The Golden Age of radio is long gone. Today, the once-innovative medium is generally talked about in past tense, and tinged with sepia-toned nostalgia.
But there’s something timeless about the way Orson Welles’ delivery of “The War of the Worlds” ignited fear in an entire nation, or the way Edward R. Murrow’s resonant voice made listeners feel as if they were on the front lines of faraway battlefields. It’s the way aural storytelling triggers the imagination — the use of rhythm, tone and sound effects to communicate emotion and images — that a captivating new radio theater program at the Lighthouse Guild’s Heilbrunn School for the blind and visually impaired is capitalizing on.
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For the school’s approximately 53 students, “there’s a visual culture they can’t always participate in,” explains Sarah Valeri, who runs the program as the Heilbrunn School’s art therapist. Radio was a natural medium for the students to explore, says Valeri, because visually imparied students are often dependent on a sighted person to explain images to them, rather than creating or experiencing a story firsthand.
“[Having stories told second hand] is sometimes important, but it always puts the child in a separate and passive position, underlining that they don’t 'get' what everyone else understands,” says Valeri. “In radio theater, our staff and students primarily focus on the sound, the tone of voice, timing, and volume. In return, we can all laugh together, and no one is waiting to find out why.”
The radio theater program is divided into two groups, ages 8-12 and 14-21. Students are familiarized with microphones, sound effect devices and radio equipment often used in the bygone days of radio’s Golden Age, such as wind machines. There’s an old-timey radio feel to many of the student’s skits, but the focus is on interaction, not presentation — as well as teaching students empathy and social awareness through sound.
For some students, putting together more complex narrative skits based on their experiences is the positive challenge. In such a visually-oriented culture, says Valeri, visually impaired young adults can easily feel isolated; creating an aural story allows them to take control of their narratives in a direct and sometimes pointed way.
“For one of the student’s skits, he directed all of us to imitate the sounds of the ocean and various cell phone games. The student himself played a young child who was asking people to put down their phones and play with him. This was a poignant message because due to his vision impairment, he can’t take part in visually based games,” says Valeri.
Art therapy in various forms has been used to bolster communication and increase emotional awareness and confidence among students with disabilities. Valeri compares radio theater to the act of feeling a sculpture; it engages different senses and alllows students to have a more visceral storytelling experience.
“Social isolation is a big deal, and we find ways to help them connect with each other,” she says.
One of the biggest surprises to come out of the radio theater program, says Valeri, was the way that just a little structure and guidance allowed the students to support one another in their storytelling.
Says Valeri, “I find repeatedly that when the kids know that we are listening and attending to what they experience, they value their own experience more. They feel a sense of empowerment and share that same sense of value with others.”
And there's nothing old-fashioned about that at all.