Interview with William Brown

My guest today is William Brown, the founder of the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, an organization (as you know) dear to my heart.

First, tell a little about yourself.

WB: William L. Brown, some 32 years ago, got together a group of friends in both radio and community theater to form The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. Was the group’s Executive Producer and Announcer until 1996. Remain active with the group today and will be back on the Board of Directors for 2016. Have been in broadcast radio since 1977, having worked for WKRW in Cartersville, Ga., WGKA and Georgia Public Broadcasting as well as Supermarket Radio Network in Atlanta, Ga., and did a stint as Fine Arts Radio Director for Valdosta State University. For over 10 years I traveled the State of Georgia recording concerts and recitals for Georgia Public Radio and hosted the program “Peach State Performance Showcase on the 11 station network. I was a founding member and officer for the Pumphouse Players of Cartersville, was a founding member of The Neighborhood Playhouse in Decatur, Ga., and was on the board of the Cartersville Creative Arts Alliance for the year 2008. Today I record and do various independent audio projects.

How did the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company come about?

WB: I had wanted for some time to experiment with radio drama as an acting experience, for I had studied Himan Brown’s CBS Mystery Theater, being quite fond of the acting quality of production (which was limited to what was needed to flesh out the scene). Despite my trying with several theater groups, none were interested, and when I tried to get broadcasters interested in the idea, they all had said, “Oh, that OLD format doesn’t work anymore,” and left it at that.  That made me all the more determined to do it.  By 1983 I had convinced my friend and theater director Patrick Stansbury to try doing a demo tape and using it to find a sponsor and a radio station that was willing to broadcast a series.   He, at the time, was producing The Joe Torre show on WGST.  When we did the demo, after listening to it, Patrick told me we could do it much better.  So we redid the demo, with Patrick paying much more attention to acting and timing.  He took it to WGST and they said they would be willing to broadcast it, and he took it to C&S Bank, who said they would broadcast it.  Meanwhile, I was trying to put together an organization to do it. I would handle production (in my spare bedroom) but felt that we needed a writer to be in charge of the scripts.  My roommate at the time suggested Tom Fuller, who I was aware of because of his reputation in the theater community, so I called him up and briefly told him what I wanted to do.  He was extremely enthusiastic and told me he would come over and bring some samples of his writing.  He brought me over two radio play scripts (which he had done for Joyce Leigh’s company Ariel Productions) and 3 of his stage plays (one of which was All Hallows Moon).   I was astounded at the quality of his writing, and said to him, “I want you to be in charge of producing new scripts for the company.”  We then talked about the structure of the organization and what all we would try to do.  I wanted as much original material as possible, knowing we would not be able to get the rights to classic old time radio shows.  The mistake most people make is trying to do this from old scripts; they would get a show or two in and then find themselves being sued by the owners of copyrights on those shows.  I figured we would use recorded music, although you have to be careful here too or you’ll get sued by the music licensing companies or the musicians union.  Everything got put in place, and in January of 1984 we started on the air.  Within a week of our first broadcast, Henry Howard called me up and said to me, “I’ve got a recording studio, do you guys want to come play?”  Henry was the engineer Patrick had do the Joe Torre show for him, and had done the production for Joyce Leigh (using Tom’s scripts-I said the theater community was small).  So quality wise, my home studio couldn’t compete with Henry’s professional studio, so I handed all the production work over to Henry, so we were off on what would turn out to be a 19 week run.  Then Joe Torre got fired from the Braves because he won the Pennant but lost the World Series, so no more Joe Torre show and WGST abruptly canceled us.  We moved to WABE and reformatted for public radio.  I said I would try not to ramble, but I wanted you to get the full picture of our gestation.

What I wanted when I formed ARTC was to perform radio drama; that was my only goal.  I told I think both Patrick and Tom that I thought we might get a couple of years out of it and it might be fun.  That was 33 years ago. Who would have thought it would be in its 33rd year, with people all over the world as fans?  I didn’t.  But due to the hard work of so many, many people it has become one of the most prolific groups of radio dramatists in the world.  I’ve enjoyed it, and I will be a part of it until my death, when I will meet with Tom Fuller and God to decide how radio drama will be in heaven.  Tom’s death actually brought us closer together, and I think it is fitting that Tony Fuller, who grew up with us, is one of the movers and shakers behind us.  For the period from the accident till Tom’s death some two weeks later, the waiting room of the hospital in Duluth was invaded by the same group of people who invade Bill’s basement every Wednesday.  Some of them never actually left.  That is family.

What helps hold ARTC together in its present age?

WB: It really isn’t one thing that holds it together, but a blend of loyalty from fans, and the extremely hard work of Bill Ritch, David Benedict and Tony Fuller.  Also the fact that we do not rely on broadcasts, but developed a fan base in the sci-fi and horror communities with our live performances and recordings.  It is only quite recently that we have gotten back on the air.  Plus we have gotten into online work, having a website and doing podcasts (which we plan to expand).  And the members of ARTC itself: never have I had to explain to its members the appeal of performing in this medium.  Over the past 32 years we have had an uncounted number of actors, writers and musicians involved, probably about 500.

What, for you, are some particularly memorable moments in ARTC’s history?

WB: More memorable things have happened for me than any one person has a right to. Getting to work early on with some old folks from the golden age of radio (who started coming out of the woodwork when we got on air).  Dennis King Jr. who had been a director on the Lux Radio Theater (hosted by Cecil B. DeMille) and was Sam the bartender on the radio version of Gunsmoke.  I remember sharing my peach cobbler with him while he brought me his peach chutney, and hearing him talk of those he had worked with. Also Zeke Segal, retired southeast chief for CBS news (he had been in charge of the coverage of the Cape Canaveral flights through Apollo 13) indulged his early background for CBS as a writer and director of radio plays with us.  Tom, Henry Howard and I attended several sessions of the Midwest Radio Drama workshop in Columbia Mo., where we met and got to work with David Ossman (of the Firesign Theater), and producers and directors from the BBC.  At one of the sessions we had a telephone conference with the great Norman Corwin, already over 100 and a judge for the Mark Time awards, who told the group that “you must listen to the fine work that Henry Howard and Tom Fuller are doing down in Atlanta.”  I was sitting next to Tom who was both blushing and beaming over this compliment from perhaps the greatest man in radio drama.  A few years earlier both Tom and myself went to a couple of sessions at The University of GA (Tom’s alma mater) with Himan Brown who had produced the CBS Mystery Theater and who was my idol.  With him at both of those sessions was Mercedes McCaimbridge (who I actually learned more from than Hi).  Orson Welles had called her the greatest radio actress, and in our second session, we were doing a recreation of one of his Mystery Theater shows.  During rehearsal we had a problem with the script and Hi said he didn’t know what to do as he couldn’t just call him up as he was dead.  I spoke up and said, “Well, I’ve got MY writer here and he can fix most anything.”  Tom glared at me with his “I could kill you” look, but went off with Hi to work on it.  At this point Mercy leaned over to me and whispered, “You know, he reminds me a lot of Orson.”  I told Tom that night what she had said, and he told me, “Well, my life’s complete now.” I must include some of the things that happened to us at DragonCon.  For the very first DragonCon in 1987 its founder had asked Tom if we might perform something live.  Gerry Page said that he would adapt Lovecraft’s “Call of C’thulu” if we would perform it.  We had never done a live performance before, so we rehearsed it at Tom’s house and performed it for an audience of about 1000 with some recorded music and a few foley effects.  The audience was totally silent, and I began to think we were boring them, but after we finished there was an ovation which lasted about 10 minutes.  Never had I experienced that kind of reception from such a large audience.  When I directed a production of Tom’s “the Passion of Frankenstein” we were introduced by Anthony Daniels (CP3O from Star Wars), and one of our shows there was introduced by Ray Bradbury, and featured Harlan Ellison, who had been one of his proteges.  We had Harlan also in one of our Lovecraft pieces, The Rats in the Walls (which was for many years our best seller).  Also Jonathan Harris of Lost in Space (in a Rory Rammer)* and John Rhys Davies (Guards! Guards!). These are just a few of the things I remember. If you have a spare couple of weeks, I can tell you much more.

What’s your favorite thing about working with ARTC?

WB: I have always liked the sense of family that the group as a whole has had.  When our first show was broadcast on the last Monday night of January, 1984, I had the cast of the show over to my house to listen to it.  I made some party food and most of the others brought a dish or two and we listened to the show, and everyone left feeling good.  The next Monday night, people from that cast as well as many from the first, just showed up with food unprompted.  It was like that through the rest of the WGST run.  Plus Tony Fuller was born a few months later, so he has grown up with us.  Many of the people in the first few shows I had done theater with around Atlanta, but all became my family in this.

What’s your favorite thing about radio theater in general?

WB: Radio drama is, for me, the ultimate expression of the theater arts.  I love the fact that the spoken word, combined with judicious use of music and sound effects can create in the mind of a listener a full picture, an experience  will be different from every other listener.  A child once told a radio actor that “the pictures are better on the radio.”  People used to gather around an old radio and stare at the speakers, which I found to be true when our first cast gathered to hear our first show.

*(Rory Rammer: Space Marshal is an ongoing original ARTC series, an homage to 1950s sci-fi action/adventure serials, written primarily by eminent ARTC writer Ron N. Butler.)

What’s Making Me Happy: January 2016

The month of January has one bright spot, when my husband and I, along with our family and friends, celebrate his birthday. Beyond that, it is without question the dreariest month in the calendar year. The color of Christmas comes tumbling down, leaving only brown grass and bare trees in its wake. The cold weather descends without pity even on north Georgia, where I live. (I stay rooted in Georgia, not out of any special “Southern pride” even though I do love that Atlanta is one of the country’s most geek-friendly cities, but out of my deep loathing for the cold.) It takes forever for the sun to come up and no time at all for it to set. All in all, I often catch myself wishing I could fast forward through all the bits of January that don’t involve my husband’s birthday.

It behooves me, therefore, to make a special effort to find the positive, and now’s the time to start a new blog series to follow up my end-of-2015 post. Here are a few things that are making me happy in this frigid January of 2016:

1. Audiobooks.

To get to Life University, where I teach Composition and Literature and sometimes Public Speaking, I have to travel from my home in Gainesville down to Marietta, GA, an often (no, usually) sticky commute. I always take my iPod, but I find I can’t enjoy music when I’m crawling in traffic at a pace that would embarrass a snail. Until recent days my habit had been to turn to the news when traffic got slow, but the Presidential campaign has made listening to the news an altogether too depressing experience. So sometime last year I theorized that I could make my commute more bearable by listening to audiobooks — particularly audio versions of print books I’ve already read and loved. As Christmas drew near, I made out my Amazon.com wish list accordingly.

My husband, who makes me smile in countless ways, gave me the Audio CD version of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, one of my favorite reads of 2014 but so huge (well over a thousand pages) that the prospect of re-reading it from cover to cover is a bit daunting. I’ve been listening to it, and it turns out I was absolutely right: listening to a well-told story does indeed make a traffic crush more bearable, and it even brightens my morning coffee and Internet-surfing on my days off. It would seem I’ve never outgrown my childhood pleasure at being read to, even when I could read the books for myself. Next up is the Audio CD of Mercedes Lackey’s The Wizard of London, a gift from my father-in-law.

Thanks to Amazon.com gift cards, I’ve been growing my audiobook collection. I’ve added Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch (a book I haven’t read yet) and Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, the even-better sequel to The Way of Kings. I learned a few days ago that a series I adore, Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters Trilogy — Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows, and Child of the Prophecy — is due for a big Audio CD release this coming May. I can already guess one thing that will be making me happy in June 2016.

2. Django Wexler’s The Price of Valor.

Few things make a fantasy reader happier than a series that just keeps getting better. I liked the first book in Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series, The Thousand Names. I liked the second book, The Shadow Throne, even more. I’m over halfway through Book Three, The Price of Valor, and I like it best of all. This is the very book a Goodreads reviewer criticized for having “too many female characters,” and I can see what he meant; thus far, every chapter has been marked by the significant presence of at least one female character. But a flaw in one reader’s eyes is a virtue in another’s, and I love the heck out of it. The first book revolved around military action, and the second around political machinations and competing philosophies. In this third book, we get both, as Winter, the heroine, takes the lead on the battlefield while Marcus, the hero, deals with the politics and investigates an attempt on the life of his Queen. The best part: the series has two more books to come!

3. C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner.

This is the most “literary” of the books I’m currently reading, as Cherryh is one of the most highly regarded science fiction writers living and working today. One of her great strengths is her facility with creating detailed and believable alien societies and complex and intriguing nonhuman characters. In this one we get to know Bren Cameron, an ambassador and representative of humanity surrounded by atevi, black-skinned aliens who dwarf him in size and bewilder him in spirit. The book makes an interesting contrast piece to Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur, in which the point-of-view character is Pyanfar, a female commander of the lion-like Hani race who must learn to communicate with the “alien” — a human male — who has stowed away aboard her ship. Both stories deal with the problems encountered in any attempt to reach across barriers of language, culture, and appearance, yet there’s a heartening optimism at their core that I find very winning.

4. The return of iZombie.

Rob Thomas’s iZombie is my second favorite among the TV shows that premiered last year, with its appealing trio of good guys, clairvoyant zombie Liv (a female Other protagonist — nearly always a plus for me), medical examiner Ravi, and detective Clive. While Liv does have a romantic relationship, for me her solid friendships with Ravi and Clive, all-too-rare examples of male/female friendships with no sexual tension, are much more interesting. (One distinct flaw in the show is that Peyton, Liv’s only female friend, shows up far too rarely.) In the return episode, Liv helps Clive investigate the death of an actor on a show called “Zombie High.” One of the extras, in zombie make-up, says he’d like to see “a show about zombies where a zombie’s the star.” Clive’s response: “Sounds boring.” Bits like that — along with lines like Ravi’s brilliantly delivered, “Yes, Olivia, there is a Santa Claus brain” — are a big part of why I enjoy this show.

5. The return of Agent Carter.

This is my absolute favorite of the TV shows that premiered last year. I mean to devote an entire post to this one, once I’m further into the season, but for now I’ll say that Peggy Carter is the kind of heroine I wish with all my soul had been kicking butt and pursuing justice (and looking gorgeous while doing it) when I was a teenager in search of a TV role model. I’m still not too old to look up to Peggy. I’ll share this quote from a Tor.com recap:

Peggy is life, Peggy is world, Peggy is ALL. Peggy Peggy Peggy.

6. The return of Downton Abbey.

This show will also get its own post. For now I’ll give an example of what I feel is its greatest virtue. When I watched Season 1, Lady Edith Crawley, the wallflower “middle sister,” was my least favorite character, a sniveling whiner looking for every opportunity to stab her gorgeous elder sister in the back (not that Lady Mary didn’t deserve it, in her way). Now, as I watch Season 6, Lady Edith is my favorite character, the one with whom I most identify and for whom I am rooting the hardest. Her journey from character I loathe to character I love has been hard-won, complex, and believable.

A New Adventure is Imminent

I have recently finished what I expect will be the final round of edits for my second novel, The Nightmare Lullaby. Like Atterwald, this one features a musical instrument with arcane powers, a garden, and a heroine who is often mistrusted through no fault of her own. Yet my husband, an honest and trustworthy critic, has proclaimed that this new book is even better than Atterwald, as every new novel should surpass, at least a little, the one that came before it.

Here is the description I have composed for the back of the book:

“A dark spell is winding its way through the sleep of the people of Crainante. An evil spirit takes flight and screams of all the sorrows in the world, turning dreams into the most horrifying of nightmares. If it soars unchecked, it will drive everyone mad. Yet a magnificent carillon sits on a hillside overlooking the town and pours music like a healing balm upon the people.
At the center of this tug of war stands Meliroc, geas-bound servant of Crainante’s sorcerer Cedelair. A woman eight feet tall, with bone-white skin and hair, she is a question mark, even to herself. When she discovers that the carillon-player is a lonely specter imprisoned by his instrument, she resolves to find the songs that will set him free: one of joy, one of sorrow, and one of love. Yet his freedom comes at another, far higher price, which Meliroc is bound to pay. Meanwhile, Cedelair searches for the driving force behind the nightmares plaguing his town – and all signs point to Meliroc.
The darkness has cursed her. The light will deceive her. Can she save herself from both?”

Expect to hear more about this one in the weeks and months to come.

Things I’d Like to See More of in Fantasy Fiction, Part 5

More “Gender Is No Object” books.

Back in 2015 I wrote a series on my “Unfavorite Tropes,” as detailed and cataloged by the dangerously time-devouring website TV Tropes.org. (Click that link at your own risk!) The flip side of that would, of course, be those tropes that gladden my heart as long as they’re employed with skill and good sense. One of these is “Gender Is No Object,” or, as it might also be termed, “Gender Is No Problem” — stories in which characters are not burdened by highly restrictive notions of “masculine” or “feminine.” The goal of such stories is not to eliminate conflict but to generate more original and unexpected obstacles, to give their characters, both men and women, different battles to fight.

We don’t see nearly enough of these kinds of stories.

When I consider where I’ve seen this trope employed over the last year or so, I can easily come up with examples from science fiction. In Sarah Zettel’s splendid Fool’s War, the commander of the ship where most of the action takes place is a Muslim woman named Katmer Al-Shei. While her religion occasionally poses a minor problem (which she overcomes), no one ever questions her authority or fitness to lead because of her gender. The female pilot, Yerusha, comes under suspicion, but due to her association with a group that has some radical notions about the nature of A.I.’s, not due to her gender. In Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald’s The Price of the Stars, the central heroine disguises herself as a man solely because she’s on the run and the gender-switch decreases her chance of being recognized; women are accepted in her society as pilots, fighters, politicians, you name it. Joel Shepherd’s Crossover, the first in his “Cassandra Kresnov” series, also presents us with men and women together occupying every role in society significant to the story; the fact that the President is a woman is not shown to be unusual in any way. In books like these we see women in primary, secondary, and tertiary roles, with equal numbers of men and women filling in the background.

I find books like this a pleasure to read, because they show male and female characters interacting as colleagues, allies, and friends as well as love interests. They show male and female characters free to follow their own individual inclinations, even if those inclinations don’t always work out. Yet the characters still face compelling problems. Katmer Al-Shei and her crew, both men and women, must deal with a sabotaged ship and hostile A.I.’s. Beka from The Price of the Stars is hunting down the assassin who murdered her mother, a major political leader. Cassandra, heroine of Crossover, is fighting for her free will against her programming as an android assassin. Stories like this offer abundant proof that a character’s gender need not be an obstacle in order for her (or his) story to be interesting.

You would think it did, if you had only the epic fantasy genre by which to judge. It shouldn’t be surprising that we find far more “Gender Is No Object” novels in science fiction than in fantasy. Science fiction looks ahead to the future, to show us where and what we might be, but fantasy draws on the mythic past for its material, and so many fantasy authors, male and female, give in to the temptation to inculcate medieval- or Renaissance-era gender ideas when building their fantasy societies from scratch.

Within the past couple of decades we’ve seen a satisfying upsurge in the number of important female characters in epic fantasy novels. Without question we could do better, but we’re still miles ahead of where we were in the ’70s and ’80s. Yet at times these heroines’ journeys can start to feel very same-ish, as the gender-as-obstacle trope repeats itself: she can’t join the army/navy/etc. because she’s a woman. She can’t or shouldn’t inherit the throne (or wield any form of authority) because she’s a woman. She can’t learn or practice magic because she’s a woman. She can’t become a doctor/lawyer/professor/banker/insert-desired-profession-here because she’s a woman. I know that such stories still need to be told, because even today we still have gender biases to overcome. But speaking as one who would rather read a good epic or historical fantasy novel than any other kind of book, I find the non-stop repetition of such conflicts overwhelming, if not depressing, after a time. I think how wonderful it is to read the occasional book in which no one bats an eye when a princess inherits the throne (e.g. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina) and the sight of a woman in knightly armor is more typical than surprising.

Toward the end of 2014 I started to read Michelle West’s The Broken Crown, a sumptuous epic fantasy involving a struggle between two realms, the Empire and the Dominion. The huge book’s first half takes place in the Dominion, where gender restrictions are so oppressive, and women regarded as so inferior to men, that any genuine love between a man and a woman is an impossibility; even a man’s love for his daughter is regarded as a weakness because it makes her “too important.” I found myself feeling stifled, almost suffocated, as I read about this world. When the setting shifted to the Empire, I heaved a deep sigh of relief, for the Empire, while not completely a “Gender Is No Object” society, imposed far fewer gender-based rules on the characters and allowed both men and women to occupy a much wider range of social roles. I couldn’t get over how much lighter I felt, and how much easier it was for me to breeze through those chapters.

What would I like to see in fantasy fiction? More Empires, fewer Dominions.