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The Story of a Chicago Theatre in the Dark

Originally published on the UI7 Live website in Spring 2023.

Theatre in the Dark started—as the name suggests—in a theater, in the dark. Their first audio play “Three Stories Up” premiered in Fall 2019. They performed the play live in person, but in “pitch black conditions.” Once the pandemic hit, they switched their strategy to an audible one.

The nonprofit’s artistic director Corey Bradberry also works with Second City in Chicago as a director and teacher. He teaches improvisation, writing and acting at the 50-year-old theater company based in Chicago and Toronto. Bradberry says once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, their first foray into a sound-only experience was adapted from their last play before quarantine. The company performed “Three Stories Up” live on a zoom call with two of the original cast members and recorded it online from places in the Chicago area

The company’s next two original plays premiered live virtually, similar to their first one. They even adapted classics of literature in “Moby Dick” and “A Christmas Carol.” The former of which includes an original score by an award-winning composer named Nick Mantopoli from Austin.

One of their most recent audio plays “A Murder in the Court of Xanadu” takes historical events and real-world figures from the Mongolian empire like Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, and puts them in a more modern setting. Erin Lin—who plays Marco Polo’s historical doppelgänger, Marla—says that what drew her to Marla was the character’s ability to interact with other characters in the story. Even if she wouldn’t normally be privy to that kind of information, Marla “transcended socioeconomic backgrounds positions, [and] class.”

During their 2022-23 season, the company tried something that combined modern day audio drama and the live theatre experience together in the form of season passes. Bradberry says they went this route to “reward repeat listeners and people who don’t just want one story, but that really enjoy listening to a multitude of stories.” The final audio play of their 2022-23 package is “The White City.” A story about the famous serial killer H.H. Holmes that released earlier this year.

Audio dramas aren’t a new phenomenon. Their lineage can be traced back to the birth of radio. Perhaps the most cited example is Orson Welles take on “War of the Worlds” from H.G. Wells that supposedly caused a national panic as people thought an invasion from Mars was happening in real time. The panic wasn’t as bad as news outlets were saying back then, but it’s a nice recent apocryphal story historians like to tell.

Audio dramas in the modern sense are simply podcasts edited together in a way that creates fictional stories. Some of the more common tropes found in these sound stories are found footage/frame narratives, and a blend of narration and dialogue from different actors. The term you may have seen on sites like Audible.com is full cast of full-cast production. They can range from a single audiobook narration to an entire cast performing the story like a movie or television show. Some of the more well-known examples are “We’re Alive” from Wayland Productions, “The Bright Sessions” from Atypical Artists, and “Welcome to Nightvale” from Nightvale Presents.