When Joseph Papp founded the Public Theater in 1954, one of its outgrowths was Shakespeare in the Park, which was a way of bringing live theater to the masses for free. It is in that spirit that artistic producer Claudia Catania has been overseeing Playing on Air since she founded it back in 2012. It is the only public radio show and podcast featuring live recordings of the finest contemporary 10 to 20-minute American plays—or as the show website describes itself, “Great American short plays with great American actors.” It is a public radio show and podcast that redefines radio theater with original audio productions of contemporary short plays and insightful conversations with the shows’ writers via a conversation with the playwright, cast and director, led by Catania, following each performance.
As for the level of talent that’s been involved over these three years, the list includes Tony, Obie and Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwrights (John Guare, Lanford Wilson, Lynn Nottage), directors (Jerry Zaks, Anne Kauffman, John Rando) and actors (Olympia Dukakis, Audra McDonald, Bill Irwin). The appeal of doing this kind of no-frills project that winds up being theater presented in its basest form has attracted a number of other well-known talents including Ed Asner, Carol Kane, Jesse Eisenberg (who is also on the board of directors), Jane Krakowski, Kathleen Turner, Marsha Mason and Judith Ivey. As far as Catania is concerned, the combination of going with short plays and the way it’s presented is a victory for all involved.
“I chose the short play because the only way to share their talents with the nation, if not the world, was through technology. The rhythms of audio listeners tend to be short—10, 20 or 30 minutes. The short play format is a genre that most people are not familiar with, but it’s existed for a long time. It seemed like the perfect match for theater lovers and also for people listening on the go,” she said.
“It’s also a format that in a way is a new genre given that it’s so underexposed. And it really benefited from top tier talent, which is all we use. It excites playwrights to see these short pieces that often languish in their bottom drawers or computers, suddenly populated by the best in the business and actors, of course, love working with playwrights, particularly playwrights of the caliber that we attract. It’s a win for the listeners and the artists get to work out, stretch their theatrical muscle and build it up even while they are doing film, TV or what have you. It’s a lot of bang for everybody’s time and certainly just from an economic point of view, it offers a variety of theater in one show.”
With the upcoming Dec. 7 show that will be held at Downtown Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts /Media House, attendees will get to not only watch the performance but watch the creative process that all involved wind up going through to get the best finished product. This event features three plays: David Auburn’s 2 Dads (directed by Claudia Weill and featuring Bobby Cannavale and Tony Shalhoub); Max Baker’s The Wonderful Thanksgiving Violet (directed by Carrie Preston and featuring Brandon and Jason Dirden) and Jessica Dickey’s The Press Conference (directed by Judith Ivey and featuring Will Dagger, Matthew Maher and Jay O. Sanders). It’ll be Cannavale’s second time doing a live Playing On Air performance following the initial one he did of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Crazy Eights, where he got to share the stage with Kevin Hogan and close friends John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez.
“The first couple of opportunities [to do this kind of thing] is an opportunity to work with actors you haven’t worked with before. It was a real easy sell for me. I just loved it. Then when we went down to the BRIC, it was the live element with an audience and I really, really loved it. I read a David Lindsay-Abaire play with John Leguizamo and Rosie Perez and they’re really good friends of mine but I hadn’t had a chance to work on the stage with them. I just thought it would be fun,” Cannavale explained.
”Really, it’s about having fun. I’m also a big fan of David Lindsay-Abaire, so I thought that would be a fun person to work with and get him to see my work. Then this thing I’m doing on Dec. 7 was really an opportunity to work with Tony Shalhoub, because I’m such a huge fan of his and I know him socially a little bit. That’s one of those things where actors who like each other’s work, you tell them you’re a big fan of their work and you hope to work together some day. Here is Claudia offering us a great opportunity to do just that.”
For Catania, the reason why Playing On Air has the ability to appeal to both the theater aficionado and the newcomer has to do with the brevity and purity of the art-form, which she feels is fairly interchangeable.
“One of the reasons I love the short play is that someone once said if you want to know your playwright, read his short play because when the playwright sits down and writes it, they know there will be no money, no life—basically it’s going to end up being done by community theaters, collegiate and high school people—so out comes themselves and there are no commercial considerations,” she said. “For some writers, it’s very difficult to write in that lean a fashion, while some writers love the exercise. The fact that it doesn’t have a commercial life, in a way, makes it more genuine.”
To find out more about Playing On Air, visit playingonair.org. The Playing On Air Benefit takes place on Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m at Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts /Media House. Benefit tickets are available for $100, and include premium reserved seating and a post-show reception where audience members can meet the artists. Visit playingonair.org or call 718-925-658-2439 for tickets. General admission tickets for performance only are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. To purchase, call 718-683-5600, or visit bricartsmedia.org. BRIC is located at 647 Fulton St. in Downtown Brooklyn.