We continue our celebration of our 30th anniversary with a piece that Ron N. Butler wrote back in 1992 for the Myriad Amateur Press Alliance about his experiences with The Invisible Man. A few notes before we get to Ron’s own notes:
- We no longer have such a sweet deal with Dragon Con as Ron describes in his piece. So if you want to come join, feel free, but don’t count on getting everyone you know into the convention for free.
- At one very memorable show, Daniel Taylor did indeed fire off the starter pistol Ron mentions later in the piece. If only he’d warned us…and our audio engineer.
- We performed a few pieces live on PSPR (now Georgia Public Broadcasting) (although The Invisible Man wasn’t one of them). We’d love to be invited back sometime. Hint hint.
And now…without further ado, Ron N. Butler’s notes about his own piece, The Inaudible Man:
In 1986, Confederation — The Atlanta WorldCon — did something strange and unforgiveable in the eyes of SMOFdom: They had money left over after paying all the bills. Over the next couple of years, the rump Atlanta WorldCon committee parceled out the money as grants to a number of projects, among them ‘Electrical Eggs,’ one of the first (if not the first) organizations devoted to handicapped access at SF conventions. One of the other proposals was for a science fiction magazine on audiotape, pitched by a group calling themselves the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. We funded that one, too. That’s how I met Thomas E. Fuller, ARTC’s head writer. And he remembered my name when ARTC needed someone to fill a gap in their cast for an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man at DragonCon in 1992.
“The Inaudible Man” appeared in a somewhat different form as part of my personalzine “F451” in the MYRIAD APA. I have added some parenthetical notes but mainly left it as-is, for good or ill. This is how I met Thomas Fuller and how I joined ARTC. And that made a great difference in my life.
THE INAUDIBLE MAN
(July 5, 1992) It was Thomas Fuller on the other end of the line — playwright, poet, soon-to-be SF novelist, Atlanta Radio Theater mogul, giant dirigible enthusiast (That is, the dirigibles are giant, not — well, never mind.), and Berta’s husband.
“Ron!” he said, little realizing that I had just blown an entire paragraph on a smartass description of him. “ARTC is doing ‘The Invisible Man’ down at DragonCon this year — ”
Well, I thought, at least it’s not Lovecraft…
” — but Greg Nicoll has had to drop out because of work. Would you like to take over his part?”
Would I? Would I? Wells? Radio theater? Acting without having to memorize lines? I’d give at least an earlobe for this!
“Yeah, sure — if Lin [My wife. — RNB] says it’s OK.”
“Great. See you Wednesday at 7:30.” *click*
Errr — Where?
(July 8) At first, Berta had refused to tell me where the house was. But after I reminded her that if I didn’t show up, Thomas would just replace me — likely with someone even worse — she gave in. [This is pure, bumptious fantasy. Berta was perfectly gracious. — RNB]
I stayed at work an extra ninety minutes before heading north for Duluth. That was cutting it a bit too fine, as it turned out; I just had time to grab a sandwich and a Coke at Mrs. Winner’s in downtown Duluth (I think that was downtown Duluth) and race back to the Fullers’, arriving right at 7:30.
(I was dogged by a strange punctuality all through this production. No matter what I did, I seemed to show up where I was supposed to be right on time — not early, not late, just — there. Spooky.)
Berta and the boys were off riding hot-air balloons while Thomas and ARTC took over her dining room to rehearse. Half of the cast were already there.
Brad Strickland had brought along a huge boom box to record a rough tape of the read-through which would be passed on to the sound effects guy for his edification.
Daniel “Foley” Taylor was there to read off the sound effects cues.
I recognized Doug Kaye from a presentation he and Thomas had made for the Phoenix Society about another SF audio project — something to do with a time-travelling actor in a bunny suit… [“Dash Cardigan” — RNB]
Thomas introduced me to the female leads, Joyce and Lee [Millman] — and I promptly got them mixed up. (Maybe that had something to do with the way that Joyce’s full name is Joyce Leigh.)
A tall, happy-looking fella named Bill Jackson seemed oddly familiar.
The redoubtable Berl Boykin (whom I remembered from a previous ARTC/DragonCon production of “Shadow over Innsmouth”) would not be at that rehearsal — his car had burned down. (Or some such damn thing. The week previously his bedroom ceiling had fallen in on him.) Thomas would read Griffin, the Invisible Man.
Before we got started, Thomas and I had a penetrating and lengthy discussion of motivation and characterization:
“Can you do an English accent?”
“Well — ”
“Greg’s been playing ‘Fearenside’ as an older man with a deep, gruff voice.”
I looked at the script. Oh, what the hell — when in doubt, do “Blind Pew”. “Oi’ve been loadin’ and unloadin’ derries fur thirty yee-ars and — ”
About forty-five minutes after our nominal starting time (i.e. about fifteen minutes earlier than a Mighty Rassilon Art Players rehearsal would have started), we gathered around Thomas’ dining room table, shoved the chips and dip and soft drinks into the center, and began reading. The rest of the cast had done this four or five times before, while I had had the script in my hands for under an hour. Mercifully, Thomas decided on a “cold” read-through for me before Brad Strickland’s boombox started recording.
It was a good script. (Thomas said later that this script was his first audio adaptation of Wells. He has a “Time Machine” script, but that began life as a stage play, produced in Hawaii.) It was surprising how many of the words were Wells’ own, considering that the audio production would run only about 35 minutes. For some reason, I had remembered Wells’ novel as being a short thing, almost a novella. When I dragged out my “Seven Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells” a few days before the rehearsal, I realized where I got that impression: It should have been a novella. In modern hands, that’s what it would have been. Under John W. Campbell’s blue pencil, it would have been a novelette. But Wells had written a leisurely Victorian novel, stuffed with late-19th-century social detail. Any audio script that isn’t to run four hours does well to catch the essentials of the story.
The first run-through went well. I stepped on a few lines, missed a few sound cues. For the second run-through, Brad Strickland set his boombox a-recording — and we got about 25 pages into the 34-page script before anyone noticed that the tape in the cassette wasn’t turning. Oh, my —
Another ten-minute break. I called Lin to let her know I’d be very late, and we went back to it. For being made on a boombox with a tiny condenser microphone, the resulting tape sounded surprisingly good — except me. I’d recognize that nasal, dweeby voice anywhere. Grg! Why did I get into this? Just to seize another chance to make an idiot of myself in front of friends and family?
Home around 11:30. Up at 5:15. *Urg!*
(July 31) There were two more rehearsals — one on Sunday and the last on the following Wednesday, the 15th. (I finally broke down at the last ‘un and asked Daniel Taylor where I knew Bill Jackson from. He confirmed my suspicions: the mundane Bill Jackson is “Sir William Colquitt” in the SCA, [Society for Creative Anachronism] one of the few SCA muckety-mucks I have never heard an ill word spoken of. Bill looked familiar because that was my sole acquaintance with him: seeing him. Generally from a distance of not less than ten feet.)
The last rehearsal was also videotaped. Berl Boykin (who did make the last two rehearsals) had/ has plans for a “Making of ‘The Invisible Man’” documentary of some sort, and brought in a camera crew to tape us all sitting around Thomas’ table.
(Of the four-person crew, three were black. And here I was, in my “Blind Pew” voice, bellowing out the suspicions of “Fearenside”, the late nineteenth century English bumpkin, concerning the bandaged stranger: “He’s bla-a-ack! …He’s a piebald, black here, white there. …He’s some sort of arf-breed, an’ he’s ashimed of hit.”
(Thus do we progress: Now I don’t even need to get up in front of an audience to embarrass myself. I can embarrass myself in someone’s dining room.)
Berl did one thing, though, that made me feel very much more comfortable about my own performance: his accent. Where mine was bad, his was terrible. No offense and no disparagement of Berl’s talents meant, but that accent never got farther east than Nantucket. Thank you, Berl.
Every year, I intend to skip DragonCon. And every year, I seem to end up down there somehow. Last year, I was performing in a Mighty Rassilon Art Players’ production of “Two’s A Crowd” and we had to pay to get Lin in. At least Atlanta Radio Theater Company has a spiffy deal that gets its members’ spouses and significant others in free, too. It was $70 saved, especially as Lin and I would likely have gone to D’Con anyway — friends Ben and T Boyer were barnstorming through between Florida and Texas, alighting briefly in Atlanta, mostly down at the Hilton Towers. Getting into D’Con free is probably the biggest payoff I’ve gotten in my darkly checkered theatrical career.
Lin and I planned on making an evening of it. We hired Claudia, our daytime babysitter’s daughter, to look after the boys. Lin would get her set up over at the house about the time I was getting in a final rehearsal at the Hilton, then come on down, see the show, and we would party-hop or bar-sit afterwards with friends until the wild, ungodly hour of — oh, 10:30. Maybe even 11:00!
Enough persiflage. I gathered with the rest of the ARTC folks outside the ballroom at the Hilton at 6:00 on Saturday night for our setup and run-through, and waited. And waited. And waited…
There was to be a band, “Those Damned Johnstons” I believe, playing in the ballroom later that night and DragonCon had decided to let them set up before ARTC. Well, as bands will, they took forever for their sound checks and tweakery. Some of us tried hanging around inside, but TDJ being a modern band, the noise level soon drove us out again. I believe we got to take the stage about ten minutes before our scheduled start time. So much for mike checks and rehearsal. Oh, well… It’s not as if I needed any familiarization with mikes and procedures or such before my first audio production in my entire life. No. Not at all. I’ll be fine. (*grmf*)
There was considerable discussion between the sound effects man, Thomas, and Daniel “Foley” Taylor about six gunshots that have to be fired in mid-play (plus one more later). Daniel had come up with a seven-shot starter’s pistol — only to be told that if he fired it in the Hilton’s ballroom, Hotel Security would come charging in and shoot him dead. Sound effects had gunshots on CD — but the “cycle time” would be very slow. The method finally settled on was popping balloons inside empty oil drums. It sounded — adequate. (If you think this is bizarre, ask Daniel or Thomas how the sound of the hatch of a Martian space-cylinder was done for Orson Welles’ classic “War of the Worlds.”)
A few minutes after 8:00, we all lined up before the row of mikes on the stage, with the foley and sound- effects tables behind us or to the side. We’d never gotten a chance to do a proper sound check. Thomas and I ended up using the same mike — a bit awkward as Thomas is, of course, six feet nineteen-and-a-half inches tall while I shop for clothes in the “Stylish Dwarf” section of Penney’s.
Thirty-five minutes later, we were done — just like at rehearsal. I thanked everyone in line-of-sight for letting me play with them, then hopped down to look for wife and friends.
“How did it sound?” I asked Lin, and she answered, “Oh, it was just fine-” — in that way that your spouse can say things that make you instantly think of open flies and bits of spinach stuck between your front teeth.
“OK — give.”
Well, basically, while Thomas and I were not — exactly — sharing a dead mike, we were sharing a weak one. Now, Thomas would be audible reading clean limericks on a windy football field during band practice, but I was doing mime. Lin said I could be heard — if you were listening closely. Fortunately, Fearenside’s lines don’t seem to have been exactly crucial to the audiences’ following the continuity of the play. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. Thomas was the Invisible Man —
And I was the Inaudible Man.
One of the really nice things about audio, though, is that there are occasional opportunities for redemption in the editing booth. I got one on “Invisible Man.” The week after DragonCon, the cast and crew got together in the studios of Georgia Public TV to do the really, truly, finally last dangerous version of “IM” — the one that would be broadcast over Peach State Public Radio. (PSPR’s offices are in the basement of GPTV’s building, something I had never had an inkling of. Some wit has pulled one stick-on “L” off the sign on their door, reducing them to “Georgia Pubic Radio”. God knows, it would probably do wonders for their audience share if that were an accurate description.) And budgetary realities being what they are this year GPTV’s TV studios are seeing very little video production, leaving them wide open for underfunded audio/radio groups to use their equipment.
PSPR had sent an observer to the DragonCon production and must have been not entirely appalled by what he saw, as they were making noises about using “IM” and some other Atlanta Radio Theater Company material on their network of ten stations around the state. Of course, their “budgetary realities” may have something to do with that, too. As I recall the numbers, PSPR gets about $500,000 a year — $300,000 of which goes straight to National Public Radio. That leaves $20,000 to run each radio station in their network; not enough to pay for a fulltime janitor for each transmitter unless he provides his own cleaning supplies. PSPR’s interest in high-quality, low-cost, available programming thus becomes as intuitively obvious as those math lemmae in high school were supposed to be.
This recording session for “Invisible Man” was as relaxed as the DragonCon performance was tense (for me, anyway). The GPTV studio was quite bare — a high, gray room with lights and supporting trusswork hovering near the ceiling and a curving back wall that made it seem larger than it really was. Sound effects and foley equipment were again arranged on two tables on the sides of the studio, with a semicircle of microphones on stands at the far end from the glass-fronted control booth.
[Small historical note: This was the very studio from which ARTC did its one and only thirteen-week season of live radio drama broadcasts for the Atlanta market.]
All the mikes worked, this time. The point was also made that these were marvelously directional, so I found myself sighting down the length of the thing whenever I had lines to speak, like staring down the barrel of a shotgun. I was determined to be heard, this time…
The company went through a few warming-up exercises, like practicing getting rid of pages of script without making noises that would show up on the tape. Producer William Brown came on the PA and pronounced mine particularly crisp and clear. (*Flush*)
The first run-through was a “crossed fingers” exercise — you always hope the first take will be perfect, but it seldom is. We got about two-thirds of the way through before everyone’s flubs began coming in. The starter pistol we’d been unable to use at DragonCon turned out to have a small problem with getting off more than three rounds in a row. (So maybe the balloons weren’t so bad after all.) And I had to struggle not to laugh at the spectacle of Thomas and Bill Jackson simulating an entire pub full of people off-mike, just the two of ’em, with much arm-waving and back-slapping.
After wrapping up the first attempt, everyone wandered down to the basement and the GPTV snack area. (Why does food seem to figure so sharply in my memories of radio?) Mr. Brown announced that he’d had to turn my mike input down, which didn’t bother me a bit. After twenty minutes or so, we wandered back to the studio and did it again — one and a half times more, then called it a night. The production crew played back some of the tape over the PA while Daniel packed away his foley equipment. I liked the timber of my “Fearenside” voice better in the first run-through, but what the heck. The material we heard was missing a number of effects and music (chimes), but it was still hard for me to believe this little group of people using relatively modest equipment had produced such a nice-sounding product.
The night was warm and humid when we walked out into the parking lot about 10:00, and a heavy rain descended on us between my leaving the front door and getting to my car.
( September 9: Current plans are for Peach State Public Radio to play “The Invisible Man” on Halloween. Alas, it will not be played on any Atlanta public radio outlet.
(Other ARTC projects in one state or another of preparation include an adaptation of “The Time Machine,” Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” and possibly one or more of Kipling’s SF stories.)
Taking the babysitter home after DragonCon, I tried to answer her question about what we’d been doing that evening. Depressingly, I found that “We were doing a radio drama version of Wells’ ‘The Invisible Man’” would not cut it, as this really very bright twelve-year-old young lady lacked some key concepts. Like “radio drama”. Radio in the last decade of the twentieth century, after all, consists of 1) music, 2) news, or 3) telephone call-in shows. Maybe I’d have done better to describe it as “kind of like a book on tape”.
Ditto “The Invisible Man.” Claudia had never heard of it. Nor of H.G. Wells. *Sigh* Could be there’s something to be said for “Illustrated Classics” comic books after all.