Making (air)waves: There's a radio play resurgence happening in Shaker Heights

In the golden days of radio plays, notables like Bette Davis and H.G. Wells kept the nation rapt with attention throughout World War II and beyond—but the medium started to die down once “video killed the radio star” with the dawn of television in the 1950s. Yet COVID-19 has thrown a new plot twist into the mix, with many theater companies embracing the concept of radio plays in the absence of being able to produce live shows.


“A lot of companies, like Shakespeare Theatre Company, are now experimenting with radio plays,” says John Watts of Radio on the Lake Theatre. “When you think about the Internet and TV, it all started with radio—the whole idea of global communications and one person being able to reach millions of other people.”


As the founders of Radio on the Lake Theatre, Watts and his wife Caroline Breder-Watts have long been doing their part to spark the resurgence of radio plays—having collaborated with numerous NPR stations in southern Florida since 2002 and continuing that work after relocating to Shaker Heights in 2017.

And with their new “Inspired By” initiative, they’re introducing the art form to a whole new generation by partnering with Story Forum and "The Shakerite," the student newspaper at Shaker Heights High School, to produce a series of radio plays written and performed by local high school students.


“Most of these kids aren’t familiar with classic radio plays from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, but they listen to a lot of audio—like music and podcasts—so they can appreciate them from that standpoint,” says Caroline Breder-Watts, who works for Ideastream alongside her work at Radio on the Lake. “A lot of these kids were supposed to be in the [production of RENT] that was cancelled last spring at Shaker Heights High School; with no live theater going on, this is one of the few avenues right now to do theatre and express themselves.”


So far, two plays have been released, including “Rockets Red Glare” (a play by Grace Wilkinson about the resignation of former Shaker Heights High School principal Jonathan Kuehnle) and “Tracking Uncertainty” (a play by Mia Compton-Engle examining the effects of COVID-19 on youth in sports). Next month, the series will debut another new play, “This & That” by Kendall Barry, in tandem with Black History Month.


The common thread? All of the plays are based on reported stories that have appeared in "The Shakerite." Participating students were mentored by Los Angeles-based playwright Victoria Jimenez, and the Radio on the Lake Theatre team worked with the students to record the plays outdoors in their backyard and over Zoom. "Because 'The Shakerite' is such a well-established newspaper and a great piece of journalism, it seemed like a really natural fit," says Breder-Watts.

And according to Breder-Watts, they're just getting started.

"We hope to kick this into high gear within a year, as this is a project we envision could be done all over the country with various NPR stations and newspapers," says Breder-Watts. "Our hope is to empower young people to be creative and write new radio plays for a new generation."

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.