From Old-Time Airwaves to Terry Concert Hall, “The 39 Steps” Radio Play Opens Friday Oct. 3

The Jacksonville University College of Fine Arts Presents its Adaptation of this Classic Thriller Oct. 3 – 4 at 7:30 p.m.


Photo by Michelle Davidson

Freshman Brandon Paris, (left) as Richard Hannay and senior Ashley Jones as Pamela Stuart prepare for their roles in “The 39 Steps.”

In 1915, Scottish writer John Buchan wrote the adventure novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock brought this thriller to the silver screen. In 1937, Cecil DeMille hosted an adaptation for Lux Radio Theater. On October 3 and 4, 2014 at 7:30 p.m., Jacksonville University’s associate professor of theatre arts, Deborah Jordan, and associate professor of piano, Scott Watkins, Ph.D, will resurrect the old-time, radio tradition and bring “The 39 Steps” to the Terry Concert Hall stage to re-enact the radio play.

Following the strong success of JU’s radio play adaptation of “War of the Worlds” in 2010 and of “Dracula” in 2012, “The 39 Steps” will open with a 35 piece orchestra, three Foley artists, and a cast of characters to bring it to life.

“This kind of production is rare,” Watkins said. “We are one of the only universities doing this as far as I’m aware.”

As a result, they have to set their own standards. There is no formula or outline to guide them. There is no trailblazer, to their knowledge, of which they might follow. There are only the recordings of the radio plays from the past to give hints and inspirations.

Separating the visual from the aural is another hurdle. If the script calls for someone to walk away, Foley artists must use techniques more creative than the tapping of shoes against a table top. Instead, more unexpected methods, such as a brick wrapped in cloth and scuffed through a dirty box, may be used to best mimic a shoe scraping across a floor.

The show has been in the books since February. Watkins started composing music in July. He drew inspiration from the original composer, Louis Silvers. He also composed a similar theme to the one that Robert Armbruster wrote in 1935 for the Lux Radio.

“I hope that the students get a real sense of history,” Watkins said. “So many in music and theater think that everything today is new. They don’t know where it comes from.”

Jordan and Watkins enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate. Watkins appreciates the opportunity to take a step back in time and teach acting and music students about compositional traditions.

Watkins produced JU’s first radio play, “War of the Worlds” in 2010. The inspiration to bring the radio experience to the stage came from Watkins’ childhood memories with his father, passing the time together listening to the old-time recordings of radio plays long past.

“It transports me back to my parents’ generation, sitting around the radio,” he said.

At the heart of this production is a fervent passion.

“The main thing that attracts us to the project is that it’s unique,” he said. “It’s a very exciting project. We just love it.”