Sunday, November 18, 2012

An Interview with Script Writer and Voice Actor Ron N. Butler

Ron N. Butler
TE:      Welcome to Up Around the Corner, Ron. Please, tell us a little about yourself and your writing and voice work.

RNB:   Hmmm... Am I a voice actor? Actual actors would probably disagree. I’m directing an audio adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” at present, but I don’t tell people I’m a director. (I find directing a chore, for one thing.) Most of my writing output is scripts for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company and I also pitch in to perform with them as needed, so – No, I wouldn’t call myself an actor.

            But I do write. And, as I said, most of my writing is for ARTC. I’ve been working with the Company since about 1990, so the scripts have sort of – accumulated.

            I do an original audio series, “Rory Rammer, Space Marshal.” It’s an homage-cum-pastiche of the boys’ radio / TV science-fiction serials of the late Forties and early Fifties, like “Space Patrol,” “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” and “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.” But with a twist: They’re humorous. (Intended to be humorous, anyway.) There are about two dozen of those now and the Company has published a CD with five episodes, “Rory Rammer, Space Marshal.” [Advertisement]

            The Company does a good business in audio adaptations of the works of H.P. Lovecraft and I’ve written two such scripts: “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” Lovecraft isn’t easy to adapt. His writing style was archaic even in the Twenties, he was getting paid by the word (when he was getting paid at all), and there’s very little dialogue. (Not that I’m going to complain. I did a little re-editing work on Thomas Fuller’s adaptation of “The Dunwich Horror” for a series of shows the Company will be doing in October. That particular story does have dialogue. It’s eye-watering.) I’m actually kinda proud “Colour” and “Call” came out as well as they did. A community theater in Athens, GA used my “Call” adaptation as the basis for a stage production.

            I’m currently working on an adaptation of the late H. Beam Piper’s “Lone Star Planet” for the Sound of Liberty Project and should have it done by the end of the year. And I was approached after this last DragonCon about doing an original adaptation of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds.” I found a fresh approach for that and will start working on it after I finish a first draft of “Lone Star.”

            As I said, I mostly do scripts. I find them easy; I just write down what the voices in my head are saying. But I do write prose. I started writing with two short-story sales way back in the Eighties and hope to do more in the future. And better, too. A few short-story adaptations of “Rory Rammer” stories have been published in the on-line mag “Planetary Stories,” and I’m stuck about halfway through one ep titled “Luna Shall Be Dry!”

TE:      When you write do you have an audience in mind? If so, who do you see as your audience?

RNB:   When I'm writing audio scripts, I certainly do have a specific audience in mind: Whoever will be sitting in those chairs in front of the stage.

            Sorry. Not trying to be a smartass. Short explanation: When the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company began -- 1985 -- it was really On The Radio: A thirteen-week series of one-hour programs on WGST in Atlanta, funded by a grant from the Citizens and Southern Bank. But that was one of the last gasps of on-air radio theater in the United States. Radio programming nowadays is what they call "seamless," meaning anyone switching on his or her radio, when he comes into the kitchen or starts up her car, can follow what's going on without any preamble. Music. Sports. Consumer advice. Politics. Radio theater isn't like that so it has gone away. (No. National Public Radio doesn't do it, either.)

            Luckily, other technologies have come along that can kinda-sorta take the place of radio broadcasting. Cassette tapes, to start with, bridging into CDs and now into podcasts and MP3 downloads. ARTC can make juuuust about enough in sales to keep going.

            And it turns out that watching people put on a "radio" show can be pretty entertaining, too. Nominally, it's just people standing in front of microphones reading from scripts, but throw in music [live music when we can get it] and the antics at the foley table and you can hold an audience's attention, especially with good acting and a good script. So we do live shows.

            Sorry. That wasn't a "short explanation."

            So my audience is often a literal audience. And, yes, that affects how I write.

            We do shows at a lot of science fiction conventions, which works out because the Company tends toward science fiction, fantasy and horror. I can expect that the audience will be familiar with the tropes of those genres. If I say "alien," I don't have to explain that I'm not talking about a Guatemalan with an expired visa. A lot of science-fictional concepts have found their way into general popular culture over the last fifty years, but still there are limits.

            For instance: Every year, about six weeks before our annual big show at DragonCon in Atlanta, we do a show at a smaller SF convention up in Chattanooga called LibertyCon. Often, we use the LibertyCon show to try out new scripts we'll be doing at DragonCon. But we have to watch it: The LibertyCon crowd is older, more print-oriented and more conservative than a DragonCon audience. (Baen Books has a heavy presence for their military SF at LibertyCon.)

            A coupla years back, I did an adaptation of H. Beam Piper's "He Walked Around the Horses." (It's one of the earliest alternate-history stories. A Napoleonic-era British diplomat is whisked into an alternate reality where the American Revolution failed, the French Revolution never happened, and no one has ever heard of any "Emperor Napoleon." It's an epistolary story, consisting of letters and reports, and I thought it would be an easy, fast adaptation. Hoo boy, was I wrong!) Piper worked in a joke at the end: The British Prime Minister, Sir Arthur Wellesley, cannot figure out who one person referred to often in the diplomat's papers is: The Duke of Wellington.

            The night of the first performance at LibertyCon, I told our producer that, after the script was done, he should offer a free CD to anyone in the audience who could explain the joke and I would pay for the CD. In the event, half the audience not only got the joke, they laughed at it so we never made the offer.

            At DragonCon, we would have had to make the offer. In the end, we decided not to do the script at DragonCon at all, specifically because it would not have engaged the typical audience there and a good fraction of them would not have the history background to make any sense of it.

            If we do a Steampunk-themed convention, we try to have scripts that are at least somewhat related to that theme. (Wells and Verne adaptations are "grandfathered" in.) We did a show at an academic conference on myth and mythology a few years back, and I wrote a script called "Plato's Cave," a talk show in which a Jerry Springer-type host interviews mythical creatures and archetypes. (It almost didn't get produced because of worries about "political content": I had a bit about the Nazi Aryan Superman and the New Communist Man sharing an apartment.)

            We do three or four shows a year at the Academy Theatre in Avondale Estates. That audience is a little more "mainstream," so those shows tend more toward horror, less toward science fiction. (Everybody has seen "Friday the Thirteenth," not everyone has seen "2001: A Space Odyssey.") We also do a Christmas show, "An Atlanta Christmas," based on a stage play originally written by Thomas E. Fuller, our head writer for many years. That's strictly mainstream. There are a lot of children's parts in the script and we expect children and families in the audience.

            So we watch our language. Actually, I try to watch my language all the time. A lot of that is the influence of Thomas E. Fuller. (See above.) Thomas was a terrifically talented writer at any form he turned his hand to -- plays, poetry, stories, radio. In his radio work, he was aware that anyone might hear his words broadcast. Really, he was so good that he didn't have to resort to "adult" (bad) language to make a point. About the worst he would use were "hell," "damn," and "bastard." And he used those sparingly so they had force, instead of becoming background noise. (He wrote a horror piece set at a phone-sex service and the most salacious word in the script is "bottom." But it's a genuinely horrifying -- and very funny! -- piece.)

            I don't think I self-censor, except in the sense that there are just some things I don't want to write about. I've had occasional quasi-political objections raised against scripts of mine, and an actor once protested so vehemently that a Halloween script (concerning the punishment of an SS officer in Hell) was "too horrible" that it got put on the shelf for a year. My "Rory Rammer" scripts are based on children's programs, but they're not intended for children. There are oblique references in "RR" scripts to same-sex marriage, human-robot sex, and "leather" bars, but they're sufficiently oblique that I believe they would go over a youngster's head.
            Yeah, I have an audience in mind when I write. I know a lot
            of them by name.

TE:      Do you write your scripts with certain members of ARTC in mind when devising the characters and dialogue? How are people selected, assigned, volunteered for a part in a script’s production?

 RNB:   For a continuing series (that would be mostly "Rory Rammer, Space Marshal," but also "Unresolved Mysteries: Solved While U Wait!" and a coupla episodes I wrote for Daniel Taylor's series "Bumper's Crossroads"), there is generally one of our regular ensemble of actors who has a lease on (I won't say "owns") a role. There have been three or four Rory Rammers, but David Benedict has read the role for at least the last five years. And a bit of David's personality has crept into "Rory."

            I've had less continuity-luck with Rory's genius-but-naïve sidekick, "Skip" Sagan. I had one very fine actor (Jack Mayfield) in that role for about four years, and Skip grew considerably over the course of the scripts from that period, maturing and also becoming a bit like Jack. Alas, Jack's participation in ARTC has dropped off and we're back to "revolving Skips." In the end, with ARTC the director makes casting decisions. Some directors' decisions have set my teeth on edge. But that's life in a collaborative art form.

            For adaptations and original, non-series pieces, characters are driven by the plot requirements, for me. Yeah, it's not rare that I'll read back over what I've written and think, "Hal could do this really well," or "Clair can do what I want here in her sleep," but the available actors don't drive the script. If nothing else, ARTC scripts are frequently produced multiple times, often years apart. And that means substantially no overlap in casting. Better to let the characters be whatever they need to be and let the actors scramble to keep up. Don't actors always say they love an artistic challenge? Luckily, it's not hard to find actors in Atlanta. (Now, good actors...!)

            Part Two: How Does One Become a Member of the Glittering Constellation of Stars That Is the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company?

            Answer: Show up at Bill Ritch's basement on a Wednesday evening. Seriously. We have some contacts with the larger Atlanta artistic community, but mostly we're approached after a performance -- at a convention or at the Academy Theatre -- by people asking how they can get in on this. Most of them are actors, but we're also happy to recruit folks who want to do tech or music or write or just fetch-and-carry stuff. (Oh! And audio editors. We desperately and chronically need audio editors. If you are an audio editor and can edit together one or more of our considerable backlog of studio-recorded production voicetracks, we will worship you as a mythic hero. We might even find a way to pay you for it. We are that desperate.)

            If you are not too obviously a fan-boy, Bill Ritch (President) or David Benedict (VP-Production) will give you directions over to Bill's place in Stone Mountain. Show up at 7:30 and come downstairs. You'll be asked to introduce yourself and tell us what you're interested in doing. Then sit down and soak it in. Our production cycle is usually five or six weeks long, so odds are pretty good that we'll be starting a new production within a few weeks. If you're standing around during read-throughs, you will likely be given a small part to read, just so we can see what you've got. If you've got some talent and presence (and cold-read well), you may hold onto the role. If you're actually, like -- good, you may get assigned to a larger part.

            Caveat: ARTC is an all-volunteer organization. (With a very few exceptions which I will not go into, just for reasons of space and complexity.) As Thomas E. Fuller used to say: "We are reviving a dead art form. It's taking longer than we thought." And: "There is Adventure in Sound! (But Damn Little Money.)" Or: "A 501c3 non-profit corporation. (Not by intent.)" We do not pay actors, mostly because we have no money. Radio theatre is a lot of fun and it will fill space on your resume, but you can't make a living at it. Heck, you can't make pizza money at this! We are even below the minimum size required to get grants organizations to look at us.
David Benedict, Kat Nowack, Ronald Zukowski, Hal Wiedeman, Daniel Kiernan

            We are non-union by necessity. This means that the local actors' unions discourage any of their members from appearing with ARTC. Over the years, we have lost some fine, fine actors due to union obligations. (Every year, the local SAG and AFTRA do some radio theatre themselves: A one-night restaging of old-time radio shows from the Thirties and Forties at a local playhouse to benefit the Atlanta Food Bank. A big deal is always made of the way the SAG/AFTRA actors are donating their time and talent. Every year, all their technical support is provided by ARTC members and folks who used to be with ARTC. All non-union and never acknowledged as such. This always tickles me.)

            [Later: While Ron and I were putting this interview together, the 2012 “Lend Me an Ear” show came and went and Ron says: “Wonder of wonders! – the non-union tech crew were recognized at the show this year!”]

            If you are a writer: Bring a script. A short one, not the 300-pager that would have to be produced as a mini-series. It should be an audio script, not your Major Motion Picture screenplay. If you don't know the difference, come and watch a while. Ask for an old ARTC script so you can see what our (limpidly flexible) formatting looks like. We often read (short) script submissions before getting started on rehearsals. You will be able to be critiqued by a substantial fraction of the people in the United States today who are actually writing radio scripts. (And everybody else in the room.) We know how to be firm and fair without being mean. If you find this too much to bear, you may need to find another venue. But we are not looking to run new people off; a dying art form needs new blood continuously. And the current leadership all remember when we were newbies and the Founders were good enough to take us all in.
TE:      Cool opportunity for anyone in the Atlanta area. Now, here’s a change-up: Are there any two science fiction / fantasy authors, living or dead, you wish you could ask about their work, their life, whatever?

RNB:   No.

TE:      Well, that was brief. ;)

RNB:   -- mainly because I’m not comfortable talking about writing with anyone. I get intimidated very easily, because I’m doing this mostly by the seat of my pants. I can’t discuss writing theory at all. I’ve never taken a creative writing course or participated in a week-long workshop in some rustic setting. My grasp of grammar is a little weak. I don’t know much about formal story structure. As far as Great Literature goes, I am an unlettered engineer. What I mostly try to do is to tell stories. Funny stories, a lot of the time. The sort of stories that I like to read, stories I wish I had run across as a youngster. Stories where things happen and people do things. Good people and bad people, but always people who have interesting things going on around them and interesting thoughts in their heads. That latter matters: Larry Niven is a smart guy and a smart writer, and I always feel a little smarter for a few days after reading a Niven story, for having taken a ride in a sharp character’s head.

I’ve been working on adapting some of H. Beam Piper’s stories. I remember reading Piper stories when I was younger -- age twelve and up. They were great “storyteller-type stories,” and they stayed in my memory for decades. But there were only a certain number of them in the science fiction anthologies in the public library in Macon, and when I found science-fiction magazines about age fourteen Piper didn’t seem to be publishing any more.

The reason, of course, being that he had shot himself in 1964.

The standard story about Piper’s suicide, for many years, was that his agent had keeled over from a heart attack so that Piper didn’t know about some sales the man had made and thought he was destitute. And being some sort of right-wing self-sufficiency nut, Piper had subsisted for a while shooting pigeons out of his apartment window and eating them, but then had put sheets over all the furniture, written an apologetic suicide note, and shot himself using one of the guns from his extensive firearms collection.

That’s the story as Fred Pohl tells it, I understand.

It’s a story that practically begs “What If?” (And Piper was one of the earliest practitioners of alternate-history stories.) What if someone down in New York had phoned Piper and let him know he had a check in the mail?

Actually, the story doesn’t make a lot of sense. Piper had some really rare guns in his collection; was he too addled to think of selling or at least pawning one to buy food? And how long do you think his neighbors and the local cops would put up with him pot-shooting pigeons out a window? Pretty soon it starts to smell like a tale carried by someone who didn’t like Piper very much (and Pohl didn’t).

Nonetheless, Piper shot himself. You have to wonder why. His circumstances weren’t great -- getting to be my age, divorced, had recently quit his life-long job as a railroad night-watchman, slender finances -- not anything to drive a man to despair.

I’m going to speculate here (with no malicious intent).

A few years back, I did an audio adaptation of Piper’s first published story, “Time and Time Again,” from 1947. Yes, it’s one of those I read as a kid and it stuck with me, even though I forgot both the title and the author for a while there.

As the story begins, U.S. Army Captain Allan Hartley lies dying of burns and radiation poisoning, a victim of the atomic bomb that destroyed the city of Buffalo, New York in the early days of the Third World War. He drifts into unconsciousness --

-- and wakes, in his thirteen-year-old body in Williamsport, Pennsylvania on a Sunday morning in August of 1945.

As the story goes on, we find that Allan Hartley -- the adult Allan Hartley -- was a bit of a bad-ass:  Army officer. Former investigative reporter. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. Firearms expert. Fluent in Spanish and French with some German and Russian. Holder of lucrative patents on a couple of chemical processes.

It was the “firearms” part that made something go *ping!* in my head. Sometimes stories tell you more about the writer than about what the writer thinks he’s writing about.

That’s my speculation: “Allan Hartley” is the man H. Beam Piper wanted to be, when he grew up. And by 1964, he was all grown up and he wasn’t Allan Hartley. He had a bit of a name in science fiction genre writing, which was not very respectable back then. He was having problems with his writing; he brought in a little-acknowledged collaborator, John J. McGuire, to help with a number of stories. And he was such a private man that I think he could have hardly avoided being lonely.

He seems to have believed in reincarnation, in a non-religious way. Maybe he looked at what he did as saving an unsatisfactory draft to disk so he could try again.

It’s probably really bad manners to ask a suicide’s ghost why he did what he did. And you couldn’t count on getting a straight answer to a personal question out of HPB. Or so I’m told.

            Doesn’t matter. He’s beyond all men’s questions and all
            mortal pains now.

TE:      Anyone else?

RNB:   I don’t have any worthwhile questions to ask any good writers. Well -- I’d like to talk with Thomas Fuller, my old head writer at the Atlanta Radio Theater Company, again, for five minutes. But not to ask any questions. Just to say, “Thanks.”

I’ve wanted to be a writer -- mostly to be a science fiction writer -- since the first time a story made the inside of my skull itch. And I’d done a little bit before Thomas and I ran into each other. But Thomas’s advice and encouragement were like the push your dad gives you when you first successfully ride a bike. That wobbly run-up, a shove -- and then you’re sailing down the street on your own. And you know how from then on.

Thomas was a fine writer, but he was an even better teacher. He loved -- as the folks around the Company still say -- The Words. He could see possibilities in an idea, a character, a phrase that the guy who came up with the idea, the character, the phrase never would. And he was overjoyed to be able to hand that spark back to you, for you to breathe on, to work on. To make it even better. So he could read what you did with it.

Thomas is past all mortal pains now, too. And beyond my thanking him. I hate that.
TE:      Anything else you’d like to add?

RNB:   Nope.

            Oh, where are my manners? Thanks, Terry. This was a lot of fun, and only the second time in my life I’ve been asked to sit for an interview. And that ‘un ended up on the cutting-room floor. You see -- Never mind. I’ve rattled on long enough as is. Some other time.

TE:      Thanks for the interview, Ron. I enjoyed your ‘rattling on’ and I think the readers here will too.
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