How to Write a Scripted Audio Fiction Series with Jessica Wright Buha and Bilal Dardai of Unwell
Adventures in Audio Fiction Episode #4
Jessica and Bilal lay out the difference between writing for stage and writing for audio, the writers’ room of Unwell, the timeline, and what it’s like to write for an ongoing series. Near the end of our conversation you’ll hear their thoughts about how writing for audio might fit more seamlessly into the life of a parent-writer.
Bilal Dardai is an award-winning playwright, performance artist, and essayist with over two decades of experience working on stages throughout the Chicago area. He is an ensemble alumnus and former artistic director of The Neo-Futurists, a current ensemble member of Lifeline Theatre, and a member of the writing staff for HartLife's acclaimed audio drama Unwell. Bilal lives in Evanston with his wife, son, and a vast array of eclectic media.
As a writer of audio dramas, Jessica Wright Buha is a three-time finalist of Deathscribe, an international horror radio play competition, and is currently a staff writer on the audio drama Unwell: A Midwestern Gothic Mystery, which recently hit half a million downloads and is regularly in the top fifty on Apple’s fiction podcasts chart. She also has extensive experience as a theatrical playwright, and her plays have been produced by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (a co-production with Filament Theatre), South Africa’s National Children’s Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, the Plagiarists, the Whiskey Rebellion, and others.
Unwell is produced by HartLife NFP, based in Chicago and comprised of a diverse team of professional writers, directors, actors, and sound designers. HartLife NFP is the company behind eight seasons of the acclaimed science fiction epic Our Fair City. Our Fair City launched in 2011 and was a pioneer in fiction podcasting. HartLife NFP has won awards and critical acclaim for its dynamic acting, incisive writing, and high level of production.
This interview series for HowlRound is part of Tamara’s quest to learn more about audio drama by speaking with the people who are working in the medium.
Music: Spring Idyll by Pennee Miles.
Tamara Kissane: Adventures in Audio Fiction is supported by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide. The HowlRound Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and howlround.com.
Hey friends. Welcome to Adventures in Audio Fiction. My name is Tamara Kissane. I'm a theatre maker and host of the podcast Artist Soapbox based in Durham, North Carolina. Although theatre is my first and enduring love, over the last three years my creative work has increasingly turned towards writing and producing scripted audio fiction, first by adapting versions of my stage plays into audio dramas and more recently by writing to audio directly as I develop two scripted audio fiction serials. This interview series for HowlRound is part of my quest to learn more about audio drama by speaking with the people who are working in the medium, some of whom have a background in theatre and some who don't. Either way, they're knocking it out of the park. I have so many questions and you may have some too. As theatre artists, what can we learn from audio fiction creators? What skills can we leverage to create powerful audio work? What do we need to learn? Is scripted audio fiction an evolution of a theatrical form or is it its own distinct and discrete form altogether?
In this episode, you'll hear from Jessica Wright Buha and Bilal Dardai, staff writers with Unwell: a fiction podcast about conspiracies, ghosts, and unusual families of blood and choice. This episode is heavily and wonderfully focused on the process of writing scripted audio fiction. Jessica and Bilal dig right into the differences between writing for stage and writing for audio, the writer's room for Unwell, the timeline, and what it's like to write for an ongoing series. Bilal, Jessica, and I all happen to be parents as well, so near the end of conversation you'll hear us talk about how writing for audio might fit into the life of a parent writer.
Bilal Dardai is an award winning playwright, performance artist, and essayist with over two decades of experience working on stages throughout the Chicago area. He is an ensemble alumnist and former artistic director of the Neo-Futurists, a current ensemble member of Lifelime Theatre, and a member of the writing staff for HartLife's acclaimed audio drama Unwell. Bilal lives in Evanston with his wife, son, and a vast array of eclectic media.
As a writer of audio dramas, Jessica Wright Buha is a three time finalist of Deathscribe, an international horror radio play competition, and is currently a staff writer on the audio drama Unwell: A Midwestern Gothic Mystery, which recently hit half a million downloads and is regularly in the top 50 on Apple's fiction podcast chart. She also has extensive experience as a theatrical playwright and her plays have been produced by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, a co-production with Filament Theatre, South Africa's National Children's Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, the Plagiarists, the Whiskey Rebellion, and others. Enjoy the episode.
Hi Bilal, hi Jess. Thank you so much for being here for this conversation.
Bilal Dardai: Thanks Tamara.
Jessica Wright Buha: Thanks so much for having me.
Tamara: Let's start with how you started writing for audio. Could you tell me about that and then how you got involved with Unwell?
Jessica: There's this thing in Chicago called Deathscribe, which is amazing. It's a festival of ten minute horror radio plays. They get submissions from all the world and the winner a literal bloody ax. I guess it's painted. I've always loved audio books as a kid and listening to the radio, so I submitted and I ended up getting first in this thing. It was really amazing to be able to write a bit more abstractly and poetically, leaning into not having to worry about where the actors are standing. I have a theatre background. A buddy of mine, Scott Barsoti, was involved with WildClaw, the theatre that put on Deathscribe, so he encouraged me to apply and submit to Deathscribe. So I did and I feel in love with the medium.
As far as how I got involved with Unwell, it was interesting. Jeffery Gardner: they're one of the executive producers of Unwell and they were the executive producer of Our Fair City, which was HartLife's show they did previously to Unwell. I think they played violin on... It was this play that I wrote for Deathscribe. It was called Alabama Mermaid. It was chosen several years later to tour to Miami as part of a group of five death scribes to travel down there. Jeffery went down there and played violin on my piece and they were a big fan of it. When there was an open call for submissions to apply to develop the show the show that would become Unwell, I was encouraged to apply and I did. I'm so bewilderly lucky that people reached out and encouraged me to apply.
Bilal: I also come from a live theatre background and a performance art devised theatre background specifically, although I've written more conventional plays but I've done a lot of work mostly in devised theatre. I spent 12 years with a performance troupe in Chicago called the Neo-Futurists and then at the end of 2016 I went and acted from the ensemble. I found myself drifting for a bit. A friend of mine who'd I met through my previous work... She worked on a podcast called Pleasure Town, which was being done by WBEZ. They had a very small audio fiction wing. I'm sure you can still find it online. They had three seasons and it's set in a small town in Oklahoma that was a hedonist community. It's a completely fictional community in the late 1800s.
I was riveted by the characters they were creating and the sound work they were doing, so I reached out to my friend, Gwen, who was on the writing staff, and I said, "How did you get into this? What's that about?" She invited me to come to an early meeting for season four. So I spent a year working with that team on writing season four. Unfortunately, season four is still in production limbo. All the scripts got written. Many things got recorded. But for a handful of reasons, season four hasn't been released. While that was going on, Eleanor Hyde... the other executive producer for Unwell... reached out to me about this. I knew Eleanor also from previous theatre work. She was the managing director of New Leaf in Chicago where I'd put up a handful of my other plays. It was just an interview and then they brought me aboard.
I don't think I knew who else was on the writing staff until that first meeting. I had to reminded that Jess and my wife had worked together on a project. Jess and I also ensemblers at Lifeline Theatre and Jess was there and then... Jess and I keep overlapping even before this project.
Tamara: So you were both involved from the very beginning, even during the development of the idea? Or did you come in and it was all set out for you and you just took those ideas and started writing? Could you tell me about that?
Jessica: It was from the absolute beginning. I think that Jeffery and Jim McDoniel, who is the head writer, had all settled on mid western gothic mystery. I think it was set in Ohio. And there was an idea of a—
Bilal: That's right. Jeffery went to college in Ohio. Jess, I forget. Where did you... You grew up in...
Jessica: St. Louis.
Bilal: St. Louis, yeah. I grew up in the Chicago area. We all had some relatively mid western roots ourselves. I do recall that the other thing was that both Jeffery and Eleanor wanted to be able to talk about memory loss and memory care. That was an important part of the initial meeting: that we still wanted some gothic mystery set in the mid west and whatever that means, but that we were interested in exploring what it was for an adult to care for an aging parent. I remember that being pretty important at the start. A lot of the details beyond that were worked out in the room.
Jessica: It was an exciting room to be in, too. It was like, "Here are some Post-it Notes. Write down what's inspiring you right now. Write down..." not random... "stream-of-consciousness ideas about different ways that the plot could go and different things that you would find interesting." A similar thing was done with the main characters. It was like, "Okay, the mother: who is she? Let's riff on what's this person's background."
Bilal: I remember vaguely at this point... because it's like two and a half years ago now, almost three... having an evening where we just tossing names around and try to decide which of these names sounded right. I remember the whiteboards and the Post-its and everything.
Tamara: So we have writing for audio, which as a playwright myself I think that's kind of a whole different thing. Then when you add other writers in the room as well, that adds another layer to it. Had you done the collaborative writing piece before?
Bilal: I had. Like I said, I came from a devised theatre background so a lot of things were like myself and an ensemble of five or six other people at least. Sometimes it would be like individual pieces and then talking through them and then tearing some apart and recombining them, letting some pieces go. I've had evenings where we've taken a seventy page script and laid it out page by page on the floor and then rearranged it. I was definitely coming with some of that skillset, which was helpful I think coming into a writer's room.
Tamara: It also sounds like your personality also... You were open to this idea that everybody could contribute and you weren't holding too tightly to your own... You weren't being too precious about your own ideas as well because you've had that practice.
Bilal: I think we all try, and I think we also have moments where we pick our battles.
Jessica: I had this amazing collaborative experience with my theatre partner who is now going to grad school at Brown, Eileen McGrotty. We did a collaborative play with this musician. Her name is Jen Romero. She's stunning. It was called Wake: A Folk Opera. When we did when devising this work is that we wrote down all the cool things you wanted to see in a play and we put them on Post-it Notes or index cards and we laid them all out. It was like, "Sharing a meal, glass breaking, friendship, an argument." All the tiny things that we wanted to see and we laid it all out on the floor and stared at it. That experience was wonderful and it was amazing to get to have something similar like that again where it was like, "I'm just going to throw out a ton of crazy ideas." Often I would try to throw out one crazy idea and then the opposite one as well to really try to get everyone's brains stretched. Maybe I drove people crazy doing that. I hope not.
It's interesting talking about not being too precious with ideas. I think that's most difficult thing that I've had to learn, is the push and pull of not being too precious with your ideas but also knowing when to push back and say, "Are we sure we don't want to do this thing? Because I really think... Can we interrogate the reason why we're choosing not to do the thing I want to do?"
Bilal: It's definitely an important. That's a good way of putting that. You're not intractable but you need a case made for certain battles you're fighting, which is nice because it holds the rest of your team accountable too. We tend to trust each other not to just say, "Well, I don't like it."
Jessica: Sure. I feel like the room really would work if people weren't bringing their most generous, curious selves to the room.
Tamara: When I work as a solo writer, I don't always question my own reasons for putting things in a play, or at least the first draft. I'm just like, "I like it and that's why it's there." It doesn't necessarily have a reason. When I'm forced to justify that or really think it through in a group it tends to make things tighter and leaner. I feel like the whole thing holds water a bit more because it's a more rigorous process than if I sit in my room and spin out the ideas that I like. You know what I mean?
Tamara: Was there a learning curve in transitioning from writing for live theatre into writing scripted audio fiction?
Bilal: Yes. Both on Pleasure Town and through this I had some people who were much better versed in the audio drama space, so it was easy for... either reading through scripts or sitting in a room and talking to get a good sense of, "Here's a thing that you haven't thought about and here's a thing you're not doing right." Specifically, one thing I find myself doing less of now than when I started is writing a thing that somebody has to tell me, "That is never going to work in audio." It still happens every once in a while, but if I'm writing a play that's on a stage and I put a pause in I know that sometimes I'm expecting that pause to... I'm expecting something to happen visually: a look between two characters or something. You can't have a look between two characters in audio, so you find other ways to fill that space and still create that tension. Like, there's another sound in the room that helps that pause feel tense because you can't get it from watching actors. Things like that are a part of it.
One of the things that Unwell has that's such an asset is that our sound designers are... I don't think I'm hyperbolic when I say they're the best in the business, but they're really solid sound designers and they really... You can throw a lot of things at them before they'll come back and say, "This is not possible."
Jessica: Yeah, they're amazing.
Tamara: How do you write for your sound designers? How descriptive are you about the sound cues that you put into your scripts?
Jessica: I do sometimes lean on poetry a bit or trying not being annoying about it, because for me it's not the footstep or whatever it is. It's almost like writing a novel a bit and having to say, "How do I help the sound designer feel the emotion that's happening in these sound cues?" Especially with some of the more abstract sound cues. Bilal, what you were saying about the pause between... this look between two characters. How do you give the sound designer all of the emotional or poetic text that I need to create something amazing without me saying, "Also, have there be some magical sparkles here." Again, these sound designers are the best in the business. It would be the worst and most embarrassing if I were to try to walk them through how I think a sound cue should sound, but if [inaudible 00:16:25] explain how I want it to feel in a way that's respectful of their time and that they're mostly in it for the nuts and bolts of the character walks from here to there.
I did have one sound cue that I'm kind of proud of. In season two of Unwell in an upcoming episode, it's about the character Rudy in the show. In the stage directions, I refer to him as, "Rudy, king of the bullshitters. Thinks quick." Something kind of subtle for the actors. It's tricky, though.
Bilal: I don't know how consistent I am with this, but there have definitely been times where the only way I can describe a sound cue is to try to express what I want the audience to feel during this moment. Like, "I would like this sound to surprise. I would like this sound to be soothing." This is a specific thing about writing for audio; there are times where it's like, "I would like a sound that if somebody is listening through headphones as they tend to be is going to surprise them a bit or it's going to dance from one ear to the other. That sort of disorientation..." because that is a nice thing about audio in a way that you don't necessarily get live, which is that you have some granular control over the audience experience. You get to direct what they should be paying attention to in a way that you can't necessarily do with a larger space.
Tamara: I'm super interested in how this process works. If it's okay with you, I'd like to get into the weeds of this. I know that you're working about one year out. Your season two is being released right now and you're also working on season three, is that right?
Bilal: Yeah. We just had our first meeting and read through the first drafts of the first two episodes of season three last Thursday.
Tamara: Would you kind of step me through?
Jessica: Yeah. October, November, was when we had three or four meetings.
Bilal: Yeah. Let's start with the arc of this season and where we're going for the following season. So how we build the larger arc, things we... We did have a night where it was like, "What do we want to see this character do?" I say see, but... "What is something that we expect of this character? What is something we expect of this group of characters, these relationships?" We would have conversations about that and see how we could reconcile all of those. I think we had a bit of a break around Thanksgiving and then we finished our fourth one. The fourth night was us putting a lot of our ideas into a spreadsheet, expanding whatever needed to be expanded, tossing away what we couldn't do this season or shelving it for a fourth season or just getting rid of it entirely. Then the four writers... Jess and I and then Jess Best and Jim... basically did an episode by episode draft.
Jessica: So stressful.
Bilal: Yeah, because we laid out the skeleton for the season. We knew what was happening in each episode of the twelve episodes in season three just as we did for season two and one. We know what's happening in these episodes. One by one, we pick our three.
Jessica: It was interesting for season three because we really mapped out the episodes in much more detail than before. It was nice because for seasons one and two it was amazing like jumping out of an airplane. It was like, whoa. The writers were given a lot of freedom as far as here are some broad strokes. Like, "This is what we want to learn about the town," but as far as filling in a lot of the episode we had free reign at least in the first draft. That was terribly exciting. I feel like I personally took that to its logical conclusion where I proceeded to... I had episodes eleven and twelve, so for episode eleven they were like, "This is what should happen in 11 and this should happen in twelve." I was like, "Maybe we could combine those into eleven." Then I was like, "Now episode twelve has nothing," so then I just wrote something crazy and brought it in and everyone was like, "Oh, that's different than what we told you to write."
It was the kind of room where everyone was like, "Cool." Then we ended up through... I think everyone agreed that there was this cool thing that we could in episode twelve that would be great. But for season three I'm more relaxed. I feel like I have a strong sense of "This is what the episode should be about." I'm not going to go and make something up and then be like, "Here everyone." That's the development.
Then we all go away and write and that's the most terrifying part for me, because for season three I have episodes six, eight, and 10. You've just got to go for it. Talking about the learning curve for audio drama, part of it is that I had to learn to be a really fast writer and not be too precious about my work. I remember turning in episode two for season one and Jess Best being like, "I didn't know that we could Abbie. I didn't know they were so nice." And I'm like, "Wait a second." I went back and I read it and I was like, "I wrote them a bit wrong." So I had to go back and rethink a lot of that stuff. I remember [inaudible 00:22:06] we had to talk a lot in season two because of this new character.
Bilal: This is another interesting thing about having a conversation with somebody outside of the room about Unwell, is being mindful of where we are in the release schedule, because in the first season of the writer's room we laid out a lot of larger mysteries that we're not going to reveal even this season. There's stuff that exists in the deep archive of what we've discussed already that we're building to, and that's always an interesting thing in the room for us because it's another factor we have to think about when we're writing these things where it's like, "These are the things that everybody knows, these are the things that nobody knows. Which of these details are we giving to the audience this season or episode." There's going to be a point when we go back and realize there was something we put in our show bible and we maybe haven't fully developed it in a way, which is fine.
I think part of what's been exciting about the back and forth process is that... Jess was describing that she and Best had this difference of characterization and then finding the way between the two to reconcile them and deciding this character is this and that's how we're writing them from now one. Another thing that's interesting is that in the first season we're writing the script before we've even heard the actors.
Jessica: Do you remember what Jess Best said about writing? She's like, "I feel like I'm writing fan fiction for a show I haven't seen."
Bilal: There's that funny thing that happened where after the first season dropped and people were responding to it. We saw some fan art of these characters, which was fascinating because it was people coming up with the characters based only on what they heard. Some of them don't look anything like the actors that we already know. I keep going back to the drawing I remember seeing and going, "Okay, I guess that is what Rudy looks like." It's something I think about when I'm writing Rudy. The back and forth is interesting.
Like Jess said, especially early episodes you come in and you bring details that maybe the person who's got the episode after you... because we're writing at a clip of reading two episodes a week. There might be something that somebody brought in episode three and you have episode five next week and something that they said in episode three completely upends episode five for you. During this first round, you can decide, "I think I'd rather do what they're doing in episode three and toss out this thing that I was going to do in episode five that contradicts it," or you can come in and say, "I was thinking about this. Can we talk about episode three?"
Tamara: You can do that when episode three is being read or when you bring in episode five?
Bilal: When we bring in episode five.
Jessica: I feel like it's better to sell everyone on your amazing idea. You're like... eh? I don't know. "Look. I wrote this. I'm not just thinking about it."
Bilal: I've definitely had moments where I brought in a later episode and I had to say, "I feel strongly about this and I know it contradicts something that happened earlier. Maybe there's a way to reconcile that?" There have been times where it's like, "Actually I think the thing that happened earlier is the right thing and I'm going to abandon my idea," and then nobody ever sees the contradictory idea when I bring in the [inaudible 00:25:32].
Tamara: It sounds like you had that cluster of four meetings where you laid everything out and then assignments were made. You all go and write your episodes. Then quickly after that you have first draft readings of two episodes at a time and then when you get to the end of that season of readings do you then go back and make changes based on the reality of the season as written?
Bilal: Yeah. We'll have a summary for ourselves of what we have, because one of the things you discover over the course of the season is that it's not even necessarily contradictory things but you might have a thing happen where you're like, "We didn't realize that this ancillary character, Marisol for example... Marisol appears in this episode and then this episode at the end of the season and then you have no idea where they've been the rest of the time." We find ourselves having moments where it's like, "Do we want to find a way to put Marisol back in somewhere else?" There's also a practical aspect to it which is budget-wise average we're trying to keep it within like five characters an episode. We can go higher and lower. Thankfully that's not Buha's or my job to determine that, but every so often Jeffery and Ellen... as executive producers... have to come back to us and say, "We love this scene you have here but it would help us if you could cut it out." They'll make a case for it.
Jessica: It's always been about, "Here's a tiny money thought," but it it's what the episode needs then of course. That's one of the differences: sometimes having too many voices in an episode can be a lot and sometimes it's needed but other times there is some elegance of having the gentle reminder of, "Do we really need twenty characters in this? Twenty-five in an episode? Or could we focus it up more?"
Bilal: On that level, one of the things that's nice about audio is that there's a lot more room for single shot characters. You have people come in and do a line. We have some room for that, which is nice because we have written a town and it's nice to be able to have a moment where you can hear extra voices and not just have it be a core group of five people. That's also a nice thing about audio compared to stage. If you write a stage play where somebody appears for all of ten seconds, you better have a really good reason.
Jessica: And you're going to have a very unhappy actor.
Bilal: That too. If it's just like, "Hey, we need somebody to shout out a line in the middle of a town hall meeting and oh, my cousin is in town. You want to be part of an episode of Unwell?" That's not hard and it's going to be a lot of fun.
Tamara: This is not the right word, but do you police the consistency of voice and continuity and all of that as a group or is there one person who's tasked with double-checking that?
Jessica: I feel like it's as a group. I don't know. It's nice. The other three writers are so effing great. I don't think we've ever had a problem with the voice being strange.
Bilal: There's also an interesting things that has happened that I've noticed throughout season two. Somehow in our draft some of us ended up with other characters more often. I ended up with Rudy for most of season two and Nora. I was given the enviable task of creating Nora for the first episode that she appears in. But I've had very little time with Abbie. Other writers in the room have spent more time with Abbie. But when I do get to have Abbie, I'm thinking about how Best has written Abbie and how Jess Buha has written Abbie and thinking to the people who have written Abbie more and saying, "What have they given Abbie already and how can I match them in some way?" We have Kathleen. "How can I match what Kathleen does for Abbie?" Kathleen is the actor.
Tamara: You have a show bible somewhere that you all can access that contains all this stuff about future seasons and the map of this season, the episode breakdowns. Is that what is contained in the bible?
Jessica: We also have in-depth descriptions of all the characters, and that also helps. Where are all these characters from? I guess some stuff about their background and how they all got to the town. That helps as well.
Bilal: One of the things that's interesting about having such long production times is... Because we were writing season two and season one was being released an episode at a time, or at least it was three episodes in a first chunk and then an episode every couple weeks. I definitely had a moment middle of season one where a thing that was said in one of Jim's episodes... while I was listening to it, I was like, "This is something that's really going to make the thing I was planning for season two, episode 11, very hard." In some ways, that's even more helpful than going back to the show bible, and part of that is because sometimes edits are made during recording and if you're the writer you can be there. If you're not, then you might out during the rough cuts or when the show is actually released what somebody else may have done. Buha, I know you can talk about this more, but I had heard that a lot of revision happened with your episode twelve and recording your two through twelve.
Jessica: Yeah. I love going to the recording session. There's nothing more... getting the old adrenaline going than going into a room, hearing the actors say the words, being like, "Hm, the words could be better. These aren't... This needs to get love immediately." The way that the recording session works is Jeffery functions as the directory. They're sitting... The actors are in a C around them and there's like a... I feel like the director chair is lifted a bit above everyone else. It's magical.
The actors all read through the episode once and then Jeffery gives them notes. As the writer, you're like, "These few lines aren't working," or, "This whole huge question that we have to answer all of a sudden... Oh yeah, the actor is struggling to say this line. Probably not the actor's fault." What was your intention? Why are they saying this line? "Oh wait, it's because there's this whole thing that you have to fix immediately. You have five minutes." I was so lucky with episode 12 to have so much support that we ended up finding a solution so elegantly that it seemed so... an obvious elegant solution where it's like, "That was my secret plan the whole time."
Tamara: Jess, you hear them read it for the first time on the same day that the episode is being recorded. Is that right?
Jessica: We do the thing where we read the first drafts, and it's just the six of us. It's Jeffery, Eleanor, and then the four writers. We all divide up parts so we're all reading everyone's parts. Then we go away and we write second drafts and then we don't hear those second drafts out loud until we have a season readthrough where it's like six hours or so and we get all the actors together. Eleanor and Jeffery make food and it's this lovely communal day where we read the entire season at once. In leu of a discussion out loud about this stuff, everyone writes down... who wants to... The actors... some members of the board are there. I feel like next year maybe some sound designers will come into town for it.
Bilal: We have a lead sound designer who's local: Ryan Schile. A couple of the other sound designers are also local but we also have a handful of sound designers... One of the nice things about audio fiction is that we have sound designers from across North America.
Jessica: Yeah. Eli McIlveen is from Canada.
Bilal: And Alexander Danner is from Boston. They're all great. Jeffery sends them the rough stuff and they send back magic.
Jessica: We have the whole season readthrough and then we all go away. At least for me, the way I like to write is figuring stuff out in the draft, which is not the way everyone writes, which is a type of writing that is slightly better suited for theatre when you have a longer lead time. For episode twelve, the draft was very different than the one that the actors had read. The first time I was hearing this draft read out loud was at this three hour recording session. There were some kinks that had to be worked out, which was a bit stressful on my end. But it ended up being amazing.
Tamara: How nice that you all could be in the same room together as writers but then also with the actors. I know there are lots of advantages to be able to do things remotely. Personally, I think it's nice to have a mixture so that you can see some people and have a conversation and be in the same place rather than just try to do everything through email or Zencastr or things like that.
Bilal: When you're in the room with the actors reading, you get reminded of the way they perform, because they're reading off script but obviously there's physical things happening and there's facial expressions. Sometimes they'll find ways to revise it for you in how they're performing it and you get to see. It's like, "The look on Marsha's face when she reads this for Dot, that's the word I should put here. That's going to work much better." It's similar to putting them onstage, but they're onstage in front of you. You're the only one who gets to process that and make changes on it.
Tamara: It sounds like you're being influenced by all of the input that you're receiving. I think that makes a lot of sense. One of the things that I was surprised about when I started writing for audio is that some words are really hard to say and they don't sound right when they're spoken out loud. You'd think you'd know that from theatre, but it's like at a different level when you only have the audio. Like, "Sorry I strung those five words together for you. I need to go back and change those right away."
Bilal: There were at least a few times when I became aware of certain homophones. Onstage with a live person, when they use the word see... S-E-E... it's very clear what they're saying as opposed to the word S-E-A. I know there were times where I was like when you just hear it this sounds like something very different.
Tamara: It's a whole different way of indicating for the audience what's happening and who you're talking to and where everybody is and what their names are and all of that stuff that has to be tracked in a different way. It took me a while to realize if somebody is entering the room you have to know when the person has entered the room and have them say something and not just have them rummaging around in the background, getting a bowl of cereal.
Bilal: I'm not a huge fan of exposition. Finding a way to hide exposition in natural dialogue is hard enough on a live stage and I think it's a different and unique challenge in audio, because you do have to give the audience something in that dialogue. The nice thing here is that you can find ways to do that with sound effects as opposed to dialogue. You can have the sound of a toaster going off to say that you're in the kitchen without having somebody walk in and say, "What are you doing here in the kitchen?"
Tamara: "I see you're making toast."
Tamara: If you came across somebody who was writing for the theatre who wanted to make a transition into writing scripted audio fiction, what are a few pointers or tips? Let's make it be about the practice along the lines that we were just talking about. "If you wanted to transition into this medium, these are things you might want to keep in mind."
Jessica: Get used to thinking in terms of audio imagery. How can you hang the plot device or points on somehow... if not having to be completely audio focused... How can you use this to your advantage? I went to the inaugural Year of Pod Tales, which is this audio drama convention in Boston that Alexander Danner... one of our sound designers... created. I was at this panel and there was a writer there and he was like, "Don't have any invisible monsters," really trying to lean into you have this one amazing tool in your toolbox and it's the best sword ever. Really think about how you can use it. Sound can transcend our experience. It's such a powerful thing to be an audience of one and to be listening to this and have it be this intimate performance just for you in your kitchen while you're doing dishes or when you're driving. It's an amazing thing.
Bilal: I'm trying to figure out a way to say this that doesn't make me sound really pretentious. I'm somebody who does not write music but I do at times think of writing for audio as what I imagine writing for music can be. More specifically, I think of each of these characters I'm working with as a unique instrument. I do find myself asking, "Does this part of the script need a duet between the clarinet and the saxophone?" How do you make those voices distinct? How do you make them different? And how do you make what they're doing different and how do they overlap each other? How do they play with each other? Even more so than live stage, making sure your characters don't sound like one-another is super crucial. That's in casting. That's in cadence. That's in the language that they use. If you have a scene where you're only receiving it through one set of senses... through your ears... and your characters don't sound distinct enough, then you're not giving the audience enough to build their own imagination from it. Just paying so much attention to voice is one of the more important things.
Tamara: I just want to check in and see if there's anything else that you'd like to mention or talk about before we wrap up.
Jessica: I don't know where this fits in but just a quick shout out to writing for audio drama and being a parent. I'm the primary caregiver to my two young children. I have a four year old and a one year old. I love the theatre and I love going to rehearsal but it's so nice to have this exciting and invigorating creative outlet that doesn't require being at a theatre for three months going through rehearsal.
Bilal: I totally agree.
Tamara: Full disclosure: that's why I switched to writing for audio, because I have two kids and I was like, "I can't be doing this any more. It's not going to work. I need something that's more flexible and has a different kind of production timeline and has different demands of my life." Do you have other thoughts about that?
Jessica: As a parent, having this gig of being a full-time caregiver, I love my job but I do live at work as far as taking care of my two very boisterous, wonderful kids. I remember being overwhelmed and my mom being like, "You've got to give up this playwriting thing. I don't know what else... You're so stressed out. You can't..." I couldn't even explain to her. I'm like, "I want to hold onto this." When the kids are super young it's like just wiping butts and somebody puked on me. It's like, "That's fine. It's all fine. I'll figure it out. It's 4:00 AM. Mopping the puke off myself is 15th on the list of things that need to happen." It's nice to be like I'm an artist. So often I don't feel like an artist. Still, I'm a playwright.
I remember so clearly that my son was 15, 16 months old, where it's like, "Maybe it's fine if I take him to rehearsal," because I used to take my kids when they were little: three and four months old when all they do is either sleep or breastfeed. They're actually pretty quiet at rehearsal. I remember trying to take my 16 month old kid to rehearsal and it was horrible, obviously. It's like, "Why on Earth would you take a feral wild animal to rehearsal." The director rightly pulled aside and was like, "Hey, that can't happen," but I didn't know what else to do.
It's been so great because I can get away for an evening a week, and also I remember I was rocking a child for hours until you're like, "I'm just a ghost that walks around the house with this baby rocking." I wrote the celery jingle in episode 11 for season one and I remember that there a couple people on Twitter talking about my jingle and that made me feel great. It packs a bit more a powerful punch, the audio, as far as the time commitment I can give while still getting sleep.
This is a separate story; I totally did sleepwalk because of a script deadline that I had to do. That was a horrible.
Bilal: Episode two of this season, which was just released a bit ago... the one where Rudy is constantly falling asleep and waking up... I wrote that in the throes of my own lengthy not getting enough sleep stretch.
Jessica: It's a real thing to balance parenthood and being like, "I can't... A kid is sick. I've got to stay up with them. There's nobody else. It's on me." If there's this or that...
What's also been amazing about the audio drama thing... This episode 12 thing that I talked about earlier in season two where I had a bold idea and I tried it and Eleanor was like, "Cool." Or, everyone was like, "Great, except maybe do something else." There was a happy medium that was produced but I had to write a whole new draft on a tight deadline and I think that was when I was doing that hilarious thing where I'm typing one-handed while breastfeeding and I was like, "Eleanor, I'm going to make this draft." She was like, "I have total confidence in you." I'm like, "Great. I'm going to do it." She was like, "I'm not worried at all." Finally, she was like, "Where's the draft?" "It's coming."
Finally, she's like, "We need to move the recording session because it's not there." We ended up not having to move it, but the fact that Eleanor did not say, "We have to cancel the recording session..." She did the most supportive way anyone could to say, "Hey, I think we might need to shift this around." It was the difference of someone being on your team and being, "You need extra support. We're going to give it you," and not like, "You are effing over the whole team."
Bilal: That's also a crucial thing for anybody looking to get into audio drama. Have producers that have your back and know how hard this is and don't just view you as... "Script monkey, create a thing for me." Eleanor and Jeffery are both so understanding. As writers, we're pushing ourselves too, especially writers on a team. You want to meet the standards of the writers in the room around you. You want to impress the people around you because you're impressed by them. I think Jeffery and Eleanor do a good job of maintaining an atmosphere that is supportive even when we make mistakes. If we bring in a draft of something that's like... "Okay, here's a couple of reasons why this isn't going to work but let's talk them through and let's send you off to make a new draft with everything you need to make a new draft," not, "This was wrong. Go back and do it again." That's really important.
Tamara: Sounds like a wonderful team and that leads to better work overall. I'd like to thank you so much for this conversation. It's been so inspirational. I love Unwell. I can't wait to hear what is going to be happening this season and beyond. I wish you both all of the best.
If you would like to continue today's conversation, please visit howlround.com and follow HowlRound and Artist Soapbox on Twitter and Facebook. A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound who make this show possible. Our music is Spring Idol by Penny Miles. Check out the show notes for links and for more information. Thank you.