In the early years of the 20th century, before television, smartphones, home entertainment systems and other high-tech innovations, there was radio. From the 1920s through the late ’40s, it was the main source of entertainment in millions of American homes.
Back then there were live, on-air comedy shows, serial dramas, mysteries, detective shows, Westerns and many other genres brought to life by narrators and actors with professionally-polished voices. Skits were augmented by realistic-sounding Foley effects and underwritten by commercial sponsorships.
The old-time radio concept is being revived in New Orleans by writer Ren French, a native of Arcadia, who was an actor, singer and dancer before discovering his love for storytelling. That love has translated into his latest venture in the aural medium, “Saints and Sisters: Nuns with Guns in Old New Orleans,” which opens Wednesday, Aug. 13, and runs for nine performances through Aug. 29.
With a cast of six veteran actors taking on 22 different roles, “Saints and Sisters” will premiere its first two-hour episodes at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Harold Gervais is the director.
The minimalist set, designed by Dan Zimmer, will have the actors reciting their lines while standing in front of vintage microphones in a radio studio mock-up from the 1930s.
“We want the audience to feel like they’re there in the studio while the action is going on, and we want them to see how everything was done back then, including the sound effects,” French explained.
“You can close your eyes and just listen like you were sitting in front of an old radio, hearing a really great show,” he added. “I’ve seen people doing this in the theater.”
In 2010 French created “The Clifton Monroe Chronicles,” a detective-style radio series featuring an investigative newspaper reporter and his attractive female sidekick. The series premiered during Fringe Fest 2011 and there have been two other episodes since then, the last two of which were directed by Gervais.
The fourth episode in the “Chronicles” series, according to French, is already written and will be cast and staged at an as-yet-unspecified date. That series has already spun off another project, centering on the detective brother of Monroe’s sidekick. All of the French-created shows are under the umbrella of fictitious radio station WAIR.
French described “Nuns with Guns” as “ ‘Alias’ (the early 2000s TV series starring Jennifer Garner) set in the 1930s.” He also described it as a “hybrid Western during the period of Jesse James,” which is depicted through flashbacks. The two leading actresses in the production are the fictitious granddaughters of James who are hiding out from the law, disguised as nuns in New Orleans’ Ursuline Convent. French, whose 80-year-old father fondly remembers the old-time radio shows, is taking pains to make this show wholesome, family-style entertainment.
“It’s really cheeky and clean,” he said. “We want kids to come see it. And my Dad doesn’t like cussing, so I don’t put any of that in there.”
Although the production is set in the ’30s, French includes more current and frequently humorous references that contemporary audiences can relate to.
“There’s a place in ‘Nuns with Guns’ where one of the nuns starts singing one of the songs from ‘Sister Act’ and Jake (Bartush) plays her brilliantly,” French said.
Bartush, who most recently starred in Lee Blessing’s one-man show, “Chesapeake,” at Barrister’s Gallery and who appeared the last two “Clifton Monroe” episodes, explained that he is taking on the roles of five different characters — three women (including two nuns) and two men.
“I’m really having fun with this,” he said.
“Voice work is one of my favorite things to do as an actor, especially in a show like this where it’s mainly just voice work,” Bartush noted. “It’s something I’ve always dreamed of doing, so having this opportunity to do it so consistently is a dream come true.”
True to the radio show form, there will be six humorous, old-style radio commercial breaks.