Listeners to the Acousmatic Theater Hour, which airs on Sunday nights at 9pm on WFMU, have by now heard Caroline Bergvall reading 47 different English translations of the first sentence of the Inferno; Lumberob revealing, for the first time, the spirit animals of pro golfers; long recordings of work by Richard Foreman, Kathie Kosmider, Will Eno, and other notables; and, as they say, much more.
And that’s only in the show’s first few months. The Acousmatic Theater Hour debuted in October as one of the few stateside platforms for radio plays. The program, which typically features an hour of work by a single artist, is hosted and curated by Jason Grote, a playwright and screenwriter, and Karinne Keithley, the diversely talented theater artist and scholar.
Amber Reed (Rail): How and why did the show come about?
Jason Grote: I’d been a listener of WFMU since the early 90s, when I was in college, and it really shaped my sensibility and was one of the handful of things that informed where I went after that.
Then more recently I played a radio comedy show called the Best Show on WFMU for [friend and dramaturg] Danny Manley, and he was like, we could totally do this! I started volunteering with WFMU and getting more deeply involved with the culture. Eventually it got serious and we were going to cut a demo; I had the interest and the will and was in the right place in the right time, but I needed someone who had an idea, both technically and aesthetically, of what good radio was. And so I approached Karinne.
Karinne Keithley: WFMU was one of the first things that became living-in-New-York for me. I would come home and listen to WFMU all night and make collages or write awful proto-plays. I didn’t do any work in the instigation of the show, but as soon as there was a possibility, I was like, “This is my destiny!”
Rail: The show is called the Acousmatic Theater Hour. What does “acousmatic” mean, and what do you mean by “theater”?
KK: The original contextual definition of “acousmatic” is from Pythagoras. He apparently sat behind a screen when he taught. I don’t know if that’s the origin of the word, but that’s the first context of its meaning—sounds coming from a place that you don’t see.
I was playing Pete Comley’s The Caribou and Moose Variations last night; I think of it more as on the edge of radio theater, but it takes an archival recording of a hunting trip and sets it into space. It’s not trying to deliver a message or meaning in a documentary way; it’s actually creating an experience that happens in time. I think those are the parameters for me. And we’ve found that the same type of space that we know in a live room can be very readily re-accessed through underscoring and soundbeds—the phonographic surround of the text can develop a spatial quality.
Rail: You’ve played archival material, scores from new staged shows, and plays you’ve produced yourself. Do you think your approach to curatorship will continue to be pretty multifarious?
KK: From my own perspective, I’m only trying to open it up. Because it’s a show that goes on every week, there’s a lot of freedom to kind of be like, “What does this sound like? How does this work?” Having 52 shows a year is so different from being an artistic director of a theater that presents three or ten shows a year.
JG: There’s something that’s a little bit destructive both on a personal and an aesthetic level about always pursuing perfection in some way, whatever that definition of perfection is. I like being able to experiment and screw up. Though we probably have a fairly good track record—I think most of the shows so far have actually been pretty good.
KK: It’s important to me that the show does some service to the world that we’re a part of in terms of offering a new venue either for thought experiments or for actual recording experiments. But I wouldn’t want that to be the sum total of the show, because that’s the world we know, and what’s exciting is getting submissions or recommendations that take us outside of what we know.
JG: I think a lot of people elsewhere in America feel totally shut out. They feel shut out of the regional theater world because it’s so highly professionalized, and they feel shut out of downtown New York because they’re not in New York. One of the great things that we’re getting in terms of feedback from listeners is that people who are in North Carolina, or Los Angeles, or wherever, feel they’re invested in it. There are no obstacles. They can make something in their bedroom and submit it to us and the sole criterion is whether or not it’s interesting.
Rail: Do you have other thoughts on radio as a material rather than just a means of dissemination? It seems as though people tend to approach radio focused more on its limitations than its freedoms.
JG: I was reading this essay by Ken Jordan about how amazing, and how—I hate the term paradigm-shifting—but how the disembodied voice was one of those things that changed everything in all of these unpredictable ways.
And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted Karinne to be involved in this. My work as a playwright is not exactly traditional, but it’s traditional in terms of its execution, and I realized pretty early on that this is not the way to treat radio. It’s not just a recording of a play. Karinne said that you use music and sound to create three dimensions in the ear of the listener, but it’s also that that’s where it exists as a medium.
KK: I’ve been thinking about how Americans don’t really have a depth psyche, they just have a lateral psyche. It’s our sense of the road trip, or the expanse of the continent or the crevices of our city. I’ve been interested in picking up this question of whether sound recording and the intimacy of the voice actually opens up the possibility of a kind of psychotopography.
JG: I have a ritual where I download the program and listen to it during the week in a totally different context, just to get some idea of what the experience of the listener is. That’s also what’s really interesting about radio as a technology—everybody is experiencing the show in a totally different context.
Rail: Who is your ideal listener? Is it someone who listens intently from nine o’clock until ten o’clock?
KK: I’ve been thinking about that, because it’s so important for radio that that isn’t a necessity. At the same time we’re a one-hour show, which is like a staged event in a way. I feel like we can go both ways.
JG: We have a fantasy truck driver. Every week we change his life forever. One of these days we’re going to blow that guy’s mind.
KK: It’s exciting to me that our listenership is not necessarily from the theater community, but I also really want our theater community to listen and get excited about the possibilities of doing radio.
JG: That’s what I was always interested in doing—exposing WFMU’s listeners, this sort of Venn diagram of interesting weirdos, to interesting theater. There are people who think of theater as something that’s $75-$150 and has either an English or a C-list celebrity in it, but would maybe go if they found out that they could pay $20 and see something that’s really going to be interesting or somehow in conversation with the other marginal things that they’re into.
KK: And you can turn on the radio for free. I really think that radio is a way that the kinds of little professional niches that we have here in the art world can actually break down a little bit. Because it’s so easy and cheap, and people can stumble upon it.
JG: What’s also interesting about WFMU is that it was participatory before that became a buzzword. It’s always been about reaching people in some kind of genuine way that is actually about having to participate and not be customers or spectators.
Rail: How do you make radio a tool of communication and not just distribution? Breaking down the I-am-giving-and-you-are-the-passive-recipient thing is challenging when you have people gathered in a room; it must be so much more challenging for radio, where you beam out waves and people receive them with their machines.
KK: It’s funny, it feels so strangely intimate—it doesn’t feel like you’re just talking into a machine. I actually feel the same kind of contract of presence that I do when I’m performing. Maybe even more so, because you don’t have anyone sleeping or texting or interrupting your fantasy of communion. There’s something evaluative about looking at something in front of you, but when you’re listening it’s literally just coming from somewhere else.
JG: One of the brilliant things that Ken Freedman [WFMU general manager] has done is build an infrastructure to make it easier for listeners to communicate. There are the comments pages on the Internet, but people also call in all the time, including on non-call-in shows.
KK: I was just remembering that person who called in convinced that we had just played Earth, Wind & Fire.
JG: They were like, “what was that Earth, Wind & Fire song that you just played? My daughter says it’s this, but I insist that it’s this.” We had played Samuel Beckett or something. He was really convinced. It was like an eight-minute conversation.
KK: “Texts for Nothing,” by Earth, Wind & Fire.
The Acousmatic Theater Hour airs every Sunday night from 9-10pm on WFMU at 91.1FM in New York and 90.1FM in the Hudson Valley. Archives online at wfmu.org/playlists/am. To submit work, email inquiries or links to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amber Reed, a writer living in Brooklyn, has also written about playwrights Sibyl Kempson and Kelly Copper for the Rail.