The Chattering Class
By Martha Hunter Shephard ′66
Photography by Kevin Barre′
Its whimsical logo speaks volumes—a cartoon figure clad in a 1930s-style tuxedo; its head, a set of giant teeth listening to a smaller, chattering hand-held set. It’s the symbol of Chatterbox Audio Theater, the year-old nonprofit Web-based drama group created by a quartet of Rhodes alumni with a love of theater—and great sense of fun—who take listeners back to the golden days of radio while introducing many more to a whole new world of sound and imagination.
Not just idle chatter
Founded by Bob Arnold ’02, Andrew Sullivan ’01, Dave Mickle ’02 and Kyle Hatley ’03 and staffed by some 80 volunteer cast and crew members mostly from the Rhodes community, Chatterbox presents a variety of classic and original drama recorded live with a host of handmade sound effects. The works range from second-century Roman satirist Apuleius to sci-fi and comic originals by the Chatterbox crew, with Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Jules Verne, Washington Irving, the Brothers Grimm and Charlotte Perkins Gilman in between. Most programs run about 30 minutes. The longer ones are divided into two or three half-hour episodes.
In addition to drama, horror and sci-fi, there’s hilarity to be had. Chatterbox regulars perform sketch comedy under the moniker, Sight Gag. There are such offerings as “Zombie Speed Dating,” “Christopher Walken Does the Vacuuming Up” and the guy who’s followed around all morning by a smart-mouthed Greek chorus.
They’re all free and downloadable at chatterboxtheater.org or through iTunes. However it’s accessed, Chatterbox has received more than 18,000 hits “from every state and continent except Antarctica,” says Arnold.
Arnold is executive director, Hatley artistic director, and Sullivan is technical director. Marketing director Jordan Badgett Barré ’03 and managing director Dave Mickle ’02 complete what Chatterbox calls its “Inner Sanctum,” the title of a radio horror show from the 1940s and ’50s.
The Chatterbox Web site launched in September 2007, a year after Arnold began toying with the concept.
“Chatterbox,” he says, “began with an idea that I had and that Andrew brought to the surface. He told me at the time that Rhodes was discussing the idea of launching Rhodes Radio, an Internet radio station, and how neat it would be to do theater like that. Around that time I was in a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that Kyle directed at Germantown Community Theatre.”
Says Hatley: “Bob was featured in that production, along with many others who would quickly become Chatterbox collaborators. During the run of the play, Bob, Andrew, Dave and I started to consider what we could do, and the more we talked about it, the more excited we became.”
Further fueling the idea was Arnold’s love of old radio shows.
“A friend and I wrote a science fiction radio script when we were in middle school. I think that came from reading comic books, especially ‘The Shadow,’ when I was younger. On long car rides, I’d listen to cassettes of ‘The Shadow’ (which aired from the 1930s till the mid-1950s). You could buy a single cassette in a blister pack for about $4.
“Not long ago I listened to an old episode of ‘Lights Out’ (which aired from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s). The story is about a con man who is also a film projectionist. He goes around showing a horror film in which a monster comes off the screen, and after him. You never hear the monster. You never get any indication that it’s there except for people saying things like, ‘I see the tail!’ or, ‘I see it moving in the background!’ It drove home to me how much you can accomplish through suggestion.”
While many people listen for fun, Chatterbox enjoys a serious audience as well.
“A teacher in Oshkosh, WI, wrote that she is using some of our productions of classics in her 8th-grade literature class, and a girl in Romania says that Chatterbox is helping her learn English. Those are the kinds of e-mails that warm your heart,” says Arnold.
That educational component is never far from the troupe’s collective mind. In fact, members have solicited their former Rhodes professors to join in. David Sick, associate professor of Greek and Roman Studies, recorded a five-minute “special dramaturgical lecture” that accompanies Apuleius’s “Cupid and Psyche,” and Brian Shaffer, professor of English and dean of academic affairs for faculty development, is scheduled to give his take on an adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
What’s more, Chatterbox has taken its educational endeavors from cyberspace to city. Last summer, the group recorded Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “The Queen Bee” by the Brothers Grimm before live audiences at the Memphis Children’s Theatre Festival held at Rhodes’ McCoy Theatre. This past Halloween, the group “told scary stories” on WKNO-FM, Memphis’ NPR affiliate. And throughout the fall, Chatterbox and Germantown Community Theatre conducted five-week workshops at three Memphis-area public high schools, teaching students the art of writing audio drama. A play based on their work, titled “Out of the Box,” will be performed live, and recorded, at Germantown Community Theatre in February.
Spreading the gospel, Hatley is now the assistant artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and an adjunct in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s MFA program, where he teaches a course in, of all things, audio theater. He continues to contribute to Chatterbox by planning, and often writing, productions.
A sound experience
Powering Chatterbox are the creativity of cast and crew and the minds of the listeners. The script, the rise and fall of the actors’ voices, the music and sound effects are the magic ingredients that can transport audiences to faraway lands of make-believe. They’re what kept students in the workshops at East, Houston and Millington Central high schools in their desks long after the bell had rung.
“Early on we established a rule—to record live because patching it together isn’t as much fun,” Arnold says. “Kyle and I recorded the very first show at my house one night, a version of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’ I recorded the narration and spliced it all together later. It was tedious, and I didn’t like doing things separately. That’s why now I like to have actors who can see each other. I love that live performance feeling when you’re in a room with the actors, musicians and sound effects people all together.”
A creaking door, a thunderstorm, hell opening up and swallowing a character—all effects are done “live” and “by hand” as much as possible, according to Arnold.
“Thunderstorms are something we’ve struggled with to get good, realistic sounds,” Sullivan explains. “For Kyle’s horror story, ‘The Dead Girl’ we needed a thunderstorm of biblical proportions. Eric Sefton (’02) found some electronic ones and programmed them into his computer. It had a theatrical cue system—the rain played constantly and you hit a button for thunder whenever you wanted it. For other shows, like Bob’s comedy, ‘Roman à Clef,’ it didn’t matter if the storm sounded scary—it was just a thing that was happening outside. For rain, we turned a snare drum upside down, put some rice in it and slowly swished it around. (If you do that too fast, it sounds like surf.) For some occasional thunder, we used a big sheet of metal we borrowed from Playhouse on the Square, which it had borrowed from Theatre Memphis.”
Sometimes it gets complicated.
Says Arnold: “In our production of Jules Verne’s ‘Master Zacharius’ the ground opens up, hell comes out and swallows one of the characters and then the ground closes back up. We did all of this live in the room with vocals, shaking bricks and moving the sound effects table around. I think we got a pretty incredible effect.”
Arnold acknowledges that in the early Chatterbox shows group members relied on canned effects because they didn’t yet know how to do certain things.
“Every now and then we’ll come across something that is just so difficult that we have to resort to a recorded effect,” he says. “For example, in ‘The Dead Girl,’ we had to do the voice of a demigod. We had already used voice doubling—two people reading the same lines to give it an otherworldly feel. This had to be even scarier, so after we recorded it, we went back and put an echo on it. Then we doubled his voice and played it backward underneath him to give it this strange, unnerving effect.
“Sound effects people are separate performers. We recruit them just like we do actors. No one really had experience doing it before, but they’ve learned how on the fly and have done a great job,” Arnold explains.
His go-to guy is Bill Short ’71, coordinator of public services for Rhodes’ Barret Library and award-winning set, prop and sound effects guru in the Memphis theater community.
“Bill is a wealth of knowledge,” says Arnold. “He did all the sound effects for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when Playhouse on the Square performed it as a radio production. From the beginning, he was the one I went to. If he doesn’t already know where something is, he can find it. We have not stumped him yet.”
Every Chatterbox presentation takes approximately one week to produce. Arnold and Hatley plan the shows some five months out.
“We see what is available—scripts and adaptations, directors, actors,” says Arnold. Technical director Sullivan “does a lot of the in-the-trenches work—recording, editing, making everything sound good.”
Chatterbox records its productions everywhere—“rehearsal halls, green rooms and other miscellaneous spaces, usually generously lent to us by area theaters, including McCoy. We’re a nomadic troupe right now. We don’t have our own official space yet—for now, we just squat,” Arnold laughs.
Squat or not, the troupe is racking up honors as well as fans everywhere. Chatterbox won a silver Ogle Award from the American Society for Science Fiction Audio for its production of Hatley’s “The Dead Girl.” Another Hatley original, “Six,” was voted one of the 10 best pieces in the 2008 Kansas City Fringe Festival, and Arnold’s script, “River City,” received honorable mention in a National Audio Theatre Festivals Inc. competition.
Competition is out there—there are audio theater groups from Maine to California as well as in Europe. It’s friendly, though. The Radio Drama Revival podcast in Portland, ME, has posted some Chatterbox productions, and Hatley’s class at UMKC has recorded a show soon to be posted on the Chatterbox Web site.
“So you see,” laughs Arnold, “we’re franchising.”
Speaking of the future
Chatterbox likes the Internet.
“Doing it on the Internet rather than radio allows more people to listen, to be engaged. Also, there are no FCC regulations. It frees us up creatively,” Arnold explains. “We’d love for more people all over the world to listen and be involved, to bring audio theater back into the mainstream.” He says he envisions Chatterbox becoming an official nonprofit, having its own permanent space and functioning as an active community theater—make that a global community theater.
Bob Arnold ’02
Arnold, who is employed as grants manager by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, majored in English at Rhodes and acted in one play a year at McCoy Theatre. He was also a founding member of the popular Contents Under Pressure (CUP), the student improv/sketch comedy group.
“We did our first CUP show in the Lair with an audience of 30 people. By my senior year we had to turn them away from McCoy. It was one of most satisfying projects I worked on in my Rhodes career. There were no rules—it was self-creating. We got it together because we wanted to. We put in all this work because we wanted to do something good and fun that people would enjoy.”
Kyle Hatley ’03
A Theatre major with solid credits as assistant director and script supervisor for About Face Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre and Chicago Children’s Theatre in addition to McCoy and the major Memphis theaters, Hatley last spring accepted the post of assistant artistic director at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. He also works with the MFA program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“So much of what we do at Chatterbox is pulling material from all over the globe and sharing it back with the world. My distance is actually a benefit. It creates a satellite of sorts for us, making Chatterbox present and possible in another city. Here, I’m able to work with Bob and the team on season and strategic planning. The more we spread the word from city to city, the better.
“I call Bob at least once or twice a week. E-mail is a must for thoughts, ideas, plans, questions. I attend monthly Inner Sanctum meetings via the Internet using the video camera on my laptop.”
Andrew Sullivan ’01
A double major in English and Theatre, Sullivan works as a media design specialist for Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center.
“I got on the MP3 bandwagon about three years ago; there were half a dozen podcasts I’d download every week. They were mostly like talk radio. Then I listened to the BBC radio production of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ the 1970s science fiction comedy series, and started thinking about the distribution system of the Internet and why wasn’t anybody taking advantage of this new, free access radio format to do other sorts of programming, specifically, audio theater?
“My interest is in doing it. If 10 people listen to it, fine. Let’s just have some fun.”
Jordan Badgett Barré ’03
Barré, vice president, regional sales and marketing manager at SunTrust Bank in Memphis, was an English major at Rhodes.
“For the last year and a half or so I have sent out press releases, worked with WKNO and other groups to gain local media exposure, coordinated events (with a lot of help) and managed our online social media presence,” she says.
“I became interested in Chatterbox because Bob and I were working together at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art at the time. He approached me with the idea and asked for some marketing advice. The conversation evolved from there and before I knew it, he had used his persuasive skills and I was marketing director.”
Dave Mickle ’02
International Studies major Mickle works as director of client services at Memphis’ Zoomedia Inc., an Internet communications agency for the life sciences.
“My educational background is in international relations—I was living in Ireland on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship when Bob pitched the Chatterbox idea to me. My work background is filled with Web site development, and the challenge of taking this audio theater and giving it a visual, interactive element was a very engaging project for me.
“I’m the non-artist in an artistic group. I never thought I’d be doing this, but International Studies is all about communication, and while at Rhodes I knew my colleagues and I had an entrepreneurial spirit. Put those together with the artists’ passion for theater, and you’ve got Chatterbox.”
The Rhodes Chatterbox CrewEden Badgett ’07
Tom Badgett, Jordan’s and Eden’s Dad
Kevin Barré, Jordan’s spouse
Rebecca Bates ’09
Kevin Collier ’91
Miriam Garrett Dolin ’04
Jason Hansen ’08
Ralph Hatley, Kyle’s Dad
Amy Noelle Haygood ’06
Brad & Sally Jones Heinz ’81
Dylan Hunter ’08
Kim Justis, Granddaughter of John ’29 & Louise Mayo Rollow ’30
Jane Kilgore ’09
Shannon King ’09
Greg Krosnes ’89
Lucy Mason ’08
Erin McGhee ’06
Alicia Queen ’10
Matt Reed ’02
John Rone ’71
Eric Sefton ’02
Brian Shaffer, Professor of English and Dean of Academic Affairs for Faculty Development
Bill Short ’71
David Sick, Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies
Karen Strachan ’02
Michael Towle ’08
Joe Vescovo ’02
Katherine Whitfield ’04