Playwrights On Podcasts
With production opportunities more competitive than ever, and space rentals at an expensive premium, playwrights are turning to new mediums to get their work out into the world. This article aims to explore the possibilities for playwrights in podcasting.
Take A Ten
One of the winning plays at the 2015 Samuel French Off-Off-Broadway short play festival was Evelyn Shaffer and the Chance of a Lifetime by Greg Edwards and Andy Roninson. It’s a ten-minute musical about a lady video game designer who is asked to compromise the integrity of her characters by a corporate gaming company who wants to buy her out. Evelyn Shaffer’s origins trace back to episode number eight of composer Andy Roninson’s monthly musical podcast Take A Ten.
Roninson, a music director and conservatory trained jazz-musician, got the idea for Take A Ten after participating in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop. He generated a ton of new songs during the workshop, but due to copyright problems couldn’t actually perform them. So, he gave himself a challenge: to write and record a new ten-minute musical every month, the result is Take A Ten. The podcast currently boasts seventeen episodes and features original musicals in a wide range of styles—from acapella to modern pop—as well as occasional guest appearances by Tony nominees like Laura Osnes (Cinderella, Bonnie & Clyde, Anything Goes) and Rob Mclure (Honeymoon In Vegas, Chaplin)
“I was sick of not having something to show people.” Roninson said at his Astoria apartment about the humble beginnings of his podcast. Take A Ten now acts as his online calling card—easily accessible on the Internet, with a growing fanbase, and a fantastic showcase of his range as a composer and storyteller.
Instead of thinking about a story as a document I had to constantly add material and dialogue to, our recordings were the document. Getting to a final draft was a matter of taking away the parts of the recording that didn’t work, finding good transitions, and putting the remaining puzzle pieces in order.
My first name is Ira, so I guess a career in podcasting was inevitable? When I moved to New York a few years back, I wanted to expand my skill set beyond writing plays. Podcasting seemed like a pretty intuitive transition: the format offers a great deal of creative freedom, production costs are relatively low, and—thanks to that other Ira—the medium is picking up major steam in popular culture.
The premise was simple: Ryan agreed to fix my romantic troubles, if I gave him full control of my online dating profiles and wardrobe choices, followed all of his sage dating advice, and completed his whacky challenges. (Hilarity ensued; we even wound up in jail.)
Not only did Dangerously Unqualified massively improve my dating life, but it also gave Ryan and me a chance to experiment with long-form serialized storytelling and collaborative content generation in a low-stakes environment that was protected from industry pressures. We dictated our own process, wrote all of the material ourselves, had final cut on the episodes, worked at our own pace, and learned a whole lot.
To create an episode, Ryan and I would record two to five hours of material and then boil those recordings down to the strongest twenty-five to fifty minutes.
I found this process to be very freeing as a playwright. Instead of thinking about a story as a document I had to constantly add material and dialogue to, our recordings were the document. Getting to a final draft was simply a matter of taking away the parts of the recording that didn’t work, finding good transitions, and putting the remaining puzzle pieces in order.
Best of all, like Take A Ten, our podcast is easily available for binge-listening on iTunes and has exposed our unique brand of comedy to a broader nontheatre audience.
The innumerable creative possibilities for playwrights in podcasting were expanded even further for me, when I joined the writing staff of Radiotopia’s The Truth. The Truth is an anthology-style audio-fiction podcast that specializes in “movies for your ears”—modern radioplays that are stylistically similar to independent films, with innovative uses of sound and a Twilight Zone-for-2015 sense of otherworldliness. Each episode draws the listener into a unique world of sound and features fantastic performances by actors from The Magnet Theater.
Generating stories for The Truth provided some very interesting and distinctive creative writing challenges. First off, I was forced to generate and pitch new material on a weekly basis, which kept my writing skills sharp and prolific. Next, I had to think a lot about how to communicate a fictional story to an audience without the aid of visuals, props, or sets. Thirdly, I had to think about how sound can be a conduit to tell a story. These constrictions provided huge opportunities for creative growth and unique theatricality.
Once an episode of The Truth makes it into production, it gets out to an audience of more than 60,000 people. As a playwright, my work has never had the opportunity to reach an audience that large. I even got paid and won awards!
Playing On Air
Claudia Catania, creator and host of the short play podcast Playing On Air, thinks there are some very clear and tangible benefits to producing plays on podcasts versus live theatre: “Don't have to go blind reading venue contracts. Don't have to spread out over three seats trying to make them seem simultaneously occupied. Don't panic about who's getting the flu next. Can survive anyone for three hours. And it's less than 1 percent of the cost.”
Playing On Air features audio productions of short plays by major playwrights like Chris Durrang, Lynn Nottage, David Ives, and Tanya Barfield. These audio productions feature Tony nominated stage actors like Steven Boyer (currently on Broadway in Hand To God) and Hollywood heavy hitters like Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Ryan, John Leguizamo, Jerry Stiller, and Bill Irwin.
Catania, an actress and the former executive producer of The New Group, had this to say about the origins of Playing On Air: “Just decided there is too much talent doing readings and knocking the socks off eight people on folding chairs. Why not a million people on comfy chairs? Also, theatre is crazy expensive for the 99 percent, which bugged me on a lot of levels. And the short play genre suits the rhythm of people on the move… We lack all the amazing visuals and physicality of a live play, but we do have words, acting, sound design, music, and the listener's imagination, so we can still serve a mighty morsel of theatre. And since the pieces are only ten to twenty or so minutes, we can offer a smorgasbord of styles and voices for listeners to sample.”
I don’t mean to make podcasts sound like they’re a magical cure-all that will jumpstart people’s careers and catapult them into Sarah Koenig level fame. While podcasts are creatively fulfilling to work on and can definitely help writers expand their skills—much like self-producing a play or starting a theatre company—there are still tons of challenges when it comes to sustainability and publicity.
In terms of advocacy, there are very few major news outlets that currently review podcasts. The A.V. Club reviews podcasts in their Podmass features and The Guardian has some great podcast coverage , but much of this coverage is reserved for producers who already have an established following like Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and Comedy Bang Bang, If you’re not Marc Maron or Scott Aukerman, there is no reviewer for many of the specific podcasts I’ve mentioned in this article. Without an advocate, major publicity push, or an endorsement from Ira Glass, most podcasts languish in obscurity, struggling to find an audience, despite having fantastic content. But I guess, to some degree, that’s the challenge of creating anything in 2015. It’s difficult for any and all artists—regardless of medium—to be heard when there are a nearly infinite number of entertainment options and a limited number of hours in any given audience member’s day.
There is also the fact that basically all podcasts charge zero dollars for their episodes. If podcasts generate income, they generally do so in a three-tiered system of public radio funding, fan donations (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, etc.), and advertisements from forward-thinking companies like MailChimp, Audible, and Squarespace. However in order to attract these advertisers, a podcast must prove that they have an active subscriber base in the tens of thousands. These numbers are generally reserved for the top one percent of podcasts on the market.
For “do it yourself” producers like Andy Roninson, there are hundreds of hours per month spent writing, rewriting, recording, and editing one ten-minute episode of Take A Ten—while balancing jobs, a social life, and other pursuits. Unlike theatre, cyberspace doesn’t offer the instant gratification of live audience applause, and thus it can be difficult to know if your podcast is making any impact: “It’s weird to not know if anybody’s listening, let alone if it’s any good,” Roninson said, “Part of the thing about theatre is that it’s instantaneous compared to any other art form. And with a podcast, you reach the end of the song and there’s no applause, so who knows?”
Catania shared similar sentiments: “I can't eavesdrop in the ladies room. Also, performers can't calibrate a performance as they might with a live audience out there.”
While podcasts are creatively fulfilling to work on and can definitely help writers expand their skills—much like self-producing a play or starting a theatre company—there are still tons of challenges when it comes to sustainability and publicity.
With innovations like The New Play Exchange, a free to mininally fee-based script submission service, the way playwrights transmit and submit their work is shifting rapidly. Could podcasting help play a part in this shift? What if instead of submitting a PDF or a bound copy of a script, playwrights sent audio recordings of their plays that literary managers or artistic directors could listen to at the gym or on their commute?
I posed this hypothetical to Samuel French Literary Director (and avid podcast fan) Amy Rose Marsh: “I’m always really excited about the idea of hearing plays in new ways. I do think that there’s probably unique challenges—much like writing a play for film versus writing a play for the stage—they’re different animals. It’s helpful in one sense to know that a play works strictly with audio and isn’t so much reliant on visual elements, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a boon.”
And yet, many major theatres are hopping on the podcast bandwagon with innovative radioplays from Naked Angels’ Naked Radio or The Public’s Saddidy: The Storytelling Podcast where playwright A. Zell Williams conducts in-depth interviews with exciting dramatists like Kristoffer Diaz and Sarah Burgess.
In the future, I imagine one will find many more playwrights on podcasts.