Alex Dawson is by nature, and execution, an entrepreneur. A man of many interests, some spawned during a youth on a horse farm in Alabama where one had to exercise imagination to amuse oneself, Dawson habitually presses forward, rather than waiting for an invitation, to fulfill his ambitions.
Now an instructor teaching creative writing and other classes at Rutgers University, the Highland Park resident founded an off-Broadway theater company, opened and closed an internationally recognized Metuchen book store, wrote plays, published novels, studied visual arts, and started a series that adds lighting, sound, and other theatrical effects to hour-long readings of classic and popular works ranging from “Moby Dick” and “Casablanca” to “Harry Potter” and “The Empire Strikes Back.”
These presentations, produced as Raconteur Radio, travel to various venues — libraries, schools, coffee house, performance spaces, and book stores, perhaps the most natural site as Raconteur Radio began life at Dawson’s book store, Raconteur Books.
To give further example of Raconteur Radio’s range, the troupe, a band of actors who do between 60 and 70 performances a year, play Melville’s “Moby Dick” at the Princeton Public Library on Sunday, March 5, at 2 p.m. They appear the next week with Patrick Hamilton’s “Gaslight” at Rutgers’ Murray Hall, bring “Moby Dick” to Theater 80 in Manhattan, present a post-St. Patrick’s Day production of Maurice Walsh and John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” at New Brunswick’s Stage Left Restaurant on March 19, and plan to conclude March with a parody of Spielberg’s “E.T.” at Pino’s Lounge in Highland Park.
Raconteur Radio is a melange of all Dawson’s skills. Although the actors tend to sit or stand still, scripts in hand, theatrical elements deriving from the stage and vintage radio abound, so the theatrical, the literary, and the visual combine.
Dawson writes the scripts his cast uses. He also designs the light and sound cues. Most shows, he says, require about 150 technical cues. “The Empire Strikes Back,” also on the April menu, employs more than 400. “The light saber fight between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader is quite a spectacle, especially when we work in a place that is not given to noise or spectacle, such as a library,” Dawson says.
Dawson got the idea for Raconteur Radio when he and his father, George, went to an East Greenwich Village book shop specializing in mystery titles to see an enactment of episodes from the popular radio series, “The Shadow” — the famous radio show that opened with the often quoted lines, “Who knows what evil lurks the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”
The evening excited Dawson and touched on many of his enthusiasms. For one thing, it was performed in a book store. Dawson says he did not open the Raconteur to sell books, though he wanted, and needed, to do that as well. He opened Raconteur Books to have a place to stage various entertainments. The expected book readings and signings would be on a program with musical groups, lectures, theatrical presentations, and yes, reader’s theater.
Second, and equally important, Dawson, though he was born long after the Golden Age of Radio, had a lifelong love for the medium. He was familiar with “The Shadow” and most of the dramas that kept America listening in their living rooms for decades.
Radio, he knew from experience, was not only words and acting. It was effects, sound effects, of course, and music to heighten suspense and tension and give texture to the scripts. Sitting with his dad in that Village book shop triggered Dawson’s imagination and made him think about visual effects that would enhance and further animate a live performance.
Books and radio were a salvation of sorts for Dawson and his brother, Christian. They were born in New Brunswick where their father, was a reporter for the Home News and city historian. Dawson’s parents separated before he started school, and when he was 8, his mother, whom he describes as much-married, an artist, a novelist, world traveler, and international tour guide, remarried a man who had a horse farm in Hurtsboro, Alabama, and moved Alex and Christian there.
“My mother was artistic and creative, my stepfather, Alvin Nitchman, had things to teach, and we entertained many people from New York and New Jersey in the fisherman’s trap shack that was our home,” says Dawson.
“In spite of that, we were isolated. Our home could be active and filled with imaginative pursuits, and there were the horses and fishing, and those healthy, outdoor kinds of activities. But there was no entertainment. We had a television, but there was no reception. You couldn’t enjoy a program through all of the static and fuzz. The nearest movie theater was across the state line, and we made some trips there but not many. Theater, even the most rudimentary community theater, was non-existent. So we had to find ways to occupy and amuse ourselves.”
Books were one answer, he says. “My mother and stepfather, and my father in New Brunswick, were voracious readers. One entire wall in our house, the longest continuous wall, was entirely books. Floor to ceiling, left to right, books. I became an avid reader. The books reflected my parents’ interests, which were broad, and included a lot of interesting authors. Reading the stories interested me in stories, imagining the settings and the sound were part of the experience. I was creating movies and plays as I read.
“Then came the day my mother surprised Christian and me with a trunk filled with old radio programs. They were all there, ‘Inner Sanctum,’ ‘Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel,’ ‘The Whisperer,’ and ‘The Shadow.’ We did a Groucho Marx program based on ‘Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel’ (a comedy about a smalltime law firm) at Raconteur Books. Robert Hegyes, Juan Epstein on “Welcome Back Kotter,” lived in Metuchen and was our Chico. It was about two weeks before he died. That show, and Robert, brought in a lot of people.
“The point is I was steeped in radio. In addition to enjoying the stories and the presentation, I became interested in how a show was put together. As an artist, I could visualize scenes. I was also motivated to write.”
Dawson says art and writing were in a tug of war for his affections while he attended college at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School.
“I was studying to be an artist, but I always wanted to write, and I began to write plays. One earned a prize at Rutgers. In my senior year, I thought writing might interest me more than art, and I changed majors.”
Playwriting occupied Dawson, and rather than peddle his scripts to producers, he and a friend, Gary Smith, founded a theater in New York’s East Village. It was called the Bon Bock Theatre, after a bar Dawson frequented during a time he lived in Munich, Germany. “Bon Bock” meant “great glass of beer.”
Dawson produced about 15 to 20 plays and garnered some good reviews. He also learned about management, marketing, and other matters important to business.
“We didn’t need to make a profit at Bon Bock, and we always broke even. I also become interested in presentation. Reviewers would always mention the remarkable production values in such a small house with seemingly few resources,” Dawson says.
Bon Bock ended in 1992. Says Dawson: “I was 23 years old. Gary and I did what we wanted, but it came time to move on.” One offshoot of the Bon Bock days is an ongoing friendship with Gary’s mother, Jane Smith, who also appears as Jane Hardy and plays roles such as Mrs. Danvers in “Rebecca” and the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” for Raconteur Radio.
Dawson liked writing and producing, but his literary output changed from plays to novels. The combined ardor for books, writing, writers, and performance prompted him to open Raconteur Books where he could offer titles one would not find in all book stores, bring top writers in for readings and Q&A, and feature performing artists on an ongoing basis.
“Raconteur Books had to make a profit,” Dawson says. “By day, I was a bookseller but had an interesting clientele and liked having a book store ranked in one article among the 10 best in the world in the middle of a small town like Metuchen.”
Raconteur Books closed in 2014. Dawson says it was his choice to give up the shop, not necessity. “I wanted to do other things. I was writing more, as a novelist. I had gotten an MFA from Bennington College in Vermont, and I wanted to write while teaching writers. I wanted to work at a university, and I couldn’t do that and run Raconteur Books in any committed way.”
As Dawson began his next chapter, the Raconteur name lives on in Raconteur Radio.
“People are surprised by the range of what we do, not only because we go from Melville and Fitzgerald to Rowling, but because we have so many production values. The actors are sitting in one place, but costumes are changed, and all kinds of effects are used to tell our stories.
“One of the aims is to show why radio was so great. Some seniors in our audience remember radio, but most people, especially younger people, don’t have a reason for nostalgia. They are in it for the experience. One of my pleasures is noticing the reaction as people — who bought a ticket to a novelty — start leaning forward and paying attention. I love it when audiences become more involved and more susceptible to all that is going on. The reaction is more intense in libraries and venues where people are accustomed to a certain decorum and aren’t used to being pitched into darkness or surrounded by sound and light.”
Dawson writes Raconteur’s scripts and says the process takes about three days, the first to study and absorb the material, the second to envision it and plot its technical cues, and the third to write.
“Distilling some works, like ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘The Great Gatsby’ to an hour is less of a chore than you may imagine. Both of those books are narrated, and the challenge to create scenes rather than to depend on the narration, although for ‘Gatsby’ we used Nick’s ending verbatim. I look for the scenes of action.
“No one expects Melville’s dissertation on the color white. They want the confrontations between Ahab and the whale and Ahab with his crew. I draw on several sources. In addition to the text, I go to illustrated books to get an idea of how they told and visualized the story. You learn to find the essence and see what moves a story forward and gives the audience the most drama or comedy.”
Though Raconteur Radio has understudies ready in case a regular cannot make a performance, Dawson’s troupe has been consistent and play most shows. They are Danielle Illario, Jeff Maschi, Jane Smith, Michael Jarmus, Laurence Mintz, Carlyle Owens, and Jason Jackson.
March 5 will be a busy day for Raconteur Radio. Following its 2 p.m. performance at Princeton Public Library, the troupe will head to Pino’s in Highland Park for the premiere of “V for Vendetta,” based on a graphic novel about a masked revolutionary extracting revenge on members of a fascist government; it was also a 2005 feature film starring Natalie Portman. It will be performed as a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Free Press, an organization that gives people an opportunity to tell their stories.
Moby Dick, Raconteur Radio, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Sunday, March 5, 2 p.m. Free. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org.
V for Vendetta, Pino’s, 13 North 4th Avenue, Highland Park, Sunday, March 5, 7 p.m. $20 suggested admission. www.pinosshop.com/upcoming-events.
For more on Raconteur Radio: raconteurradionj.blogspot.com.