by Mark Margulies
This is addressed to my colleagues, to the people I love, respect, and work with every day. This also is addressed to Account Executives who believe they should be more involved with copy ideas and problems.
Enough about Theater of the Mind.
I've heard about Theatre of the Mind ever since I went into radio. Salespeople bring it up. Production people bring it up. General Managers bring it up. Even clients bring it up about ten minutes into any conference or conversation -- "Well, what I'd really like to do is use radio for some, you know, Theater of the Mind stuff...." Account Executives throw the term around like it's the simplest thing in the world -- "Look, could you put some Theater of the Mind stuff together for Sparky's Furniture? You know, sound effects, a lot of imagery...."
Radio IS an imagination medium, there is no arguing that. But this idea that Theater of the Mind just happens when you stick some sound effects and a few funny voices together is mind numbing. Again, it goes at the heart and root of a major problem in radio: the client (and many times, the AE) has no concept of what radio is truly about. And we reinforce that idea with that salivating, tongue-on-the-ground mentality of, "Oh sure, no problem. Hey this is easy!"
Okay. Let's all think of the last Theater of the Mind spot that REALLY stuck with you. Think of the last one you remember to this day. Yeah...me, too.
Sorry. I'm a purist. Theater of the Mind to ME conjures up images of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air. Theater of the Mind is Jack Benny's "Maxwell" or his famous "Vault," "Allen's Alley," "The Shadow," "The Mad Russian" and Fibber McGee's closet. These are images which will last forever because they have been carefully crafted and created or are the results of gifted accidents.
See...what PASSES for Theater and what truly becomes memorable as Theater are two completely different animals. Theater of the Mind, to truly be effective, takes an idea, and then, using imagery that's as powerful as it is subtle, provides the execution. It's not something you'll necessarily find in a SFX library. It DEFINITELY won't be something your client suggests as one of their many "ideas." Theater of the Mind will occur when you, like others before you, out of desperation, creativity, or random brilliance, will strike upon an idea that can be built, developed, and nurtured through the medium of sound and radio. Remember, radio isn't just about MAKING sounds, it's about MAKING SOUNDS WORK.
They say that the secret to Orson Welles' success was six inches -- no, not THAT six inches -- the six inches around the microphone. There he would move side to side, back and forth, changing timber, changing inflection and volume, communicating characters' feelings and ideas differently each time. This was the ultimate use of the tools Welles had in his hand and the ultimate use of his young medium. This is something you must understand before you can become its master.
So that means when it comes time to have to conjure up Theater of the Mind, allow yourself the full creative latitude you need. Theater of the Mind is not going to go out and sell the "freshest seafood" or the "most knowledgeable sales staff." It's not going to work in a laundry list spot, and it won't convey those ideas of "...and don't forget our coolers for that family picnic...." Explain to your AEs that for "Pork Chop night" at local restaurants, you're not going to churn out Theater of the Mind. Nor will it be something you can have back to the AE in twenty-four hours. If you attempt Theater of the Mind, it means you're going to put together a concept, try a lot of different ideas and methods, and finally come up with an execution that combines vital information with an approach that relies totally on the power of the listener's imagination. Imagery, unlike a screaming voice or a "weekend sale," will be the motivator here.
Oh, by the way, while YOU"RE spending time doing all this, rest assured that the client will wait until they get the copy from the AE, then add THEIR input.
NOT!!! Before you get started, explain to the AE that Theater of the Mind requires no feedback from the client. What you produce, either in spec or finished form, is going to be the idea. They can change or correct information pertaining to their product, but the idea and execution are yours. If they object, Theater of the Mind is not for them.
And where do you start to develop Theater of the Mind? Well, for your finest classic inspiration, go to your nearest oldies record store. There, you will find the Radiola series of old time radio classics. Start with Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Graduate to "Fibber McGee and Molly," "The Shadow," "Inner Sanctum," and, of course, "War of the Worlds." Listen. Visualize. Allow your mind to absorb it all. See how they build a scene and then let the effect they've created make the "payoff." It will give you a direction on how to enrich a mood or create a visual image. It will also show you that Theater of the Mind is not just about sound effects. It's about setting a mood that allows your effects to be utilized to their fullest.
So first, listen and learn. Then, sit back and allow an idea to form. Understand what the client wants to accomplish, then develop your idea along that line. Write down the focus statement, then begin to hear the spot in your mind. Some restaurant advertising a home-style breakfast might benefit from a spot that has nothing but the sounds of a family making breakfast at home, complete with random conversations and the clatter of pots and pans. Someone advertising home improvement could benefit from a two-voice spot with the down home charm of a "Lum and Abner" or the use of "Fibber McGee's" closet.
Just always keep in mind that this is like no other creative form we attempt or create every day. It alone is the most difficult and demanding type of radio production. It is also the most powerful and the most rewarding. The mental images you create are those that will last long after other ordinary productions have faded and gone. Therefore, make Theater of the Mind a personal challenge and give it the best effort you can. Because to not do so is to cheapen both it and the product of radio for everyone.