Film actors help to revive radio drama. Los Angeles group putting landmark plays on stage, too

Actors Edward Asner, James Whitmore, and Jack Coleman square off at one table opposite Richard Dreyfuss at another. Narrator Michael York lurks behind a tall microphone in the corner, and a dozen actors along the back wall await their turns at various mikes. There are lights and action - but no camera. Welcome to Culver Studios, Stage 12, where drama-on-radio is being reborn in the television and film mecca largely responsible for all but killing it off. The 14 actors and one actress are giving audible life to the play ``Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?'' This Eric Bentley play deals with hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, a panel that broke many Hollywood careers with its investigation into communist influences there.

The group is called L.A. Classic Theater Works - formed last July with some of the top names in Hollywood - and is the new radio arm of L.A. Theater Works, which debuted last summer as a company whose aim is to perform landmark plays on stage here.

``We decided that working on radio would be a very succinct way of beginning to work on plays together in a very dynamic and charged way,'' says co-founder Susan Albert Loewenberg. ``It also enables us to accomplish a lot of work, do it very inexpensively, and reach many people in the process.''

The Theater Works radio venture got off to a bang last summer with a production of Kaufman and Hart's 1930 comedy ``Once in a Lifetime.'' Audience response was so strong that the group attempted a marathon project in the fall: 15 hours of ``Babbitt,'' the 1922 novel by Sinclair Lewis. The entire cover-to-cover reading was aired Thanksgiving Day and later aired in 29 half-hour episodes.

``Who would have thought that one of the highlights of the theater year would be a radio show,'' remarked Los Angeles Times theater critic Dan Sullivan. ``This is world-class radio theater with, for once, an American label.''

The Los Angeles Classic Theater version of Arthur Miller's ``The Crucible'' aired here April 10 and will air in London on the BBC April 18. ``Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?'' will air in London and Los Angeles this Sunday (locally, on KCRW, 6-7:30 p.m.).

``There is no library of great works from world literature on radio with an American voice,'' adds Judith Auberjonois, co-founder. ``We felt we wanted to reinterpret great works with an American company, with an American sound, whether that be Arthur Miller or Shakespeare or Pinter.''

This L.A. initiative joins something of a resurgence in radio in the US in recent years.

Tom Lopez's ZBS Audio Production Center in Fort Edward, N.Y., has created eight experimental series since 1970, culminating in the 13-part ``Dreams of Rio'' last September on public radio. Globe Radio Repertory in Seattle specializes in the classics and has performed five projects in five years. Ear Wax Studios in San Francisco has been providing production services for others. Under the leadership of Erik Bauersfield, KPFA Radio's ``Bay Area Radio Drama'' recently broadcast all the plays of Eugene O'Neill.

Interviews with actors at one L.A. Classic Theater Works technical run-through prove that concentration on language and voice is a discipline that carries over well to both film and TV.

``You have to concentrate on the music of the words in a way that you don't for television,'' says Asner, who has starred in the ``Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' ``Lou Grant,'' and ``Bronx Zoo.'' ``And I have become much more sensitive of intensity, pitch, and dead air.''

``It gets you back to the time-honored BBC traditions of intensity of language, pace and energy, and pauses that are earned,'' says Michael York. ``By the time we finished `Crucible,' I was gasping, both emotionally and physically.''

Thirty-seven actors and actresses now have joined the troupe, among them Stacy Keach, Robert Foxworth, Harry Hamlin, William Devane, Jo Beth Williams, Judd Nelson, and Judge Rheinhold.

The two most recent works have been sponsored by BBC Radio in association with local station KCRW. Actors received about $500 per play. Besides making the radio plays a key ancillary activity of the group, producers say they intend to accumulate a full library of plays for sale on cassette, to produce revenue.

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