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Hear all about it: Irondale theater launches first ever radio play adapting Bertolt Brecht

Irondale's performance of Brecht's "The Good Soul of Setzuan" from early 2020.
Gerry Goodstein

All we need is radio drama!

Fort Greene’s Irondale Center is launching its first ever radio play with an adaptation of the 1939 “Mother Courage and Her Children” by Bertolt Brecht Thursday. The performing arts organization has recorded the tale about a mother surviving the horrors of war, bringing a COVID-safe audio drama to listeners around the borough and beyond.

“As an ensemble, we learned that the radio version of Mother Courage is not a poor substitute for live performance but is an exciting adventure into a very new medium which serves much the same goals that we are trying to accomplish with our live, fully staged plays,” said Jim Niesen, Irondale’s artistic director.

The play tells the story of a mother and her children making their way through war-torn Europe during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, making do by selling goods to soldiers along the way — but she ultimately has to pay the price of losing her children to survive.

Five actors play almost 30 different roles with the format inspired by vaudeville, German comedy and Depression-era screwball comedy. The three-act performance is roughly two hours and 20 minutes and immerses listeners with sound effects and an original score influenced by Jazz, Country Western, and New Age.

To get in the spirit of performing for sound only, the cast listened back to old radio plays performed by Hollywood actors to study their method, according to Irondale’s executive director, who also stars in the production.

“You learned a lot from them, especially about timing and that microphone, which became almost a physical extension of your body,” said Terry Greiss. “So much of what you were doing physically had to be shown vocally.”

Greiss and his fellow vocal thespians rehearsed for months via Zoom and recorded their parts remotely while on a conference call with each other, the stage manager, and the director. 

“It was very bizarre because we couldn’t be together,” Greiss said. “I’m at the theater by myself, I’ve got blankets over my head because the room tone was too noisy.”

Meanwhile, his wife Vicky Gilmore, who plays the reading role as Anna Fierling, who’s nicknamed Mother Courage in the story, was recording in another room of the S. Oxford Street venue. 

Actress Vicky Gilmore who plays Mother Courage records lines for the radio play.Courtesy of Irondale

Some parts of the story are very visual, so they added a narrating story teller dubbed “Brecht’s Ghost” to talk over those scenes and fill in the gaps, according to Greiss.

The play is the final of three Brecht wrote in exile from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and Irondale staged the previous two productions in-person, “The Life of Galileo” in 2019 and “The Good Soul of Setzuan” just before the pandemic hit in early 2020.

“Mother Courage” will be available to stream online starting April 15, and listeners can buy a ticket for a 48-hour window during which to listen to it. 

Once it’s safe to do so, Greiss wants to bring the play to the stage, to wrap up their “Brecht in Exile” trilogy, but he’s become hooked on audio theater.

“I hope this becomes a genre that we can all continue to explore deeply and get good at,” he said.

“Mother Courage and Her Children” at Irondale [tickets available online at www.irondale.org, (718) 488-9233]. Stream available April 15-May 1. Anytime. $20.

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