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Severed Threads: From Downtown Manhattan to Suburban Minneapolis

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Fred Greenhalgh Fred Greenhalgh 13:55, Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Editor's note: radio drama rivals all other media as a source of innovation and adventurous story-telling technique. Fred Greenhalgh worked on a particularly adventurous example for the Afternoon Play slot at 1415 today. The video shows the recording of one scene on location in New York - SB

John Dryden's three-part serial Severed Threads is all about the random connections between people who have never met each other and how chance events can ripple across cultures and change the lives of people we have never met. It's a mixture of the concept of six degrees of separation and the 'butterfly effect' transposed to globalism in modern India, America, and the U.K.

So it seems natural that I would be brought into the production by my own series of somewhat random connections - knowing a college flatmate of John, who introduced me to him just at the time that my own work in field recorded radio drama could be most improved by working with him.

John records his actors in the real world, in changing, uncontrollable environments like bars, city streets, churches, and apartment complexes. Not only does he record in the real world, but he travels - in the case of Severed Threads to three countries - to get the sound he's after.

In this case, his destination was New York City. What better place to tell a story of lives connected by seemingly unrelated events?

Recording in the Real World

In America we don't have the benefit of an intact cultural memory of radio drama. It seems TV effectively assassinated the public consciousness of the form in the 1960s and today, the aspiring dramatist has to tell the life story of the medium to anyone who wants to listen.

Being that most people raise an eyebrow when they see me with headphones on and recorder in tow, it was freeing to work with a director like John who has the same passion for location recording - of capturing the unique sound of the outside world rather than the artificial deadness of the studio.

Actors march through rooms, pull up next to one another at a crowded lunch table, sit at a bar to yak about sports or watch their family fall apart in the middle of dinner. When it's time for someone to die, well, forget the foley - someone's going to wind up on the ground!

Of course, verisimilitude is stretched - a bedroom serves as the lobby for the church, a basement entryway as a gunshop - but the overall effect is a raw, energized sound. Actors get a chance to stand up, move around, interact. The world is the studio.

Losing Control

Of course, this bold artistic choice brings its challenges to the director. Such as how to remove the Big-ness of the Big Apple so that is sounds like a sleepier town in America's heartland.

Recording on location requires nerves of steel - keeping your cool when cars drive by, airplanes take off overhead, dogs bark incessantly or a foghorn goes off. Or, as in the case of our trip to suburban New Jersey, when an army of gardeners with high decibel equipment shows up in the middle of the session. Juggling an uncontrollable, noisy world with the needs of a large cast and production crew seems a way to drive yourself insane.

And maybe it does. But for John Dryden - who kept a good attitude and smiled through the most stressful parts of recording - maybe it's also the knowledge that all the trouble is worth it.

A Man Walks into a Studio...

The scene in the video above is is a good example. Jim, the American story's protagonist who finds his life as a church leader and businessman crumbling around him, walks up with a newspaper reporter for a live interview which catches him off guard. Combine that raw, energetic performance with a sound environment and you get this finished scene:

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The globe-trotting nature and guerrilla recording style makes Severed Threads a very different kind of production. The story has a lot to say about our real world, which itself is chaotic, shifting, noisy and fast-paced. Our nightly news is filled with the kind of story at the heart of Severed Threads - of wrongs that just are, with no special meaning, and more questions than answers.

But, as Dryden's play points out, there's a lot to learn by going beneath the surface of tragedies, and looking for the threads that bind.

Fred Greenhalgh is Sound Recordist for Severed Threads

  • Listen to episode one of John Dryden's Severed Threads on BBC Radio 4 at 1415 today.
  • John Dryden has written about his free range approach to radio drama - for a production recorded on location in Mumbai - here on the Radio 4 blog before.
  • More about Fred Greenhalgh on his web site.

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