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Over the next two years he produced shows of increasing complexity, which drew a wide and devoted audience and led to an offer to host the weekend edition of NPR’s All Things Considered. “They’d decided they wanted to make the show more humorous and not so focused on the news,” says Frank, who relocated to Washington, D.C., for the job. “They’d heard my show on WBAI and thought I’d be an interesting host, but as soon as I’d done a few shows they decided they wanted it to be a news show.
“I had a one-year contract so they took me off All Things Considered and gave me my own show, and at that point I began doing my highly produced radio programs. My contract wasn’t renewed, so I spent the next eight years producing three or four shows a year independently and selling them to NPR Playhouse.
“What I was doing then really was groundbreaking,” he adds. “I’d take actors into a studio, tell them what a scene required and have them improvise, then I’d edit the best of what we’d produced into a show that also incorporated music and monologues of me speaking. The shows raised serious questions, often in an amusing way, and the listener never knew what the show would be like from one week to the next because there was no format. It was unreal, yet real, and people didn’t know what to make of it.”
In 1986, after Frank’s work began receiving national attention, KCRW general manager Ruth Seymour offered him his own weekly show. His first series, Work in Progress, was followed by In the Dark, which morphed into Somewhere Out There, and finally The Other Side.
“There were always hiatuses between the shows, when I’d go off and regroup,” says Frank. “It was incredibly demanding to create a new, original radio program every week with no support staff. It was challenging, expensive and all-consuming. I had virtually no personal life.” It was physically exhausting, too, and when Frank’s cancer recurred, in 1990, he began to question what he was doing.
Frank’s relationship with Ruth Seymour had always been tumultuous, but it was fruitful for both of them: Seymour provided Frank with a platform from which he could develop his work; and Frank produced prestigious radio that KCRW could be proud of as it grew to national prominence. Despite this, after 16 years, he was officially fired in 2002.
It wasn’t exactly how Frank wanted to end his career in radio, but by the time Seymour pulled the plug, he did feel he’d explored every nook and cranny of the medium. “I felt I had done everything there was for me to do in that form and I still feel that way — I’ve done it.”
This isn’t to suggest that Frank didn’t feel a little lost when he left radio. Over the next two years he created a handful of new shows for his Web site, and did two live shows at the Evidence Room, but mostly he struggled to figure out what to do next.
The question was put on hold when he became seriously ill again, in 2005. Frank had been functioning with one kidney for decades, so when a medication he was given for intestinal problems destroyed the function in his remaining kidney, it was serious. He received dialysis three times a week throughout 2006.
“I was in a dream state when I was ill — in fact, I have almost no memories of what happened,” he says. “I didn’t want to think about it because it was too scary. It’s like when you’re watching a horror film and you just can’t watch it anymore so you leave the theater. That’s how I handled the illness: I ran out of the theater.” Frank finally began to recover when he received a kidney transplant early in 2007, and officially resumed his life with his performance at Largo last fall.
Although Frank is best known as a radio dramatist, he was performing live long before the Largo shows. His first performance had a six-week run at MOCA in 1988, and he subsequently appeared at the Central Library, the Wadsworth Theatre and venues in Chicago and San Francisco. He feels he has yet to crack the form, however.
“All the live shows have sold out, so they were successful in that sense,” he says, “but I’ve never been happy with any of them. A major problem with the previous shows is that they all drew in part from the radio shows, and were sort of ‘best of’ pastiches. Just an Ordinary Man is an entirely new piece of material written specifically for the stage.”
In that regard, the upcoming performances will take him into uncharted territory. But the content of the piece is vintage Frank. “I’m drawn to difficult questions because of the life I’ve led. Death has been a major theme in all my work, and it’s a major theme in this piece, too,” says Frank, whose mother passed away over the summer. “I saw my father deteriorate and die when I was a child, and because I almost died at a young age, the subject became important to me much sooner than it touches most people.