LocationAlhambra , CA United States
Theater owner and Alhambra resident Jay Parker had found a new location to re-open his theater company, the Mosaic Lizard Theater. But in order to put on plays or other paid performances, the space needed money for a city permit, a difficult financial undertaking for a theater company trying to balance rent and other expenses. The company was holding paid acting classes in the meantime, but Parker was looking for something more.
The answer came when the theater put on a live radio show as a fundraiser. What began as a one-time event grew into the theater’s new online offerings: “Lizard Theater Radio,” a weekly comedy and improvisation podcast, and “Theater for the Ear,” a more occasional podcast that features “original and adapted audio plays from American playwrights.”
A podcast is an audio program, similar to a radio show, that is available as a series of files online. Podcasts have grown from a little-known alternative to conventional radio to becoming a respected form of broadcast that covers a wide variety of topics, including everything from high-profile crime stories to political banter. The five largest podcast publishers garner between 5,224,000 and 16,581,000 monthly listeners, according to Podtrac, a private company that tracks podcast advertising for those signed up with it. NPR is ranked the number one publisher, with its 42 programs.
“I like it, but it’s different than theater because you don’t have an audience responding to you right away,” Parker told me in an interview. “You’re putting it out there and hoping that somebody listens to it. We’ve been really good at keeping something out there once a week in the hopes that somebody happens upon it or finds it through word of mouth.”
Listeners per episode vary greatly. Some episodes of “Lizard Theater Radio” and “Theater for the Ear” have garnered as many as 2,800 listens in total, while some have garnered as few as 319. The podcasts are free for all listeners and only advertise for the theater’s own acting classes. As such, they operate primarily on listener donations.
Michael Donnell is Parker’s working partner at the theater and is one of the cast members featured on “Lizard Theater Radio.” He was an integral part of the podcast’s conception.
“For the theater as a whole we meet pretty much on a weekly basis,” Donnell said. “Just thinking about plans and trying to figure things out once we really get up and running. This whole podcast idea, Jay really brought it to life. But it was cool getting to talk with him about it and kind of form it and shape it into what it is today.”
While the casts of both shows rotate frequently, “Lizard Theater Radio’s” is more set, featuring Dale Stanhope, Garry Pia, Donnell, and Parker as regulars in nearly every episode.
“The actors all volunteer their time and talents,” Parker said. “We bring in one or two people each episode who can’t commit to the show every week. [One night] we had Jeff Markle; he’s played a regular on [the television show] ‘Parks and Recreation’ and some other shows… and [one] week we had a kid named Pearce Joza who’s been on a lot of Disney shows.”
Every episode begins with a scripted segment written by Parker, before transitioning into short improv segments with prompts from a small, private live audience made up of friends and family. It is recorded in an intimate space, with Parker and the rotating cast of actors telling jokes into the microphone for the online listeners.
“Sometimes the joke is that we’re telling the listening audience that we have these amazing things when we don’t,” Parker said, referring to the cast’s myriad sound effects.
In one scene, for example, home listeners hear Donnell’s character jumping out of a window to escape the studio. The live audience, of course, can clearly see that there are no windows and that he’s creating the scene with a pair of boots and other props.
With the ability to edit timing and delivery for their listening audience, there is less preparation for the podcast than there would be a fully live event.
Guest actress Leslie Carroll described how quickly the show is put together. “We started rehearsals at 5 and performed at 7,” Carroll said.
The spontaneous nature of the podcast is in keeping with the theater’s history. Parker recounted the roots of the theater and podcast’s unusual name.
“I’ve been an actor and a director and a writer all my life. I used to work at Universal Studios,” Parker said. In the 1990s, “I had a little theater group. We called ourselves the Subterranean Lounge Lizards and ended up being Lizard Theater. We opened up here in Alhambra over at the old Pedrini building. Then the city found us and gave us about $135,000 and put us in a building that they owned” in the Mosaic District for about six years. “We gutted that building and turned it into a really nice state-of-the-art theater.” The city had to sell the building, and the theater lost its venue in 2016. It moved in June 2017 to the current space on 4th Street.
“We hope to keep culture in the community through an array of genres in the theater arts,” Parker said. “The radio show offers comedy, while our ‘Theater for the Ear’ podcasts offer short plays of different genres.” Parker calls “Lizard Theater Radio” his “brainchild” and hopes to continue it even after the theater gets the necessary permit to put on theatrical performances.
Lizard Theater Radio is released on Thursday each week. Theater for the Ear is released on the Wednesday after it is recorded.They are available on Soundcloud or on the Mosaic Lizard Theater Foundation website.
Bastian Mendez is an Alhambra Source summer intern and a graduate of San Gabriel High School. He’s attending Cal State LA this fall.