Live-Action Radio Drama on the Titanic
Wireless Mystery Theatre test the boundaries of audio-theatre with an original production on the Titanic
Aislinn Clarke, the founder of the ever-popular Wireless Mystery Theatre, admits she never expected WMT to become as popular as it has. In the beginning, it was just a fun idea – recreating old radio plays in a live-action setting – she thought she could do once or twice a year.
A year on from their first ever performance – The 39 Steps at Chillifest 2010 – and WMT has proven to have legs like a marathon runner. The company has performed 28 plays, toured across the UK and Ireland and provided a full-time, if not exactly paying, job for Clarke. ‘I still have to do other things,’ Clarke notes wryly, ‘if I want to eat.’
Clarke puts the runaway success down to luck. ‘Sometimes you just stumble across the right idea at the right time.' WMT has also developed a loyal following. ‘I hate to use the word fans,’ adds Clarke, ‘but there are people who are really into what we do. They come to every show and we get to know them on a first name basis. I am currently cat-sitting for someone I only know from them coming to performances.’
Having struck on such an unexpectedly successful idea, it must have been tempting to play it safe. Instead, Clarke is eager for WMT's output to continue to evolve. They are not going to abandon the tongue-in-cheek, jingle packed productions that made their name, but they are producing more ‘sincere’ performances as well.
These include the first ever live performance of WR Rogers The Return Room – a sentimental Clarke admits a quote about 'heart's blood' in the play always brings a tear to her eye – and an ambitious authors medley at the first Literary Lunchtime on February 25.
Streets aims to create a psycho-geography of Belfast, using source material from Cathal O`Byrne, Ciaran Carson, and WR Rodgers texts. ‘They are humorous, nostalgic writers,’ Clarke explains. ‘We weave together snippets of their work and put it against a background of street-song, trams and carts.’
Tonally, both pieces are different to WMT’s early productions, but it is their upcoming Titanic production that will really establish the company's serious chops. The Wireless Room is ‘contemporary, impressionistic audio-theatre’, the sort of thing that would be ‘somewhere on Radio 3 after midnight’.
An original piece of theatre created by WMT, The Wireless Room dramatically recreates the wireless communications on the night the Titanic sank, using both the Titanic logs and those of ships searching for the doomed liner.
The Wireless Room recreates the airwaves of that night, focusing on Marconi wireless operator, Harold Bride. One of the survivors of the Titanic's sinking, Bride stayed in the wireless room until the water lapped around his feet, and had severe frost-bite when he was rescued by the Carpathian.
The wireless operators on the other ships are disembodied voices, played by black-clad actors against a black background. But The Wireless Room isn’t verbatim theatre. The original logs use shipping language and maritime terms, and it was necessary to make them more conversational. However, it is completely factual.
‘People always seem to feel the need to add a dramatic narrative. Over a thousand people [dead]? Surely that is dramatic enough?’ Clarke asks. ‘We thought the only way to respect the magnitude of that event was to be completely truthful.’
The Wireless Room will debut April 11-13 as part of Belfast City Council’s Titanic Belfast Festival 2012, before going on tour around the country.
City Hall is an appropriate venue to launch the production, since Belfast City Hall architect William Pirrie is credited with all the ‘big ideas’ for the building. In fact, the Lord Mayor’s Suite is still called the Titanic Room, since the craftsman who created it also worked on the Titanic’s first class cabins. ‘The room was commissioned first though,’ Clarke says. ‘It would have been a bit morbid otherwise.’
Clarke's passion for audio-theatre, and her conviction that it can be challenging as well as entertaining, is palpable. She has big plans for the company's future.