I grew up listening to radio plays, keeping in high rotation vintage broadcasts of shows like Suspense, Amos ‘n Andy, and Dragnet. These stoked in me a fascination with the medium of radio, and they also taught me a thing or two about life in early 20th-century America — mostly lessons, by way of the commercials, about its various consumer products (usually soaps). With the modern internet, kids today can not only listen to their fill of old-time radio programs essentially without effort — no bootleg cassette tapes for them, like I had to use — but easily find newer, more innovative, and I daresay more interesting audio productions as well. Case in point: the Los Angeles Theatre Works’ Relativity Series, offering science-themed plays you can listen to free online, featuring performances by well-known actors like Alfred Molina, Jason Ritter, and Ed Asner.
But don’t mistake any of the Relativity Series’ 24 currently available productions as straightforwardly “educational.” Knowing that no listener, man, woman, or child, wants a simple physics or biology lesson tarted up with a thin scrim of drama, the producers have instead recorded new versions of full-fledged works for the stage that happen to have scientific themes or involve events and players from the history of science. How it delighted me to find, for instance, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in the Relativity Series. Stoppard, perhaps the most intellectually omnivorous writer alive, became a fascination of mine around the same time I delved into old-time radio, and Arcadia remains the finest play dealing with chaos theory to take place on an English country estate in two centuries at once. Other productions deal with the lives of scientists like Alan Turing and Richard Feynman as well as events like the Scopes Monkey Trial and the development of the atomic bomb. Above, you can listen to a unique performance where members of the Star Trek cast recreate Orson Welles’ dramatic 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast.
You can access all 24 plays in the Relativity Series here.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.