December has brought new opportunities for fans of radio drama to get their aural fix. Washington Improv Theater, or WIT, is tweaking the 1940s-style crime serial format in a late-night slot at its downtown home, Flashpoint, and podcasting the results. Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center is gearing up to host monthly visits by New York's Night Kitchen Radio Theater that will air on XM Satellite Radio.
WIT's radio project -- dubbed WIRT, naturally, in call-letter fashion -- is part of the company's typical year-end rush to experiment with show formats and see which are popular enough to develop further in the new year, explains Colin Murchie, a WIT performer and also its marketing director. He collaborated on the WIRT concept with his girlfriend and fellow performer, Molly Woods. The team -- both fans of "The Big Broadcast," WAMU's Sunday night series devoted to popular radio programs of the 1930s, '40s and '50s -- rehearsed a pool of nine performers in the WIRT style, replete with hard-boiled detectives, wisecracking sidekicks and dames in distress.
Four actors and a keyboardist (hey, what's an old-school radio mystery without melodramatic organ music?) are assigned to each WIRT performance, and "studio" audience members make suggestions including type of crime and Washington location to drive the improvised plot. Efforts so far have included securities fraud in Adams Morgan, arson at L'Enfant Plaza and regicide at Sparky's coffeehouse on 14th Street. (You have to off a king for it to be regicide, should that not be in your everyday vocabulary, and it was the King of Sweden who met his demise in the Sparky's scenario.)
"You can go anywhere or do anything you want by just saying it," Murchie, 25, says of radio theater. "That power has been intoxicating."
No WIRT performances are confirmed after the series wraps up Dec. 30, but Murchie says the format is "too fun to go away. It's too different, too funny and too easy to put on."
At the Kennedy Center, Night Kitchen Radio Theater will present kid-friendly literary adaptations in the new Family Theater. The monthly series launches Dec. 21 with "The Emperor's New Clothes," featuring actress Debra Winger and her husband, actor Arliss Howard. The premiere is open only to invited guests, although it will be broadcast live on XM Satellite Radio's Kids channel.
Future Night Kitchen performances, starting with Paul Fleischman's "Seek" on Jan. 12, will be open to the public as free Millennium Stage offerings and recorded for the XM Kids and Sonic Theater channels.
Night Kitchen founder and director Arthur Yorinks -- also a children's author whose book "Hey, Al" will be adapted for the series along with works including "The Invisible Man," "Sherlock Holmes" and "Don Quixote" -- says that his three-year-old company does not strive for nostalgic appeal. "We're not doing any old scripts," says Yorinks, 52. "We're about the medium of radio drama."
Yorinks finds the medium to be a respite in a culture that's "drowning in a hyper-speed bombardment of images." Listening to radio theater, Yorinks says, requires active participation -- "You're using your imagination to fill in the blanks" -- much like reading, something the series hopes to promote by focusing on adaptations of books.
The appeal of the series to younger audiences isn't a given, says Darrell Ayers, the Kennedy Center's vice president for education. "This generation -- radio theater doesn't mean anything to them," he observes. "It'll be interesting to see how they respond."
But, he adds, "This whole thing with iPods -- people are plugged in and reintroduced to listening."
Washington Improv Radio Theater at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW, through Dec. 30. For schedule and ticket information, call 202-315-1318 or visit www.washingtonimprovtheater.com/shows/wirt.htm.
Night Kitchen Radio Theater at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Free monthly performances begin Jan. 12. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.