It’s not often that a writer has the opportunity to see their work transformed into a new format. So, when renowned playwright and sound designer J Hagenbuckle approached Jen Sexton-Riley asking her if she had any short fiction she felt would make a good radio play adaptation, Sexton-Riley jumped at the opportunity.
Sexton-Riley, a Chronicle feature writer and ArtCast columnist, presented Hagenbuckle with multiple stories, including “Whatever Happened to Spider Monkey?” a short story she authored that was published last year in Bewildering Stories, an online speculative fiction magazine she has worked for as an associate editor for about a year and a half.
“Whatever Happened to Spider Monkey?” which debuts live on Thursday, May 13, on WOMR's Cape Noir Radio, tells the tale of a New England urban climber who is grappling to understand his own identity as well as gain perspective about his relationships and the world at-large after gaining notoriety for his dangerous and daring climbing adventures.
“I immediately saw it as a radio play,” said Hagenbuckle. “It had a smart, nuanced sense of character and story, an existential, almost archetypal journey of obstacles and discovery. As I worked on it, more layers and connections in her writing revealed themselves. I appreciated the depth of her story more and more.
“Scoring it with acid jazz and adding the atmospheres and sound effects to bring it to life was a pleasure.”
There are clear differences between Sexton-Riley’s written version and Hagenbuckle’s adaptation. Most notably, Hagenbuckle, who was the first sound designer to receive Boston’s Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Designer, changed the point of view from third to first person.
Listeners will hear him utilize a raspy, worn accent when speaking as the story’s protagonist, climber Peter Florio, and take on a lighter approach when speaking as Florio’s assistant, Eli. Florio’s voice alters slightly as the story progresses, a sign that Hagenbuckle masterfully traveled inside the head of the characters he brought to life.
“I thought it would be fun to contrast Eli and his science nerd voice with Peter's more introspective, noir-like narration,” said Hagenbucke, who has served as the resident sound designer at Cape Cod Theatre Company/Harwich Junior Theatre since 2001. “He's a renowned urban climber, yes, but I felt his character should have a depth and an unexpected existential cool that reflects his struggle with the external world and his emotional relationship with Riya. As the story progresses, Peter's voice softens as he comes to terms with his inevitable conclusion on the top of the Shanghai Tower.”
Throughout the radio play, which has about a 25-minute runtime, Hagenbuckle employs a full array of sounds — both musical and otherwise — to capture the essence of Sexton-Riley’s story, which has a knack for staying on the mind of readers long after they’ve finished reading.
“I felt the rhythms of the script and the almost hypnotic trance set up by the writing was perfect for lots of underscoring,” Hagenbuckle said. “It called out to be driven by music that is detailed, but ambient, supportive, but not distracting. The vibe is a hip, cool, pulse that reflects the writing, but also pushes the story forward.”
Sexton-Riley said Hagenbuckle really added his own personal touch to the finished product.
“A few times while I was listening to the work, I thought to myself, ‘This doesn’t sound the way I imagined it when I was writing it, and I love it. It sounds great,’” said Sexton-Riley, a South Yarmouth resident. “J transformed it and made an entirely new thing out of it. Even though it is my work, it is now his work, too.”
Sexton-Riley said there’s something about the story that demands the attention of readers even after they are finished. She believes Hagenbuckle’s adaptation will trigger the same sense of interest and wonder.
“I think there must be something about it that sticks in people’s minds,” she said. “I think that’s the key to writing a story that has a little staying power, that there’s something about it that sticks in your mind after reading it. That’s my goal as a writer. I certainly kept thinking about it while working on it and ever since — I still think about it.”
Hagenbuckle’s radio adaptation of Sexton-Riley’s “Whatever Happened to Spider Monkey?” will make its debut at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 13, on WOMR 92.1 FM Provincetown and WFMR 91.3 FM Orleans. Listen live online at womr.org or on demand beginning the next day on the WOMR Cape Noir podcast page at bit.ly/33CiIF4.
Email Brad Joyal at firstname.lastname@example.org