva was raised on the dulcet tones, cadence and comportment of NPR and the various dialects of the voices in her head. With a love of literature and language, lyres and lutes, histrionics and hermitage, posturing and pantomime, Ali was naturally attracted to and drawn in by the theatre. Classically trained in England by pulchritudinous pucks in an enchanted empyrean, she found herself energized and emboldened as she spent many an evening entranced by broadcast brownies and wireless spirits.

Sun., Sept. 27 marks the start of Fireside’s fifth season. The theme is “Unraveled Travel: Unsettling Stories From the Road…” For tickets, click here. For more information on Fireside Mystery Theatre, click here. Shows are performed once a month from September through May.

And now, 5 questions Ali Silva, Gustavo Rodriguez and Daniel Graves have never been asked (with additional material from Fireside company members):

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Company members of the "Masques and Disguises show," October 2014. Photo: Rachel Reed Photography.
Members of the “Masques and Disguises show,” October 2014. Photo: Rachel Reed Photography.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Did you realize that one story of yours in particular raised my opinion of you as an artist and possibly lowered my opinion of you as a human being?”

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Those stories you come up with, you really write those?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Is it so wrong to eat the flesh of another human being if both parties consent to it?”

In an age that is all about the visual, why is something partly aural a compelling idea? Do audiences ever struggle with your format — like the podcast, for example?
In the deluge of visual media these days we are uniquely positioned to entertain people and engage their brains in a way that simply isn’t utilized anymore. Even the way kids learn these days is highly visual. Many in our audience may have initially been skeptical about whether they would like our show — live or in podcast form. They are pleasantly surprised about how much they enjoyed it — we engaged their imagination in a way that wasn’t spoon-fed. Oral/aural tradition and storytelling is so ingrained in us as a species — the “Theatre of the Mind” doesn’t get old. It feels absolutely natural to sit back, turn your thoughts off and even close your eyes for a little while and let us paint a picture for you in your mind. It’s even a good excuse to stop looking at screens constantly and just take a breather from screen-based technology!

We’ve found a niche in the place where our societies’ proclivity for nostalgia and the emerging podcast universe meet — it has given us an audience where there was none even five years ago. Podcasts and the audio entertainment experiences they provide have never been as popular as they are now — the content available is vast and varied. We are long-time fans of old time radio and have spent a lot of time (through trial and error) as a students learning how to most effectively tell stories using that medium. Based on the feedback we get and our growing listenership it seems like we are consistently getting our point across.

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Ali Silva at the "Feast of Fear" show, November 2014.
Ali Silva at the “Feast of Fear” show, November 2014.

In an age that is (tragically) all about terror and gruesomeness in real life, what is scary? And in an age of great cynicism about — well, everything — how do you theatricalize what is scary without the final performed product seeming cheesy or hokey?
No one ever thinks that the time they’re living in is some kind of golden era so that’s nothing new. It’s true that nothing compares to the horrors real life presents us but it’s all an ongoing cycle; so life in the final analysis is more or less the same: wonderful, horrible, beautiful, ugly, tragic and triumphant. Our show simply plays upon the tensions between all those facets of life. It may be hard for some to believe that for all our dark and macabre leanings we’re great and passionate lovers of life, maybe even a little romantic. We try to avoid the cheesy or hokey by simply loving and believing in our characters or at the very least trying to understand them no matter how close they might sometimes flirt with caricature. We like comic. We don’t embrace camp.  We strive to create situations reflecting our own ordinary realities — then weave in the unnatural and supernatural.

One of the keys to creating relatable and entertaining but not cynical horror is keeping a sense of humor every now and then. Rod Serling did it, Wes Craven did it, Walt Disney did it, Stephen King does it, the list goes on. Extremely dour and cynical horror has it’s place, but if you want to really entertain an audience you have to make them laugh once in a while. A wink to them here, a joke there, a self deprecating commercial — all of these things can let the audience breathe a bit and, in turn, set them up to be truly scared by something just around the corner. If they let their guard down a bit then the next scare will be even more effective.

Sometimes what is truly scary is what is left unsaid — letting our imaginations run wild.

You can transport yourself to any year since the invention of the radio. What three years would you pick, and what story (or type of story) would Fireside Mystery Theatre perform? Who’d write it? Who’d act in it? How would it be received?
The years would be 1948, 1949 and 1950. That’s when audio design and production quality were the most refined, a peak for the medium of radio theatre. The shows from the late ’40s and ’50s sound the best. We would do our kind of macabre thing hopefully co-writing with a master like Lucille Fletcher, Willis Cooper or Dashiell Hammett. With additional dialogue by William Faulkner. Ali would host and helm a cast that includes Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Agnes Moorehead, Myrna Loy, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Walter Brennan and Claude Rains. Definitely Claude Rains. And Peter Lorre! Oh yeah! And Vincent Price. Without a doubt Vincent Price. And Jack Benny. For the laughs. The episode would be called “The Wish List,” of course, and it would be the first radio show ever to win an Academy Award.