In a 1940s ballroom, a band is playing lively swing music. Couples dance, laugh, clink their wine glasses. Suddenly, the festive atmosphere is broken by a scream...

Welcome to the world of audio theater: dramatized stories performed by a full cast of actors, with music and sound effects.

"Audio theater is audiobooks in Technicolor and Cinemascope," says Richard Fish, president and founder of LodesTone Audio Theater. "This is icing on the cake, an overlapping but not identical form of spoken-word audio."

Audio theater is currently experiencing a renaissance in the U.S. Last Christmas, the boxed set The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century hosted by Walter Cronkite (from Media Bay subsidiary Radio Spirits, was a surprise hit at many bookstores. This year, the BBC's dramatized Lord of the Rings boxed set, licensed in the U.S. by BDD Audio, is a hot seller, spurred by anticipation for the upcoming feature film. "We think it could be this year's Harry Potter," says Robert Allen, publisher of Random House adult audio. "The audio started moving back in January, when the previews hit movie theaters, and sales are growing stronger and stronger each week." Lord of the Rings has sold more than a quarter of a million copies so far. Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife (Random House Audio's Listening Library imprint), which featured the author narrating the text with a full cast of British actors performing the characters' dialogue, "both received enormous critical acclaim and commercial success," says Mary Beth Roche, director of publicity for Random House. "We anticipate that we'll see even more for The Amber Spyglass," due out this summer.

The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows and Lord of the Rings have both appeared on PW's Audio Bestsellers List. These were not inexpensive impulse buys either: Old-Time retails for $60; Rings for $69.

"We find that compared to a single voice reading, people perceive audio theater as having a higher value," says LodesTone's Richard Fish. "It's much more something to be collected, listened to more than once, or given as a gift."

LodesTone Audio Theater (, a direct-mail catalogue and Web site that sells more than 300 titles from 70 publishers, has seen "strong double-digit growth for the past four years," says Fish. Sales for the fourth quarter of 2000 were up 44% from the previous year.

Audio theater is a diverse format, encompassing classics like Homer's The Odyssey and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, old-time radio shows, children's fairy tales, comedy skits, mysteries, science fiction, westerns, historical drama and biography. Some companies create their own genres: Stuffed Moose Audio ( offers Spirited Yarns, a series of humorous ghost stories; Little Evil Things ( presents original spooky tales with cinematic musical underscoring; Ziplow Productions ( specializes in sci-fi parody.

But recording an audio theater project is much more complicated and time-consuming than recording a single narrator. Most audio theater companies are small independents, so raising funds is the first step. Next comes writing the script, auditioning talent for the multiple parts, scoring the music (in most cases composed specifically for the production, although some companies use music libraries), recording or choosing sound effects and recording the actual production (while coordinating numerous actors, microphones and effects). Finally, comes spending lots of time in post-production to edit it all together seamlessly.

Each project is unique and requires its own preparation, which can be considerable. For veteran producer Yuri Rasovsky's award-winning production of The Odyssey, "the idea was to do something on radio that would give the modern listener a feel of why ancient listeners loved this poem," Rasovsky recalls. "I was paid for five years to travel to Greece, learn ancient Greek, study with the leading Homeric scholars of the world, translate it myself and produce an eight-hour version. It was the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Homeric studies."

Sound effects are another challenge. Rasovsky ( finds that "the ideal way to do [sound effects] in stereo is with foley walkers—people who do manual sound effects—following the actors around the studio, so the sounds come from the right place. But certain sounds you can't do in foley and are added in post-production," Rasovsky says. "For instance, if I have an outdoor scene and want an outdoor ambience, I'm not going to have three guys with bird whistles making phony sounds—it's better to have real outdoor sounds recorded."

Larry Weiner, cofounder of the Radio Repertory Company of America (, says, "We're in the science fiction genre, so we create a lot of new sounds—sliding doors, laser sounds. We take a film approach: if we're cutting back and forth between two actors firing lasers in different parts of the room, we make them sound different, so listeners can envision the scene in their minds."

But the prize for dedication to sound effects must go to Tom Lopez, president of ZBS Productions ( For his Jack Flanders adventure series, set in exotic locales, Lopez personally travels to far-flung places like Morocco, Brazil and New Delhi to record authentic sounds. These real-life sounds make listeners feel that they're really there, in the foreign locale, along with Jack.

Audio theater is pricey to produce, running about $5,000 to $20,000 for an hour-long show. Renting studio time is expensive, so companies with their own studios have an advantage. LodesTone's Fish started out with his own recording studio before moving into audio theater. He's currently rebuilding and expanding the facilities, and in recent years has added cassette and CD duplication to the mix. "We can do it in small runs, 10 copies, 50 copies, 100 copies," he says. "That has allowed us to publish things without having to order thousands at a time, or keep a huge inventory. We can make them as needed."

Monterey Soundworks is a division of Monterey Media (, a video production company, and so has its own digital studios. Patrick Seaman, founder of Timberwolf Press (, built a state-of-the-art digital studio "to keep the production cycle down to a minimum. The recording goes straight to digital in the studio, so we can even begin editing while recording is still going on," Seaman says. "It means we can produce stuff very rapidly."

Without one's own studio, things get tricky. Hal Glatzer, founder of Audio-Playwrights (, recorded his murder-mystery-with-swing-music in a rented voice-over studio designed for only one or two people at a time. This posed a problem, since Too Dead to Swing features lots of scenes in which eight band members and their entourage cluster together, all talking excitedly at once. Glatzer recorded his lead man and woman together, but all the other characters were recorded individually, then edited together in post-production. "We had an enormously large editing time, and it was expensive," says Glatzer. "But it shows in the production, the seamless blend of voices, sound effects and music. No one would guess the actors weren't in the same room."

Marketing is another challenge. Audio theater projects are usually not tied to a hardcover book release, so they can't piggyback on the hardcover publicity, as other audiobooks often do. Some audio theater titles are available in bookstores; others find alternate ways to get out to the public. National Public Radio is one common outlet. When NPR broadcast Norman Corwin's historical program On a Note of Triumph, "we got 3,000 phone calls in two days," says Fish. Radio Spirits' old-time radio programs have been broadcast on commercial radio in a syndicated nostalgia program called I Remember When, hosted by Stan Freberg.

Another outlet is the Internet. The first audio theater title to be broadcast over the Internet was Patrick Seaman and Jim Cline's A Small Percentage, which was broadcast over in 16 episodes in 1995. "We didn't know if anyone would care about it, but we were deluged with fan mail from around the world," says Seaman. A better-produced remake ran in 1999 in 42 weekly half-hour episodes, and Seaman says, "It was the #1 audiobook item on almost every week. If we were late putting up an episode, we got flamed. There were a lot of people who liked it and wanted more." When merged with Yahoo last year, Seaman left and founded Timberwolf Press to do audio theater full time., the official Web site of cable's Sci-Fi Channel, produces the original science fiction series Seeing Ear Theatre, available in streaming format from the Web site, as downloads from Audible, and on cassette and CD. Seeing Ear Theatre's current project is Neil Gaiman's Snow Glass Apples, starring Bebe Neuwirth. offers many other audio theater titles as well, some available exclusively on Audible, with no cassette counterpart.

Satellite radio offers exciting new opportunities for audio theater, publishers say. L.A. Theatre Works and Radio Repertory Company both have broadcast deals with Worldspace, which has a satellite over Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Then there's live performance. L.A. Theatre Works (, a nonprofit organization, records its audio theater in, well, a theater. "We stage plays live for radio broadcast, in the tradition of old-time radio," explains producing director Susan Loewenberg. "We have a foley artist on stage, doing live effects, and a recording engineer on the side, recording the show and putting in computer effects. Of course, in post-production we add more. We record each play five or six times, and then cross-edit to get a superior version. We've perfected it over the years to get close to studio quality, but with a different feel to it. There's a special kind of energy that comes from doing it with an audience." L.A. Theater Works has recorded more than 300 stage plays, from classic playwrights like Oscar Wilde and Arthur Miller to modern, cutting-edge writers. The company won an Audio Heroes Award from the Audio Publishers Association for its Alive and Aloud program, which provides recorded plays and study guides to schools across the nation.

Alien Voices (, created by Star Trek actors Leonard Nimoy and John de Lancie, produces audio theater versions of classic science fiction novels like H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, as well as the immensely popular Spock Vs. Q series. Live performances of Spock Vs. Q sell out, says Patricia Keim, manager of audio marketing for Simon & Schuster Audio, which distributes Alien Voices. "Fans are thrilled to see them take these beloved characters to a new level, and the live performance adds to the excitement," she says.

The National Audio Theatre Festival ( offers workshops, seminars and networking opportunities at its annual gathering.

Fan conventions are another way to sell audio theater titles. Radio Repertory Company uses popular sci-fi TV actors on its audio titles and sells them at conventions. "If you take any busy sci-fi convention, we can sell 200 in a weekend," says company founder Larry Weiner. "It makes us a valuable commodity to the actors. They're all looking for additional product to sell to their fans. Claudia Christian of Babylon 5 takes 50 or 60 CDs to a convention, puts her autograph on them, and sells out in a few hours." Mystery conventions such as Bouchercon are a good promotional outlet for mystery titles.

Monterey Soundworks uses innovative promotions to publicize its audio theater versions of classic literature titles like Treasure Island, Moby Dick and Tom Sawyer. In one promotion, guests at Days Inn hotels around the country received a free Monterey Soundworks title. In an upcoming promotion with Fisher-Price, every children's cassette player going into Wal-Mart will come loaded with Monterey Soundworks' Wizard of Oz tape. "We don't make much money off promotions, but it's getting audiobooks into hands of children and parents," says Bill Nash, v-p of marketing and sales. Monterey Soundworks titles are also carried by Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Media Play and On Cue stores, Price Costco, libraries and schools.

Scenario Productions ( got a boost when its detective parody series, Brick Mallery: Private Investigator, was put in Ingram's Automatic Audiobooks program, placing it in stores around the country. Penton Overseas, a distributor of independent audio publishers, also carries audio theater.

Truck stops welcome audio theater, particularly westerns and science fiction. BDD Audio's Louis L'Amour series does especially well in that market.

Sales of audio theater vary widely. The Lord of the Rings has sold more than a quarter of a million copies, and BDD's Louis L'Amour series has sold more than 2.2 million units. But for the small independents, a topselling title may move 5,000 to 10,000 copies.

If audio theater publishers have one wish, it's that bookstores would shelve audio theater separately, with its own signage, instead of mixing it in with other audiobooks. "We get lumped into the audiobook section, and people don't realize what it is," says Scenario's Mark Bornstein.

Ultimately, though, audio theater publishers consider themselves lucky to be involved in such a creative and imaginative genre. "No other career gives you the opportunity to do a little bit of everything, from avant-garde to Shakespeare to musical comedy," says Yuri Rasovsky.

Adds LodesTone's Richard Fish, "Audio theater is very attractive to creative, talented people who don't have the major resources to do television or movies. This renaissance is being invented and developed as we speak."