On July 14, 2016, as part of an in-depth feature on Natalie Portman, The New York Times published an email exchange between Portman and the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (inexplicably featuring many photos of Portman wearing scant clothing). Foer’s emails represented some of the strangest malaise ever expressed in a major American newspaper. In an effort to plunge into the tortured depths of Foer’s soul, I have recorded a dramatic reading of the emails, with the hope that this recording might help future generations make sense of the Foer predicament.
When Sony announced that it would be remaking the rightly beloved 1984 Ghostbusters movie, with women wearing the proton packs and Bridesmaids‘s Paul Feig on board to direct, you didn’t have to look too hard at the galleon being craned up for a retrofit to see the unsavory barnacles of terrified white manboys clutching onto the hull for dear life. Fan entitlement, long rooted in a patriarchal sense of childhood nostalgia that the Daily Beast‘s Arthur Chu shrewdly pinpointed as “‘pickup artist’ snake oil — started by nerdy guys, for nerdy guys — filled with techniques to manipulate, pressure and in some cases outright assault women to get what they want,” once again failed to do a little soul-searching and reflection on what its inflexible stance against the natural evolution of art truly means.
Just as some vocal fans protested the excellent film Mad Max: Fury Road for being “a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their eyes,” the Ghostbusters absolutists knew that the studios wanted their dollars and that they could still get away with voicing their reactionary sentiments through the same cowardly anonymity that allowed Donald Trump to emerge as presidential candidate.
Much as a “silent majority” had propped up Trump under the illusion that a billionaire’s outspoken sexism and bigotry somehow represented an anti-establishment “candidate like we’ve never seen before,” these fans downvoted the new Ghostbusters trailer in droves when it was released online in April. One month later, a smug bespectacled mansplainer by the name of James Rolfe put a human face to this underlying sexism, posting a video (viewed by nearly two million), shot in what appeared to be a creepily appropriate basement, in which he vowed not to review the new remake:
You know what everybody’s been calling it? The female Ghostbusters. I hear that all the time. The female Ghostbusters. Does that mean we have to call the old one the male Ghostbusters? It doesn’t matter. But I can’t blame everybody for identifying that way. Because there’s no other way to identify the movies. There’s no other name for it.
Maybe you’d view movies this way if you’d spent a lifetime refusing to live with your shortcomings, carving the likenesses of Stallone and Schwarzenegger onto your own personal Mount Rushmore when not ordering vacuum devices or getting easily duped by Cialis scams. But the crazed notion that gender isn’t just the first way to identify a remake, but the only way to do so, speaks to a disturbing cultural epidemic that must be swiftly remedied by more movies and television starring women in smart and active roles, unsullied by the sexualized gaze of a pornographic oaf like James Rolfe.
It’s worth observing that Sony — a multinational corporation; not the National Organization of Women, lest we forget — had been in talks with the Russo Brothers well before Feig for an all-male remake, a fact also confirmed in a leaked email from Hannah Minghella. The Hollywood machine only cares about gender parity when it is profitable. It continues to promulgate superhero movie posters that are demeaning to women. It erects large outdoor ads flaunting violence against women. (Deadline Hollywood reported that the infamous X-Men Apocalypse ad featuring Mystique in a chokehold was approved by a top female executive at 20th Century Fox.) And when the studios do flirt with “feminist” blockbusters — such as Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch — the results are dismayingly objectifying.
Despite all this, I entered the press screening of the Ghostbusters remake with an open mind and the faint hope that there could be at least a few baby steps towards the game-changing blockbuster that America so desperately needs to redress these many wrongs.
I’m pleased to report that the new Ghostbusters movie does give us somewhat reasonable depictions of women as scrappy scientists, at least for a mainstream movie. The film is refreshingly devoid of Faustian feminist bargains such as Sandra Bullock floating around in her underwear in Gravity or Dr. Carol Marcus flaunting her flesh in Star Trek: Into Darkness. We are introduced to Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) practicing a lecture in an empty Colubmbia University classroom, having to contend with an embarrassing pro-ghost book (Ghosts from Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively) that she co-wrote years before with her friend and academic peer, Abby Yates (played with the expected enjoyable verve by Melissa McCarthy). Erin, who dresses in wonderfully dorky plaid suits that the dean cavils about, is up for tenure and is understandably queasy about anything that stands in the way of her reputation. Leslie Jones plays Patty Tolan, an MTA inspector with a necklace telegraphing her name who serves as a counterpart to Winston from the original film, and has far more scenes to establish her character than poor Ernie Hudson ever did. Screenwriters Katie Dippold and Feig deserve credit for making Patty more than a token African-American, active enough to ensconce herself with the founding trio and provide some New York know-how in a way that Winston, confined to “Do you believe in God?” car banter and doing what he was told, never quite received in the original.
The sole disappointment among the new quartet is Kate McKinnon as weapons expert Jillian Holtzmann. McKinnon mugs artlessly throughout the film, almost as if she’s channeling William Shatner or Jim Carrey at their worst, too smitten with an impressionist’s toolbox of overly eccentric tics. While McKinnon’s performances have worked in five minute doses (especially in her very funny impressions of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live), this is not an approach that is especially suited for ensemble work on an IMAX screen. McKinnon quavers her bottom lip and enters each shot with a distracting “funny” walk that contributes nothing whatsoever to her character or the scene. The effect is that of an actor exceedingly ungenerous to her colleagues, one that not even the continuity person can track. (Jillian’s glasses disappear and reappear several times during any given scene.)
McKinnon seems to be doing a caffeinated and charmless impression of Lori Petty from Tank Girl. She’s a terrible stage hog throughout the film, whether by her own choice or by Feig’s design. Even accounting for the script supervisor’s absenteeism, one gets the suspicion it’s more of the latter, perhaps shoehorned into this movie because of a studio note. How else can one explain an early moment in the film where McKinnon stands passive before a ghost and says, “You try saying no to these salty parabolas” while chomping potato chips? This line, which sounded more like bottom-of-the-barrel Madison Avenue than a honed sentence written by Parks and Recreation alumni, justifiably did not get much of a laugh, not even among the ringers who were planted in the middle rows at the screening I attended. And when your source text has indelible lines like “Back off, man, I’m a scientist” and “You….you’ve earned it,” it’s probably best to work interactive human behavior rather than commentary upon a snack.
I’ve long maintained a loose theory that you can tell a lot about a comedy movie by the way it refers to food. Weird Al Yankovic’s gloriously underappreciated UHF celebrates its benign strangeness with a Twinkie wiener sandwich (and the original Ghostbusters, of course, features Harold Ramis holding up a Twinkie with some class). Zoolander revels in its splashy flash with an orange mocha frappuccino. Shaun of the Dead features a completely invented snack called Hog Lumps, suggesting the mad invention pulled from cultural reference.
The Ghostbusters remake features a tired repeat gag of Abby constantly complaining about the lunch delivery man not including enough wontons in her soup. And there’s really no better metaphor to pinpoint what’s so wrong about this movie. Because while I loved 75% of the ladies here (and grew to tolerate McKinnon’s annoyingly spastic presence as the film went on), there weren’t enough dependable wontons floating in this movie. Not the dialogue, which isn’t as sharp and snappy as it needs to be. Not the generic CGI look of the ghosts (including Slimer), which can’t top the organic librarian and taxi driver in the original film. Not the story of a bellhop who hopes to unleash a torrent of trapped spirits into New York (although this is better than Ghostbusters II‘s river of slime). And based on the exasperated sighs and silence I heard around me, I wasn’t the only one. It says something, I think, that the Ghostbusters end up fighting a giant version of their own logo at one point.
I really believe that there’s a very smart story buried somewhere within this somewhat pleasing, if not altogether funny, offering. For example, Dippold and Feig have replaced the original film’s EPA as meddlesome government entity with the Department of Homeland Security, which wants the nation to believe that the Ghostbusters are cranks. This is an interesting and timely premise to pursue in a reboot made in a surveillance and smartphone age. (Indeed, there’s even an appropriate selfie stick gag halfway through the film.) It’s moments like this where the Ghostbusters remake wins back your trust after a clunky moment. But there comes a point when the movie decides to throw its hands in the air, becoming yet another loud, boring, and predictable romp featuring the destruction of Manhattan. Again?
And there are cameos. Annoying, purposeless, time-sucking cameos from the surviving members of the original Ghostbusters cast. This not only adds needless bulk to the story, but it isn’t especially fair to the new cast trying to establish themselves, especially in a movie that is already on somewhat shaky ground. Bill Murray as a famous debunker is the only cameo that is fun (and it also buttresses the film’s half-hearted exploration into belief). But instead of confining Murray to a walk-on role, the filmmakers have Murray show up at Ghostbusters HQ (a Chinese restaurant instead of a firehouse), where one can’t help but be reminded of the original’s considerable strengths.
Feig and his collaborators have forgotten what made the first film become a classic. It was the funny human touches of Rick Moranis parroting William Atherton’s pointing as Louis was possessed by Vinz Clortho or Bill Murray wincing as he opened up the lid of Dana’s leftovers or Janine peering around a partition in the back (a shot repeated in the remake, but with tighter focus and less art and subtlety) as Venkman and Walter Peck squared off at the firehouse. There simply isn’t enough of this in the remake. Today’s filmmakers — even somewhat decent ones like Feig — seem to have turned their backs on why we identify with characters and why we go to the movies. And who the hell needs to pay a babysitter and bust out the credit card for a far too large tub of popcorn when there are far more interesting characters on television?
I want to be clear that I am not here to write a hit piece. This remake isn’t awful in the way that Ghostbusters II was, but it’s far from great in the way the original film was. This should have been a groundbreaking motion picture. It damn well needed to be to beat back the James Rolfes and the Gamergate trolls and any other boneheaded atavist with a keyboard and an Internet connection.
We sometimes have to vote for compromise candidates in two party political races. But when the summer gives us several dozen blockbusters to choose from, is the half-hearted Ghostbusters remake really the progressive-minded movie we should accept? Is an incremental step forward in mass culture enough to be happy with? Or should we demand more? I’ve thought about this for the past few days and I’ve increasingly come around to believing that audiences — and women in particular — deserve far better soup and a hell of a lot more wontons.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two years ago, in response to the senseless deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the abusive hands of the police, I wrote what turned out to be a highly controversial short story called “To Serve and Protect.” It was my effort to portray the institutional trappings that perpetuate racism, police brutality, and our endemic gun culture. I submitted the story to several literary journals. All rejected it. While many of these outlets praised the story, the editors were greatly unnerved by the story’s hard truths. One editor informed me that she didn’t want to alienate her readers. And as my story made the rounds at a snail’s crawl, there were more murders, needless murders, of innocent and unarmed men by the police all around the nation. In the past week, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile also lost their lives, their final moments recorded in harrowing video that will numb and horrify anyone who is human. And that wasn’t all. Last night, five police officers were killed by snipers during a Dallas protest against police brutality. Clearly, the problem that I was attempting to dramatize isn’t going away. Clearly, the literary world is a timid and gutless bunch when it comes to publishing fiction that provokes and reflects the realities of our time. What is especially shocking to me is that, while I have not changed my story in any way, every sentence still applies. I cannot stay silent about the headlines any longer. So I have decided to publish my story here, with the hope that it might help at least a few readers to make sense and find solutions to the terrible American nightmare. Silence is not an option when it comes to stopping racism and violence. It’s on us to confront the ugly realities — through peace, art, and action — that cause these pointless plagues to endure.
We left the nigger’s body rotting on the dark and filthy asphalt for four hours as we swatted away the flies swirling around the exit wounds in drunken loops. The insects hoped to plug their thin trunks into six fresh holes spilling out the nigger’s once young blood, which dried into the baking black cracks, absorbing the funhouse light of our whirling sirens. You chided us for hitching the yellow tape into your front yards, but we can’t fulfill our duties if we don’t stretch the perimeter of a crime scene into your personal space. We asked you to move back as you lashed out with rubber necks and flimsy accusations. We enforced curfew so you wouldn’t kill yourselves and you scolded us for not calling the paramedics fast enough. You aligned yourselves with the helicopter journalists after we threw those pesky gnats into vans and cells and any space we could call prison when they pressed past the limits of their credentials and tried churning their tyro familiarity with our precinct into a national story. You never saw the fear that clouded inside the whites of our eyes.
Not that we’d let you.
Modern policing demands the deafening squelch of our sound cannons when you won’t heed our crystal-clear commands through the speakers. We are the ones in control. Not you. We crank up our warnings because your ears choose to deafen.
The nigger wasn’t armed, or maybe he was. Maybe it was a gun we couldn’t find. Maybe it was the half-melted Hershey’s bar we found buried in his hoodie pocket or the burner phone lodged in the seat of his jeans. The evidence will show that we had to take the nigger down, that he was a credible threat, and all this will wash out your social media speculations. We are working with the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Highway Patrol, any old coot with a badge pushing his beak into our jurisdiction. We will never have our men found guilty. We have the President of the United States, the Governor, and the Mayor all on our side. We can produce videos, radio scanner chatter, logs, reports, just about anything needed for a slam-dunk case. We will respond to your sunshine requests, but you must understand that it will take time for our overworked and underpaid staff to sift through your poorly worded entreaties. And by the time you get the docs you so desperately crave, it will be too late. Our first priority is to keep the community safe.
We asked the nigger to cooperate, but he wouldn’t raise his hands in the air. Dig all you want into the back story of the two primary officers involved. Why do you think we gave you their names? We know when whiny lions need measly scraps to chew on. We can assure you that every member of our department hoped the nigger would adhere to our request and step peacefully into our protective arms. The tape will show that our voices did not quaver or waver once when we crooned through our bullhorns. We were calm and professional and the nigger told us to fuck off. He cited an institution abolished 150 years ago, but we’ve read our history and we know that we’re on the right side. The nigger told us that he was tired of being harassed and that he would never be questioned or taken in. And he started waving his arms and jumping up and down, which is something you should never do in front of boys in blue. It was a common tale we see all the time: a terrified man hiding behind bold talk and false bluster. So we shot him. Because we never look in the mirror. All told, it took about two seconds. Happens all the time. If you were walking in our lead brogans and you saw that the devil had something more than fight or flight to offer the universe, wouldn’t you make the same call? Are you up on this year’s statistics? Do you have any real idea how many niggers have reached into their pockets to shoot our guys? And don’t give us that old song and dance about banning firearms or limiting our supplies. We know the Constitution (including the Thirteenth Amendment) as well as the local criminal codes, but there’s only enough room to enforce one canon. We’re here because you couldn’t form a well-regulated militia to save your hides. You’re so busy shooting up your families and blowing up stores that you never notice the bullets hurled our way as we’re trying to help you. So we’re the ones who take the rap and the crap. Look at it from our perspective. If we let one nigger walk away, then all of you will. And, yes, contrary to your racial profiling conspiracies, we’d let a dumb cracker who won’t show us his ID expire in the street the same way. There are monkeys of every color on the rainbow and they all need to learn how to behave.
So now that the nigger is dead, what do you want us to do? Stop our operations? String up the guilty parties in front of the central precinct? You don’t want to work with us and we don’t want to work with you. We know you’ll always view us as grim grunts lusting over the next 1033 shipment from the Beltway. You think our cocks harden over the wet dream of rushing into a broken hood with fresh Hummers. Well, if we were so committed to shooting tear gas at you at all hours, why do you think we let you steal some of our toys? Sure, there’s some under-the-table income that smooths out our take home pay, but maybe we wanted to give you mouthy cunts a fighting chance. You were the ones who photographed us and shared your slanted stories on YouTube. You call us pigs and crackers (and Oreos and Uncle Toms if we share your shade).
All told, we’ve been pretty fucking forgiving. It isn’t our fault that we have quotas to meet and misdemeanors to invent. We’ve given you plenty of opportunities to wiggle out of a trivial ticket, but you still insist that you’re better, even as you slip up and give us lip. Do you want this to become Detroit? How long would you uppity fuckers last if we left the streets? If you think we’re putting down our guns and letting you animals take over our turf after we’ve managed to make a few blocks safe over fifteen patient years, then we’ve got a subprime mortgage for you to sign. By all means, shoot yourselves up with semiautomatics. If you’re going to shoot someone, why not kill all the bankers? Get the city council to pay one of our officers more than thirty-five thou a year and we wouldn’t have to take any…
…time before I punch out, as soon as I squared away the next shift with the sarge. Eight years of this shit and the gray was debuting at the top of my chops and my heavy body was coming home more sore with the shellacking each night. Chasing down suspects, perp walks executed with a more elaborate show, more time testing out the latest from Washington, having to fire back shots more and more as the crime rate soared and we were busting our asses to beat the CompStat numbers and our computers malfunctioned and the paperwork rose in tall rough impossible towers. Fiddling thumbs before the door, watching the sarge lurch left, right, left, right, as a burly suspect was two minutes away from confessing to a crime he never committed, the good cop burning the sin into his brain with a bullshit plea bargain from the Frank Castle playbook. Empty squares on the shift sheet staring back, the texts coming in from the wife, who was waiting, like me, to know when I had free time.
“Tomorrow,” said the sarge. “Collect your car at midnight.”
The kid’s shift. Rodriguez, that hotshot flyboy who’d only been here two years. He called in a favor. The way I once did before they tilted their ears to the new blood. That gave me eight hours to unwind, including sleep. I’d supported Gibson and Jiminez when they shot up that unarmed kid. Fingers were itching harder these days. No more apprentice period. Small wonder that the community we tried to defend didn’t trust us anymore.
I checked my gear into the locker. In desperate need of a shower, but I never hit the stalls with these guys. They’re still shaking off the sticky dregs of rapid-fire indignities doled out by the top brass when they can’t type out their reports on time or they don’t meet the daily quota. The same eyes that size up a crime scene have a way of searing into you. I can’t even count the times that something I’ve muttered in a stressful haze gets recalled by another grunt fond of chewing out my ass when the captain calls us in for a new sting.
Sure, I’ll meet the boys for basketball and barbeques and donuts. Never in bars. I know other cops get off on walking behind a 7-11 counter and grabbing the greasy pot that’s been rusting there for hours and hours. They fill up their Styrofoam cups of shady joe without paying a dime. That’s never been my way. These guys mark their territory because there’s nobody waiting at home. You learn who the lonely ones are because you forge tight bonds fast, especially if you want to survive. The endless stream of code and calm crackling through the radio leaves little time for jokes, unless, by some miracle, you’re ahead on the calls. But the never-ending pace doesn’t halt the young hungry fucks, the ones hungering for a detective badge, from nipping at your battered heels.
I’m a good cop compared to most of these animals. But even good cops lose their cool and take out their shit on a casual scumbag. You don’t rat out your peers, not if you want to live tomorrow. You look the other way and hope that the other guy softens over time.
I don’t take bribes, but I will take gifts. I stick within my salary. I take the old lady out for dinner at the seafood place once a year on her birthday, but we do have two kids and that sucks up expenses. It’s hard enough to come home and not beat the brats within an inch of their lives for something that has nothing to do with them. I don’t know what’s harder. Keeping expenses within your frugal budget or never blowing up. But it’s too late to change. By the time my youngest hits eighteen, I’ll be well past the age for a graceful career change.
I never would have had this life if I hadn’t walked into a donut shop one foggy morning. I helped nab one of those scam artists who target the dopey guys working the register. The fucker was a big man with long dreads grown from some reggae obsession lasting longer than an old fuck’s Reader’s Digest subscription. I watched the scammer lay into the register guy, claiming he never got change back from his twenty. He came in during the rush, scoping out the place to make sure it was understaffed. There are better ways to squeeze ten bucks out of a dummy, but his crime was so small time that nobody wanted to step in. Nobody wants to do anything anymore. But I saw the whole thing. The bastard had to be stopped. So I grabbed his arms and slammed his head onto the counter and told him that I was making a citizen’s arrest. The dopey guy behind the counter called the cops. The whole donut shop cheered me on, telling me that I was a hero, telling me that they wished they had my courage because the scammer was a big man with the kind of presence that suggests homicidal intent. It was the last time anyone told me that I did a good job, that I had a place in life. I told the detective everything: the crooked slant of the scammer’s upper teeth, the faint scar he had on his chin, the suspicious boom of his voice, the banged up Chevy Beretta with its dopey diagonal frame. He laughed, fired up two cigarettes, passed me one, and said I’d be a good cop. I called the recruitment line. The rest is my sad personal history.
We hate ourselves. We go to bed angry and wake up angrier the next morning. If we could blow our collective brains out, we would. We’re so wiped out at the end of the day. It’s an exhaustion most of you can only dream about.
Yes, we shot the nigger. We aren’t going to deny that. But we became the niggers of the workforce a long fucking time ago. There’s no escaping our destiny. We’ll go on killing niggers until the captain gives us the bright gold watch and sends our spent and battered husks to Florida. There’s no room for idealism in this job. If you want uplift, join a glee club.
The one thing that keeps us going is our responsibility to stub out crime, to do the best we can. But sooner or later, you come to understand that everyone is a criminal. And while you can check in your brain and keep your head down and wonder how the years rolled by so fast, we have to endure the riffraff and live with the burden of too much authority. But we’ll keep on going. We’ll keep on going because our mission is to serve and protect.
Ever since Samuel Madden responded to Swift in 1733 with the satirical Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, in which letters from a Jesuit-ruled future were magically received in 1728, time travel narratives have proven difficult for many artists to resist. And the audio drama ars PARADOXICA is a terrific one.
Created by Mischa Stanton and Daniel Manning, the program follows Dr. Sally Grissom (played by Kristen DiMercurio) as she records various tapes after inadvertently landing in the early days of the Cold War, forced to work as a wage slave for Uncle Sam and soon finding herself forging friendships and paths to further scientific discovery with other scientists. It is a brainy and sometimes quietly goofy narrative, with null fields, strange small towns, time travel murders, reverse engineered answered machines, and crazed trips to Las Vegas, all buttressed by fantastic vocal work, an expansive narrative, and mysterious numbers that punctuate the end of each episode.
Aside from its growing family of notable characters and surprise plots, one of the reasons why ars PARADOXICA works so well is its careful attention to sound. In the show’s most recent episode, “Anchor,” we hear two characters discussing how “quiet” the 1940s are. This is then followed by a scene in a hotel room that seems a little quieter than one might expect, almost as if the previous reference to silence served as an excuse to avoid hustle and bustle in the mixing. So the listener becomes accustomed to a certain tone, only for that tone to be jarred by events that go down during a road trip later in the episode.
To learn more about the show’s origins, I contacted Mischa Stanton, who was kind enough to answer my many questions over a few weeks. We talked time travel, Stanton’s work as producer on The Bright Sessions, eccentric scientists, and how characters and stories inevitably change no matter how much you plan a grand narrative.
EDWARD CHAMPION: I’d argue that there are two types of time travel narratives: the heady and complicated versions populated by Shane Carruth’s Primer and Donnie Darko and the fun-filled versions seen with Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes and, most prominently, Back to the Future (which ars PARADOXICA has extensively name-checked). Then there are films like Looper and 12 Monkeys (or, for that matter, Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife), which split the difference between the two varieties. ars PARADOXICA seems to be aiming for that happy compromise. And in asking the inevitable question about how you and head writer Daniel Manning came up with ars PARADOXICA, I’m wondering if you set out to find a middle ground between heady and entertaining (not that they can’t coexist!). How does audio drama lend itself more towards a viable execution of this theoretical Venn diagram? Had you told versions of this story before? I have seen photos of timelines scrawled out on paper that appear to have been devised by one “Mischa Stanton” (answering to the names of Aaron and Abe?). What did you do to plan for this?
MISCHA STANTON: Wow, I’m really glad we’re hitting the mid-point between relaxed and serious time travel! To be perfectly honest, we definitely set out to make the most dark, the most serious, and above all the most logically-sound time travel story we possibly could. Daniel and I were frustrated by the proliferation of time travel media that had flimsy rules that weren’t based in any sort of reality. The likes of The Butterfly Effect, that movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” and Doctor Who. (Oh man, if I never hear the phrase “timey-wimey” again, it’ll be way too soon.) We wanted a world with rules, and a story with strict adherence to those rules. That the show is any funny at all comes from Dan’s writing of Sally (Sally is basically female-Dan) and Kristen DiMercurio’s absolutely killer performance.
That said, the way we approach the show is by having the characters go through some seriously heavy and mind-bending business. So the only way to deal with that and still keep the story swimming is to recognize the utter absurdity of the scenario (in our case, the scenario being “a cold unfeeling universe”), laugh, and carry on. That carries over from how I view life, which is that it’s an absurd and cacophonous mess that is almost entirely out of any one person’s control. So you just gotta laugh!
The time travel concept in and of itself isn’t what drove us to audio. In fact, our very first crack at this “brand” of storytelling we’ve cultivated wasn’t even a time travel story at all. The show started as a numbers station (of which listeners can find an example at the end of each episode) that Daniel and I recorded in our dorm at Emerson College, and then snuck onto the radio in the dead of night while no one was listening. It was only after we did it once that we begin to consider, “Okay, why does this numbers station exist? Who is it from? Who is it to?” And from there, we expanded out to “a secret government time travel conspiracy.”
As for how much we have planned, without giving too much away, I’ll say this: We had the last episode outlined before the pilot. I think that’s probably the best way to write a time travel story: write the ending first. That way, all of your logical knots untangle into something concrete at the end. You also get a ton of opportunities to foreshadow plot threads and plant little seeds for later that we, as fans, love to pick apart and unravel.
The weather is 1 degree Celsius in @arsparadoxica: 15 10 4 6 BEEP 24 16 19 12 BEEP 13 16 23 6 BEEP 26 16 22 9 BEEP 20 9 16 24 Danke schoen!
— Edward Champion (@drmabuse) April 25, 2016
CHAMPION: I had a feeling that you and Daniel knew each other, but I didn’t realize how far back the connection went! And it does have me wondering if anybody ever replied to your college radio cryptographic code. (Certainly, I felt compelled to tweet back minutes after listening to the first episode of ars PARADOXICA!) This leads me to wonder how you managed to land the magnificent Kristen DiMercurio and how you went about casting this. Did you rely largely on people you knew? Did you willfully establish a universe with constraints because the best creative work typically emerges out of creative limitations? The fact that you bleep out the year that Sally came from and that you regularly bombard Sally’s diary entries with interference suggests a keen commitment to creative obfuscation! I’m almost wondering how much you folks obsess over the minutest details. The Wooden Overcoats fellows told me that they even have “placeholder” jokes until they can get it right. If you are sitting on a massive pile of paperwork (and I suspect you are!), what freedom do you allow yourself to deviate or improvise — whether in the writing or the recording of ars PARADOXICA?
STANTON: We’ve had a few die-hard fans figure out the codes— which is a lot of fun for us because that just means we get to come up with harder codes! Shoutout to Brian B and Phoebe S, the lead code-breakers out there.
aP is actually Kristen’s first voice acting gig! I knew her in college (not super well, but we often attended the same theatre program parties), and she posted on our college’s alumni Facebook group asking if anyone had any leads on classes for voice acting. We messaged her the same day: “Wanna read for a lead role in our show?” And now she’s absolutely blowing up the scene. She’s working with Two-Up Productions on their next thing. She’s playing Selina Kyle in an adaptation of Batman: Year One. She’s getting casting calls left and right for different audio dramas. We really found something special with Kristen, and the show wouldn’t be nearly as good without her.
A lot of the cast are just actor friends of mine. I knew Reyn Beeler, Dan Anderson, Katie Speed, and Lee Satterwhite from college (along with a lot of our “additional voices” cast), and Zach Ehrlich and Susanna Kavee and I go all the way back to high school. The one big find I made outside of my friend group was Robin Gabrielli, who plays Anthony Partridge. I met him through the director of a play I designed back in Boston. Man, is that guy just a treasure. And of course, now that I’m out of college and working in the Los Angeles entertainment industry, I have a much wider base to pull new actors from!
As far as constraints, one of my design heroes, Mark Rosewater, likes to reiterate “restrictions breed creativity.” The blank page can be intimidating. So giving yourself conditions to go by helps to realize your story a long way. That’s why we keep to such strict rules in aP. We think the “Only to the past, not before 1943” framework makes for a more interesting story. But within that, we try to keep an open mind about what is possible. It’s been especially interesting in Season 2, since we’ve opened the world up to a new writing staff. And now they come to me with questions of “Does this work?” or “Can I do this?” or “Will this break the rules?” And it’s great to have clear yes/no answers, to work with the writers to fit their grand ideas into this framework.
Once the scripts are written, the story is mostly locked-in. We do a lot of work with the writers to make sure everything (a) makes sense within the world, (b) sounds consistent with how we want to portray the characters, and (c) sets up the plot threads needed for future stories. However, when I get in the booth with an actor, often we’ll find something that doesn’t make sense or that sounds awkward to say. Or we’ll find a leftover line from a previous edit that doesn’t fit anymore and we change it up. We’re not married to the text of each individual line. I’ve also recorded whole scenes and then cut them in editing (usually I run this by the writer first). “No scene is worth a line and no show is worth a scene,” as Daniel likes to say!
CHAMPION: I presume that some of the newer actors, such as L. Jeffrey Moore and Alexander Cole in “Asset,” are people you haven’t known before. How did you go about finding actors once your creative universe started to expand? What difference is there in working with someone you’ve known for a long time and someone new? Have you had to make adjustments when, say, Kristen wasn’t available for an episode? One common suggestion I’ve heard among radio drama producers is “Don’t look at your actors” and I have to confess that, while this is eminently pragmatic and sensible, it does suggest a queasy parallel to certain big name Hollywood actors who secure guarantees that crew members should never give them eye contact when they are on set. Given that eye contact is pretty damn essential in talking with and working with people, even for something that is designed for the ear, what do you do to cultivate an atmosphere of intimacy? How have you become better at directing the actors? Have you ever had to bend the draconian rules that you and Daniel established at the beginning to serve the characters?
STANTON: As we’ve expanded our cast (and we have a huge cast) I’ve relied on people I know, or friends of people who are already involved. I met Jeff through Robin Gabrielli, Alex is a fellow audio producer. I was the audio engineer for a musical produced in LA written by Rebekah Allen, who plays Bridget in Episode 13. There was a similar case with Arjun Gupta, who will be in Episode 14. Collaborative art forms, especially audio drama, are all about building your networks outward until you find who you need. Fortunately, the audio drama community has been incredibly welcoming!
I have never heard about “no eye contact,” but I wouldn’t subscribe to that even if I had. A lot of our recording sessions are done by remote. Rather than send an actor off to record on their own, I almost always schedule a time to read with them over Skype. I find it creates a much more personal experience for the actor, which translates to their relationship with the audience in a tangible way.
When we started, I had absolutely no experience directing voice actors. I learned everything I know while creating this show. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is knowing what you want going in and not being afraid to ask for this plainly and without fear. You also shouldn’t be afraid to re-take a line until you’re satisfied!
Fortunately, we’ve only had to bend the script to accommodate an unavailable actor once. And even then, the actress had recorded material previously that we were able to use. As far as bending the story, I like to think of it as a bonsai tree: We can bend as we move forward. But once we make a bend, we have to stick to it. What comes before, even the bends, become the solid foundation for everything that comes after.
CHAMPION: So your story is as naturally expansive as matter contending with repulsive gravity! Since we’re finding a cosmological constant of sorts and since you’ve previously expressed how you put a hard foot down on “timey wimey,” I’m wondering what you’ve done in the name of research. Do you have any salivating physicists trapped in a closet who are willing to unpack entropy and effective field theory for a few scraps of food? Have you relied on any particular books or texts? I get a general Harvard-MIT vibe (a good one, not an obnoxious one!) from ars PARADOXICA and I’m curious what background you, Daniel, and your nimble gang of collaborators have in science? Do you ever find that the dramatization of science or theory gets in the way of exploring characters? Perhaps this was one reason you had the team go to Vegas?
STANTON: I can tell you straight off that we only barely have a background in science. As far as formal training goes, I studied psychology and psychoacoustics (the study of sound perception) in college, and I’m an audio and acoustical engineer by trade; and Daniel like…got an A- in 10th grade Chemistry. Beyond that, the only things we know about particle physics and entropy are what we’ve researched for the show, and most of that was just hours and hours combing Wikipedia articles and their sources (here’s a pro tip for anyone writing a college paper: don’t cite Wikipedia, cite Wikipedia’s sources). I’ve never considered myself a scientist. I’m more of an artist heavily influenced by scientific discoveries, information, and techniques.
The Vegas episode (03: Trinity, Acts I & II) was definitely a point where writing the story butted up against our lack of formal scientific training. In that episode, the characters have to present time travel as a viable tool for the US government muckety-mucks, and then spend weeks trying to devise a presentation. But we found while writing the episode that we couldn’t actually come up with a viable presentation to even write into the show! We had the same struggle as the characters in creating a formal time travel presentation that wasn’t just sleight-of-hand. So that’s what we had the characters do. In the end, they just do some sleight-of-hand. And it doesn’t work. They fail their presentation. The program shuts down. And they end up having to move to a tiny town in Colorado. So in that way, the science and our understanding of it (or lack thereof) really informed the direction of the entire show.
That said, we wrote Episode 03 in the very first batch of scripts, before we even had Kristen on the show, before it was out in the world. Working with the show out in the world for over a year now has given us a better grasp on what we can and can’t do. And I’m proud to say we’ve finally figured out how to design some really cool time travel experiments. Stay tuned for Episode 15, I’m really proud of it.
CHAMPION: You also produce The Bright Sessions and I’m terribly curious about (a) how this happened, (b) how working within another person’s vision differs from what you and the gang have established at ars PARADOXICA, and (c) what you did to make Lauren’s job easier? Was there anything she wasn’t doing that you implemented?
STANTON: I found The Bright Sessions as a fan first! I was trying to find other shows like ours, and I kept seeing people mention The Bright Sessions, so back in March I listened to the first season on a plane ride. I was hooked. And then there was a mid-season announcement on her feed, where Lauren said that if she made enough Patreon money she’d be able to hire an audio producer who actually knew audio. And I said to myself, “I’m an audio producer!” So I emailed Lauren the next day offering to jump in with her. She’s got the acting and directing stuff down, but she wasn’t as well-versed in the audio production, the mixing, the creation of sound effects. So I’ve helped prop up what she doesn’t know, so that she has been able to tell bigger and more ambitious stories. Before I started, the show was still mostly two people in a room. But once I joined she was able to give her characters more things to do and more space to do them in. As I checked my email to respond to this question, Lauren just sent me confirmation that The Bright Sessions #24 (“Zero Hour,” her Season 2 finale) is ready for launch. And, of course, your readers will have already heard it by the time this interview comes out. So they’ll know that it’s our most ambitious episode yet.
I’ve been working in collaborative theatre environments for twelve years. So designing to someone else’s vision is actually pretty par for the course for me (that I have so much more creative control on aP than I usually do is probably why I push so hard with it). Lauren is an amazing boss. She has such a clear pictures of these characters in her head. It’s like they’re all real people she knows and hangs out with, but that I’ve never met. She always knows exactly what she wants, even if she doesn’t always have the best words to describe it. We’ve developed a lot of trust. So she gives me a lot of freedom to craft the soundscapes of the show. But that’s my job! Lauren asks for a mood, a general feel to the episode (or she suggests it in her writing) and it’s my job to take that mood and interpret it as a soundscape. That’s what a sound designer does: takes the tool of sound, and uses it to provoke emotional responses to tell a unified story. (Are you listening, Tony Awards?)
CHAMPION: I should probably disclose that I am terribly fond of fun dramatizations of science and scientists, whether they hit the more eccentric strains seen with John Noble’s Dr. Walter Bishop in Fringe, Dr. Emilio Lizardo in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, or Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator or the more straight-laced eccentric seen with Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Seth Brundle in The Fly, Dr. Hubert J. Farnswoth in Futurama, or (more medical than physics) Dr. Dana Scully in The X-Files (which seems to be the closest model for Dr. Sally Grissom). What impresses me about ars PARADOXICA is how you’ve rooted Dr. Grissom in reality and that scientists as a whole don’t fall into the authoritative eccentric model that we’ve become so accustomed to. I’m very interested if any of this factored into the writing and devising of these episodes, even before you had Kristen. To what degree is your background in acoustics responsible for a similarly dogged commitment to the real? (The Truth‘s Jonathan Mitchell also has an extensive audio and music background, which I suspect is heavily responsible for that marvelous program’s commitment to grounding his stories in base reality.)
STANTON: I think stories have a tendency to boil down a knowledgeable character into a one-dimensional role— “the Scientist/the Smart One.” And with good reason. It’s a great exposition machine when you need the story to move along, especially in media where you’re on a strict time limit like TV. Cop shows do this a lot with the ME/Coroner character, just as a way to spit out pertinent medical information and move the plot forward. And then, often to give a bit of color to it, a producer will throw in a generalized “eccentricity,” as you call it, to make the character at least partly memorable. But with a show like ours, something that is all about the science and how it affects the people close to it, being smart or being a scientist is a given. So yeah, Esther is smart, but she’s also caring, calculating, judgmental, and ambitious. Yeah, Sally’s a scientist, but she’s also a movie lover, a stranger in a foreign land, and an amateur comedian (one of our tenants of writing Sally is “she thinks she’s hilarious”). When “scientist” is the norm, there’s no need to stick to the trope. So it gives us far more room to play in.
A lot of what our show explores is the morality of discovery. I’ve often said that science tells us what we can do. But it’s up to humanity to decide what we should do. Often you don’t know what you should do until you’ve already made a mistake. I think that’s part of what makes Sally such an interesting character to listen to. She invented this time machine entirely by accident and, before anyone could ask her what she thinks should be done with the technology, the tech is already in the hands of one of the most powerful governments on Earth in the middle of a war. So a lot of the show is Sally reconciling her love of unbounded discovery with the fear of moving ahead too fast, before she’s able to consider the consequences of her actions.
As far as my own acoustical background, I think that’s what allows me to imagine what a room sounds like, to determine which elements are vital to conveying action and which ones just get in the way. Wherever I go, I always take a moment to listen to a room and break apart the tone into pieces for later use. For example, in Episode 13, there’s a moment where two characters travel from drinking in a crowded bar in New York City to post-sex in an empty apartment. For me, setting up that scene meant: (1) muffled city noise behind the apartment walls, (2) heavy breathing, (3) rustling bedsheets, (4) grabbing a lighter and lighting a cigarette. These moments are all disconnected pieces when you listen to them individually. But when put together there’s really only one thing that could have happened in the intervening space. And that’s the trick to building convincing scenes in audio drama. It’s not just finding the right sound effects. It’s finding the exact combination of elements that can only mean what you want these to say.
And thank you so much for that comparison! Jonathan is an incredible artist, and The Truth was a huge inspiration to me. I had just picked it up as I was mixing our first episode. It really showed me what a podcast can do, and pushed me to make aP even better.
CHAMPION: I completely detected the “she thinks she’s hilarious” vibe from Sally as she records her diary entries, which is a peculiar cousin to loneliness. It’s not unlike the relentless pop cultural references that fuel Eiffel’s monologues in Wolf 359. Eiffel believes he’s a standup comic to some degree, but he’s also deeply flustered in deep space. In my conversation with The Bright Sessions‘s Lauren Shippens, we discussed how the natural intimacy of radio often lends itself to this therapeutic feeling, almost as if you’re eavesdropping upon a rather naked portrait of human emotions. With Sally, we often have her zest colliding with her frustration and ennui, almost as if she’s masking her true feelings as dutifully as you’re bleeping out the year she came from. How long can you sustain these emotional revelations by omission in a long-running serial? Was this one of the reasons you juxtaposed Sally’s life and explorations with the tension between Partridge and his wife? Also, the two-part episode “Consequence” almost tips the balance of the show altogether by showing another side of Partridge and the larger panorama of the research program. And it does have me wondering if much of this episode (and ars PARADOXICA as a whole) was designed to avoid what I call the Cuse-Lindeloff Enigmatic Storytelling Paradox, whereby a series dollops endless mysteries to rope the audience in, keeps bombarding the audience with more mysteries (perhaps as seductive as the earlier ones) while failing to resolve the previous mysteries, and only succeeds in infuriating the audience for not resolving story strands either fast or satisfyingly enough. The audience comes to resent the show and the mysteries, wondering why they bothered to tune in altogether, and turns their pitchforks on the creators for their storytelling gaffes. You alluded earlier to having a vision for the ending. While it’s impossible for any producer to anticipate the full extent of how an audience reacts, you do have a massive story. And I’m wondering the extent that you’ve addressed or anticipated this!
STANTON: We are definitely reaching a tipping point with Sally. She’s resilient, but… Okay I really don’t want to give anything away. But we’re not ignoring the compounded effects of the utter heaps of tragedies that our show has been heaping onto her. The next few episodes are really going to bring that to a head.
As for why she masks her feelings that way? That’s a byproduct of Sally being basically an amalgam of Daniel, Kristen, myself, and someone who actually knows science. I think that the three of us have a lot of zest, a lot of ideas we want to explore and a lot of things we want to say and do, as well as a lot of frustration with the world we’re living in. So we use pop culture, just like Sally does (or wishes she could) as a place that is comfortable to hide our true feelings about everything going on around us. And I think you can probably say that about a lot of people right now.
And that’s coming through in a bunch of audio dramas as well. A lot of shows, like Welcome to Night Vale and The Black Tapes and Small Town Horror, are all about living on the very edge of the unknown and getting your hands and your mind around it, trying to make some sense of the world. A lot of the things about the world that I believed to be true changed as I grew up in it. Now I think that a lot of us don’t know what to expect anymore. But we don’t want to hide from the world. So the only other option is to embrace the unknown. And pop culture references.
As for “Consequence,” Season 1 (and yes, the show from start to finish) was 100% a response to the kind of storytelling that use questions first and answers maybe. All of our questions have answers. Of course, we adapt that answer to what happens in the middle, but we are always moving toward the answer. I want our fans — or people who invest hours of their time and thought to us at the very least — to be satisfied that what we’ve built was always with purpose. I want our ending to seem unexpected yet inevitable.
CHAMPION: “Signal”‘s journey through airports allowed us to learn a few qualities about Sally — that she smokes, that she prefers jeans to sweatpants (which the part of me that bemoans sweatpants as the default American sartorial choice was pleased to learn!). And I am curious about the extent that you have worked out little personality quirks with the actors. Obviously, a story as intricate and imbricated as ars PARADOXICA is going to serve plot more than character. But how much character work do you do? Do you and Daniel struggle sometimes to find character moments? And how fixed are the answers to your questions? Have there been any radical shifts that you’ve made during the course of production? Has a read on a take ever drastically altered your story?
STANTON: I’m not sure if she smokes as a habit! Of course a lot of people did in the 40s so she may have picked it up, but she does know how bad it is for her. No, I think we wrote that in because it’s something you can’t do on planes now, and Sally is, above all, a rebel.
We’ve built the characters slowly over time. In the beginning we didn’t know much. But after casting, the actors’ readings of the scripts definitely changed how we portrayed them. Esther Roberts wouldn’t be half as interesting if it wasn’t for the amount of work Katie Speed has put into the show. Now she might be my favorite character. Chet Whickman was supposed to be a one-off soldier guy, but when Reyn [Beeler] came to record, he had put such thought and care into his performance that we knew we had to keep him on.
Our answers are usually fairly set things, but the path we take to get there is mutable. For instance, we thought we were going to stay in Polvo New Mexico for a lot longer (as an analogue to the Manhattan Project). But then we rewrote Episode 03 so that they failed in their presentation and the town got shut down, which informed a lot of how we wrote the rest of Season 1 — coming from that place of failure as opposed to being in the successful environment they had in Polvo.
CHAMPION: What’s the biggest blunder you made in the first season? What would you do differently? What’s the biggest piece of advice you could offer to any emerging audio drama producer?
STANTON: I don’t really have a great answer to this. We never made one big blunder. It just felt like a rolling series of tiny blunders. Errors in pre-planning, in communication, that made us scramble to meet deadlines a couple of times. Errors in marketing, and in how we set up the technical back-end. Not knowing my software as well as I could. aP is the first audio drama we’ve made, we’re so new to the medium, I learned so much making that first season. And I think that’s the biggest piece of advice I can give: You’re not going to get everything right the first time, or even the second time. It’s really important to forgive your own mistakes as you’re learning.
I think Ira Glass really said it best:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes awhile. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.
I now stand very tall for Hillary.
I said before before that I wouldn’t do anything beyond voting for her in November. She was a Wall Street crony, someone who wasn’t looking after working people, someone who wasn’t going far enough with her progressive politics, someone who conveniently changed her stance to suit the exigencies of her present office. All this remains true. I am still hesitant, but far less so now.
Because as political sins go, Hillary’s perceived hypocrisies are nothing compared to throwing your nation into a ruinous xenophobic cesspool in which your currency drops 8% in twelve hours and you open the floodgates to hatred and insanity. It’s nothing compared to fomenting cataclysmic policies that involve building walls or erecting borders because you’re terrified of people who have a different skin color, in which you willingly court the collapse of opportunity and somehow deny the beginnings of rampant unemployment and international instability even as the stock market drops into a harrowing crescendo of chaos.
The Brexit vote sets an example that will not only create a shock wave of duplicate referendums in other EU nations (52% of the French public supported a similar exit referendum in March and who knows how Greece will react?), but turns the promise of democracy in any nation into little more than a preposterous joke, albeit one not confined to a comedy club or a movie. This is horror with a deadly apocalyptic edge that will permanently alter lives. It is something that any proponent of democracy should be very afraid of yet find the courage to face and act upon.
I don’t think any of us thought that politics would come to this. But there are deeply angry people who have been left in the cold for years and this is what they do when we stop listening to them. These are the same people who have flocked to Trump. And they’re not going away. And the longer we ignore them, the harder their vote turns. We need to start listening to them. We need to start talking with them. We need to find points of agreement. And we need to start winning them over to our side, even if it means committing great patience and expending much time and wincing through some of their extremist and uncomfortable sentiments. Above all, the presidential election isn’t something that we should sit out.
So we all need to stand for Hillary. Right now. Not just vote for her, but volunteer for her. Not just have conversations with the people we can reach, but make phone calls to those who may not be expecting our voice. Because the alternative is so much worse.
I say this as someone who was very much pro-Bernie, who still believes that social democracy that corrects income inequality can and should happen and who still very much believes that we can put policies into place that help people. But if we allow our nation to elect Trump, we will have a situation that is very much like the UK right now, possibly unsalvageable and ensnared within a vicious framework that will make truly progressive reform close to impossible. So this is a big deal. The future of our nation and the happiness of many lives depends upon our actions today. Because, not to put too fine a point, America, with its terrible history of slavery and all the subsequent atavism that has emerged from this inhumane shadow, is more poised to unleash its inner id in November than the UK did last night.
We have a little less than five months. It will be very hard. But we can do this. We must do this.
Andrew Kaberline is one of the many affable figures behind the tremendously fun podcast, The Grayscale, a Twilight Zone-style anthology that captured my ears with an amusing over-the-top presenter sounding an awful lot like someone wanting to be Rod Serling known only as The Voice Inside Your Head (played by Nate Betancourt). I started from the beginning and listened to all of the episodes.
And then I heard “Jess Dempsey, First Woman on Mars,” a gripping and must listen tale written and directed by Kaberline that involves a woman living on the fourth planet in complete solitude who hears voices. It was this story, with an ace performance from Kristin Macomber and a devastating twist ending, that broke the back of The Grayscale‘s formula and turned me into a regular listener. The Grayscale, which is now in its second season, has won five Audio Verse Awards — largely for “Jess Dempsey.” I contacted Kaberline and he was tremendously gracious to become part of what is now apparently a regular Audio Drama Sunday interview series. (We’ll have another interview next Sunday.)
Many audio dramas seem to spring from enthusiastic genre geeks and sound engineers. But The Grayscale is somewhat unusual because it emerged from a nonprofit theatre called Critical Point that decided to experiment with a podcasting arm a few years ago. And while the show is clearly influenced by The Twilight Zone, there is something instructive in the way that Kaberline and company’s close copy of its source text resulted in something that was quite distinct. It’s not unlike the “missing tapes” genre that I discussed with The Bright Sessions‘s Lauren Shippen, whereby an audio drama takes on the form of a police procedural with a Serial-like approach. A radio producer or someone with a box of tapes often stands in for the detective and, instead of a crime, the investigation is directed towards something of a strange and supernatural nature.
While audio drama’s riffs on the “missing tapes” idea have spawned many magnificent programs (Archive 81 is a particular standout), The Grayscale demonstrates that radio doesn’t always have to tug at the same source to create something original and enthralling. Rather than mimic the most popular podcast of all time, why not try from a celebrated TV series, an obscure Swedish film, or a well-loved book? As I learned in talking with Kaberline, the form and creative logistics of audio drama result in inevitable transmutations during the production process. That may very well be why The Grayscale is such a wonderful program and why audio drama has a very ripe future.
EDWARD CHAMPION: As someone who watched many Memorial Day marathons of The Twilight Zone growing up, and who has held that series very close to his heart ever since, I was perhaps constitutionally incapable of not appreciating your own riff on the anthology format. You, good sir, have been quite candid about the influence! Not only do you include a “Companion Guide” pointing to the specific TZ episodes that informed The Grayscale, but you have also written an essay called “How I Justify Stealing,” in which you copped to stealing an idea from a production of Chekhov’s The Vagabond to find an ending for A List of Irrational Fears for Future Leaders of the World. Speaking as someone who once made a Super 8mm film of a woman trapped in a room filled with newspaper attempting to subsume her (which was a riff on a moment in Terry Glliam’s Brazil, in which Tuttle gets absorbed by newspaper), I’m no stranger to this conundrum myself. On one hand, your goal as an artist is to find your voice. On another hand, you need something to start from. I’d say that Season 2 does represent something a bit more “original,” departing from the overt Twilight Zone lifting into a more natural expression. What steps did you take between the seasons to get to this point? Or was the act of producing audio drama and putting several episodes behind you enough to get you to this place?
ANDREW KABERLINE: Firstly, I’m so happy that you mentioned that Tuttle scene in Brazil. I have said to my fellow ensemble members that if we get to do Fears again with a bigger budget, that we’re going to try to steal that moment for the ending this time!
As far as dropping bits of our Twilight Zone “tributing,” I would say that it was a natural progression, in that we never said, “Okay, this year, no references,” but it certainly has gone that way.
I do think getting more comfortable as podcast producers is the reason for that change. As a team we have got sharper at scheduling and recording with efficiency, and we gathered most of the scripts for this season before we ever premiered Season 2, which has let me avoid those situations where you go, “Oh crap, we need an episode next month. Which Twilight Zone premise can I riff on?”
The main team for The Grayscale (myself, showrunner Dylan Amick, and master sound engineer/editor/the voice inside the credits, Chelsea Rugg) did have a long talk about what was going to be different this season. We wanted it to feel like a step forward. We wanted to get different voices (you’ll notice Dylan and I have only penned one episode each so far). We wanted to explore new themes. We wanted to create a larger universe (as kicked off in our Twitter Fiction Story, which will really take shape in the second half of this season. Even the theme song was different! We built a nice little audience after Season One, and from the opening seconds of season 2 we wanted the listeners to instantly go, “Well, this is new.”
CHAMPION: Your talk of showrunners and engineers leads me to point out that The Grayscale is a bit different from other audio dramas, in that it emerged from Critical Point Theatre. I don’t know of any other theatre that is doing quite what you’re doing and, indeed, I wasn’t aware that you were producing any other podcasts until your “State of the Podcasts” address cropped up on the feed. I had initially anticipated some satirical spinoff story, with The Voice Inside Your Head announcing a podcastocratic government, only to be quite pleasantly astonished at your bona-fide commitment! Why did your theatre company feel that audio drama was the best step forward? Has it had any impact on your theatrical productions? And let me get this straight: you were writing, producing, and editing each show one at a time rather than getting the scripts for a season ready in advance? My goodness! You folks are troopers! How did you manage that insane production process? Were there scripts written in one or two nights when you knew you needed an episode? Also, since you have a new musical theme, how did music gradually encroach its way into what seems to me a pretty arduous on-the-job training process during the first season?
I’m actually kind of shocked that more theatre companies aren’t taking this same approach. All of our work is original and we create our stage productions through weekly rehearsals and a laboratory process. It leads to great work, but the one downside is that it takes a lot of time. We were worried about staying active while slowly building this content, so the emergence of a podcast wing allows us to put out work more frequently and in different disciplines.
Audio storytelling has worked its way into our theatrical storytelling too. The show that we are working on now, Phreaking, is a sort of psychological hacker melodrama, that explores the state of masculinity on the Internet, and has a forum theatre element to it, so the audience is in control. We’re creating an expanded universe for the characters in the play, that will include some blogs, videos, and even a spin-off podcast limited series. Who knows? You might even see one of the characters in the play end up being judged by The Grayscale. Time will tell. But we are having fun using our audio skills to open up our plays past the edge of the stage.
And yes, for a little while we were doing Grayscale episodes one at time, meaning that we only were a month ahead with our ideas. But it wasn’t as bad as that sentence just made it sound (except for Chelsea; rule number one of audio storytelling: don’t abuse your editors). Critical Point kinda jumped into the podcast game before we were as capable as we are now. With just one show it takes a few months to get your groove and really find the best way to do that show, but we launched five shows simultaneously. It was too much to handle, and not every show survived.
The Grayscale idea was thought up by myself and Matthew Schott during an infamous “pizza meeting,” where we created what the feeling of the show would be, and worked through five or six ideas for episodes. So while we were flying by the seat of our pants there at the beginning, we had those ideas in our back pocket at least. Four of those pizza episodes ended up running in Season One, including “Jess Dempsey.”
But yes, there was a lot of quick writing for a while. When it comes to the Rod Serling half hour formula, I’m a very speedy writer. When I’m writing full length plays… not so much.
As an ensemble we cover a lot of skills. Music composition is not one of them. We started with a theme by Sammy Pisano that I like very much. We were lucky to find Sammy through a co-worker of Chelsea’s, and he was on board very quickly. We started asking him to score the episodes themselves with that quick turnaround, and I don’t think we realized that was impossible and, quite frankly, kind of rude to ask of someone. We had to tell the stories with less music and more silence out of necessity, but I think we really prefer it now. Silence is dramatic over the radio. You’re only using one sense listening to our show and we’re taking it away. It inherently makes you feel like something is going wrong, which is great, because usually things are going wrong for our characters!
We got better at sound design too. We’re so lucky to have Chelsea Rugg. She holds the show together and is an expert at finding and making soundscapes and effects from various free and paid sound subscriptions that we have. It’s also forced Dylan and I as the primary writers to be more specific when we write sounds into the margins, and it’s only made our world of the show more specific. We learned quick. The best example of this is in “Jess Dempsey.” Chelsea had learned how to add mass and direction to something while it moved, and it allowed me to then write that effect into a major plot line. Throwing on the headphones and hearing the monster circle Jess Dempsey’s compound is still my favorite moment of the show.
We do have a new theme for the show by Isaac Aaron Jones, a friend of Dylan’s, that I love as well. We were going to do different things this season and felt a new theme was appropriate. We will likely do the same each season hereon out. My advice to audio drama makers out there is that if you don’t have the skill yourself to write music, start making friends with anyone and everyone who does.
CHAMPION: I’m keen to know more about your sound design. My feeling is that every audio drama should try to sound as distinct as possible. Certainly The Voice Inside Your Head — somewhere between a Rod Serling knockoff and a booming grandiloquent presence who, despite his alleged omniscience, may not know as much as he thinks! — is a fun and a very distinct way to steer a listener into your program and helped to land me on board for the entire run. To what extent have you employed more foley work over preexisting sounds? And I’m glad you brought up “Jess Dempsey, First Woman on Mars.” To my mind, that was the the first episode in which The Grayscale really threw off the shackles of its Twilight Zone roots and became its own separate beast. I’m wondering if you were at a “Do or Die” moment while coming up with that script, where you asked yourself the hard question, “Okay, do I want to keep on making a Twilight Zone knockoff or do I want to make something that can stand on its own?” Perhaps one inevitably resists the wiseacres offering a “tracer” argument through constant production! Also, how did you get used to directing audio drama knowing quite well that the audience wouldn’t be able to see the actors other than within the confines of their imagination?
KABERLINE: You hit the nail on the head with TVIYH. He is not as smart and powerful as he presents himself to be. He’s like if someone who loved The Twilight Zone, like you or me, answered a personal ad looking for a spooky narrator, and then was troubled to find out it was all too real once he got the job. There are much larger strings pulling TVIYH. He’s a pretty lowly company man.
We have been hit or miss with our foley. Sometimes when we want a simple sound effect, and all of our resource sounds are trying too hard, we will just do it ourselves. These don’t stand out too much in the actual episodes, because they are sounds that are supposed to just blend anyway.
Our first episode was a monster episode, and we had this idea to have the monster noises come from the sounds our cat makes when you accidentally lock him in a room. He was known to make some terrible noises, so we tried to replicate the conditions, and turns out he didn’t want to make those noises when we wanted him to. So that kind of soured us on foley for the complex sounds. For that episode, Matthew Schott (the writer/star) actually made about 90% of the monster noises himself, without a lot of manipulation from us in editing, and that worked great!
Another technique we like to employ is taking sounds from one thing and using it to represent something else. There is a lot of this in our recent episode “Nasty Things, Anachronisms.” A character spontaneously combusts and that sound is made up of a jet turbine, a trash bag ripping, a tea kettle screaming, and a few other things.
I don’t believe that we intended for Jess Dempsey to be the defining go-to episode that it became for the series. We want all the episodes to be that way, of course, but that one was a nice surprise. When we were producing Jess, we were also doing a lot of pre-production work on the next two episodes “Penelope Loves You” and “A Jitter In The Life Of Danny Wampler.” We knew those two were going to be production heavy. So the idea was for me to write one that would be simple and quick. One character alone talking to herself. That turned out to be “Jess.”
I wrote “Jess” while on an overnight shift working the front desk at a hotel, which can be as lonely and terrifying as the version of Mars in our episode. I really hated the first draft. So much so that I didn’t want to do the episode. I showed it to Dylan and Chelsea and they were like, “Are you stupid? Of course we’re doing this episode!” They understood the potential better than I did.
I don’t think we were consciously trying to move away from The Twilight Zone with that episode. In fact, I remember wanting to really go after something as issue-based as a Rod Serling script. I think part of the reason that it felt so different from our normal formula might be chalked up to tricks that were unavailable to Rod, like that kind of found footage style. And the episode was very easy to direct. One of our quickest recording sessions. Kristin Macomber came into the room knowing exactly who Jess was. She made our jobs easy.
That leads nicely into your directing question! Dylan and I do most of the directing, and we couldn’t be more different. Dylan comes in with a million ideas, and has a director’s playbook of ways to get the actor to say a line better. I can hear the greatest performance ever and seem like I’d want to be anywhere else. Both of these approaches have worked for us so far.
I think directing audio drama can be a really frustrating venture at first, especially for those with film or theatre backgrounds. A lot of those techniques simply do not work here. It hurts to have to tell some actors to fight against their good acting impulses to jump on the ends of lines or do physical work. It hurts to say, “That conservatory you paid all that money for really did teach you to act! We can control the jumping of lines better in editing than you can do in person. And when you get all physical, we can hear you hitting your lap with your hands. So here’s a pillow for you to put there so it doesn’t happen again.”
It’s a different art and it should be treated as such. The best piece of advice I can give to a new audio director is simply not to look at the actor while they’re performing. Close your eyes. They might be doing great work, making lots of choices, but then when you listen back you say, “Huh, that performance didn’t end up as good as I remembered.” Well yeah, because you were looking at the performance instead of listening to it. It is audio drama after all.
CHAMPION: I’ve also found that asking animals to convey interesting sounds on cue is indeed a challenging proposition. Sure, they’re more than happy to claim allegiance when you have food, but is a well-timed roar too much to ask from time to time? Nevertheless, I greatly admire your quixotic efforts to introduce your cat to such strange human philosophies as hitting your mark! So it sounds as if The Grayscale‘s success very much revolves around insane deadlines! I’m now very curious how fast you write those first drafts, how you revise the scripts, and whether writing for the ear represents a greater challenge for you than writing a short play. Do you often have an actor in mind during revision? And is this of help in figuring out what a story is about? Do the actors have any input upon the scripts? I won’t be uncouth enough to ask Dylan to reveal how he extracts the rabbits out of his hat, but can you divulge one or two of his most effective techniques? What do you do to make the actors feel comfortable, given that you and Dylan are spending quite a lot of time pretending to be in a witness relocation program?
KABERLINE: I write those drafts lightning fast, like two to three hours. To be fair though, most of the time I have spent a lot of my daily daydreams thinking through these episodes. So by the time I sit at my desk, it’s just about execution.
There tend to be two or three drafts total for each episode. I have become the script doctor for the show. So when I write an episode I do draft one, sleep on it, then do a revision usually the next day. When it is someone else’s script, it’s a different process.
They pitch us an outline, then Dylan, Chelsea, and I give notes. Then they give a first draft and we do another round of notes. Then they return with a second draft. And at that point, I get a final pass to punch it up and we have the final script.
Most of the time, my role in that final punch-up is to make judicious line cuts so that the episode fits in the time frame that we would like. It felt rude at first, but it has made me a much better writer across the board.
Writing for the ear has a very specific set of challenges. You can’t write in anything visual unless you want your character to state it aloud. It’s actually easier than when I sit down to write my full length plays, which tend to become abstract and don’t have abide to these rules! When I write for the ear, I already know what I can’t do. So I don’t even bother to go down those roads. What’s really rewarding is succeeding at the challenge of having clear action without dialogue. In the second episode of this season, a woman falls to the center of the Earth after the ground opens beneath her. She doesn’t say, “Oh man! I’m falling through the ground!” or anything like that. But I’m proud of how clear the action of that moment, and the action right after it, is.
I’d say that we rarely have an actor in mind when writing a Grayscale script. I certainly do it for my stage plays, but again for that you have to consider visuals. We are really really lucky to have a large pool of actors available to us who seem to enjoy working on the show. Our goal every episode is to get a new voice that has never appeared on the show, and thus far we’ve been successful. The actors don’t get any input on the creation of the script, though, in the room while recording we will often tweak lines or let them play around. Those ramblings from Becky Granger and Matthew Schott at the end of scenes from our recent episode about time travel were 100% unscripted.
Dylan won’t even tell me some of those tricks because he directs me sometimes! A magician can never reveal his secrets. But I can tell you that Dylan is really strong at giving notes to a struggling actor, without letting them know that they are struggling. I have witnessed him do this thing where an actor struggles with a line. So Dylan gives a direction that is wrong, which leads to an even worse read. Then Dylan is able to shift the cause of it not working onto him, which takes the pressure off the actor. Then Dylan gives them the actual direction/note that he wants to give them, and they are out of their head and able to take it confidently because they know whatever they do will be better than that last take. It’s really impressive.
Actor’s comfort is a large thing for us. I think what we are most conscious of is not wasting people’s time. We don’t like having people sitting around waiting for their scene, so we spend extra time on making scheduling air tight. A lot of our actors are stage actors who have never done voice-only stuff before. So, we like to let them do a first run of the scene without much direction, let them do everything their training has taught them. We react positively to that run, which isn’t hard because it’s usually compelling live theatre, and then give them the parameters of only being heard. If you try to throw all of that at an actor before they even say a word, you guarantee yourself a performer who will be entirely in their own head.
CHAMPION: One of the things I appreciate about The Grayscale is its willingness to go very big — not unlike the mysterious New Zealanders who run The Witching Hours — another anthology series for the ear operating out of a theatre! “Who Sins Most?” is almost a cousin to broad comedy in its depiction of a cruel and uptight priest (who is often quite casual about his callousness) who arrives in heaven. I’m also strangely fond of the over-the-top ending of “Applaud My Friends, The Comedy is Over,” which works to a crescendo that is absurd (albeit in an increasingly absurd age of a reality TV show host as presidential candidate) but that finds its own particular tone in the telling. Some audio drama producers are quite committed to keeping their shows steeped in the real. Do you feel that there are inherent limits on how over-the-top an audio drama can go? What concerns do you have for keeping The Grayscale grounded in reality? Have there ever been vociferous arguments within Critical Point on this point?
KABERLINE: Yeah, we got really absurd at the end of Season One with those last two episodes.
My advice to anyone making audio stories is to go as over the top as you want to be, unless your being over the top makes the listening experience exhausting. We certainly go over the top on occasion. It is a sci-fi show, you know?
Our thing is that, while our stories involve magical elements, we rarely tell the actors to play against the truth. “Applaud My Friends” is a great example. The ending is really absurd and unsettling (Dylan and I were trying to match “The Obsolete Man”), but as actors we played it really honestly. I don’t think it would’ve worked if we were just as weird or goofy as the premise.
In our comedies we tend to have the actors go more broad, but i would contest that they are still acting truthfully. Our comedy characters tend to be closer to Marty McFly than The Three Stooges.
Something has to stay true to make the episodes relatable. For us, that’s usually the acting. This is the big thing that bad anthologies seem to miss.
I don’t think we’ve ever had a conservation about making sure the show is realistic enough. What we do aim for is variety. If this month we do a dark realistic found footage horror, then next month we will probably do a sitcom-like comedy of errors with a robot that makes quiches. It’s all about switching up the tone. If you’re going to do anthology, you have to be flexible.
The stuff I write that isn’t The Grayscale is so much more off the walls that Critical Point never tends to have a problem with what I turn in for this show.
CHAMPION: “The Effect of Fog at the Overlook” features a very large performance from Tyler Ward, especially when he channels his angst. And there’s something about Matthew Schott’s sniveling doormat character in “The Best Version of Myself” (as well as his alter ego through the wormhole) that comes across as both grandiose and true. Do you feel that genre and anthology naturally leads to performances veering more towards melodrama? Or is this generally the Critical Point m.o.? I have noticed more of a mix-up of real and hyperreal in the Season 2 performances (such as “A Peck of Dirt Before You Die”). How many variations on large can one have? This doesn’t seem to be a problem at this stage in The Grayscale‘s existence, but, performance and story-wise, what are you doing to mix up the tones so that you don’t find yourself repeating tropes?
KABERLINE: I think there is some truth to anthology leading to melodrama. I would say that’s not the Critical Point m.o though. Dylan has this idea that when you take away visuals in storytelling, that you should absolutely try to start with as high of stakes as possible, which I think in turn does lead to some melodrama, or those big acting moments.
I don’t think we are worrying about having too many moments of someone going big. Conflict will lead to big moments more often than not, and when you change the laws of science in your show as well, then it’s only going to get bigger.
We are hyper-aware of not trying to recycle the same story elements as far as premises or the “magic” of the episode. I had an idea that was going to be a sort of woman vs her GPS story this season, but we had already done an aware robot in “Now Back To Your Scheduled Programming.” So we went another direction. Now that we have our episodes figured out before the start of the season, we are able to order them in a way where you have different tones and styles continuously. You’re not going to see two alien episodes in a row on The Grayscale.
CHAMPION: What was your biggest mistake on Season One? What would you now not do? How much time does it take for you and the Critical Point gang to produce a typical episode? What kind of system have you worked out so that none of your crew gets burned out or too creatively taxed?
KABERLINE: Our biggest mistake was in “Fog” when we switched the room halfway through recording. Never do that. Wherever you decide to record, stick to it!
I want to say our big mistake was jumping into something really difficult with very little specific knowledge of the medium, but I’d also say this forced us to learn quickly. What we absolutely wouldn’t do now, that we did a lot of in Season One, was over-record. It might feel nice to really explore a scene and get fifteen takes, but you’re only making your editor’s job harder.
We treated the whole process and show very precious in Season One. Now we happily attack the show.
I would say that from pre-production to the episode airing, it takes a little more than a month. Of course, the writing is now done far in advance, but we try to cast and schedule recordings about a month and half before the episode comes out. Then, we record an entire episode in one day (sometimes two). And then editing can last between 1-3 weeks. We get our scripts to Jackie Mullen about a month out, and she takes that time to give us our artwork that accompanies our posts.
We get burned out. All the time. That’s the thing, is beyond Grayscale, we are working on other podcasts, and also doing weekly rehearsals to devise our theatrical pieces. We’re always doing too much. Like right now, I’m answering these questions on a plane leaving San Francisco where we just did a theatre festival. Burnout is real and sometimes unavoidable.
How we try to curb this, is by having a condensed work flow. Generally, I take care of a lot of preproduction as far as gathering and editing scripts, Dylan takes care of production (casting/scheduling), and Chelsea engineers and then takes over in post-production as the editor. We will move these roles around on occasion, but locking in to a system where we know exactly what is expected has worked well for us. The more specific you can be early on in assigning roles, the less energy you will exert filling in cracks. This year, we are taking a break in the month of July and I think that will become permanent. You gotta take care of your own mental fatigue, and making good audio drama is very, very exhausting.
Wooden Overcoats is one of the best British comedies in years. But it doesn’t involve Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. You won’t find it playing in a movie theater or streaming through Netflix. This is distinguished, sometimes eccentric, and frequently hilarious comedy carefully honed for the ear, a production that is both of our podcasting age and that naturally jumps off from Spike Mulligan and Peter Sellers’s goofy radio experimentation.
Telling the tale of two rival funeral homes competing for business on a mile-wide island of Piffling (a forgotten strip in the Channel Islands), with embittered local Rudyard Funn (“displaying the athleticism that comes only to a man whose entire fortunes rest on burying a seagull before six o’clock”) brushing up against a dashing new mortuary upstart named Eric Chapman, the listener is immediately struck by how fresh, original, ambitious, and committed this show feels. The story is narrated by a memoir-writing mouse, for one thing, voiced by veteran actor Belinda Lang. Amazingly, the show was produced entirely independent. The scripts were so good that the crew behind this massive operation not only persuaded veteran actors and nimble newcomers alike to work for nearly nothing. They even assembled a small orchestra to record the show’s theme.
Last September, Wooden Overcoats unveiled its first season of eight episodes. While this seemingly out of nowhere release earned deservedly rapturous praise from many in the audio drama community, it remains a great mystery why this wonderful and truly sui generis production hasn’t been more passionately endorsed by those who profess to know all culture. In addition to being terribly funny, Wooden Overcoats is also highly accomplished audio drama with energetic voice work and nimble effects and a meticulously timed pace. It is the kind of program that might never have found support within the limited ambitions of current media institutions.
Of course, Wooden Overcoats isn’t done by a long shot. It is now in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for its second season, but it needs listener support. It is presently just a few thousand pounds (and a few thousand George Washingtons) away from being able to do this.
Within minutes of listening to Wooden Overcoats‘s first episode, I suspected that the program had been put together with a great deal of thought, care, and attention. After I plunged into this magnificent show, discovering that I could not stop listening, I contacted head writer David K. Barnes and actor Felix Trench (who plays Rudyard) to find out just how this show was made. These two affable gents responded to my many questions. And we fell into a two week frenzy of perspicacious banter, which has been presented below.
EDWARD CHAMPION: Aside from the sheer fun I had binge-listening to the entire first season in less than 24 hours, there were a number of curious qualities that I noticed about Wooden Overcoats. There’s a certain cultural history of narratives set on islands, ranging from Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Muriel Spark’s woefully underrated novel Robinson (of which Wooden Overcoats suggested close associations!), to the islands that populate David Mitchell’s novels, to Gilligan’s Island and Lost and the beautifully nutty 1973 film The Wicker Man. In all of these examples (and even Sherwood Schwartz populated his island with an eccentric ensemble!), the island’s geographical limitations somehow provided their creators with a kind of license to go big, whether it meant a labyrinthine plot or an allegory or an exploration of strange behavior. I’m wondering how your own island came about. Did you consider other island narratives before making this? Why did you feel that radio was the best way to tell this story?
DAVID K. BARNES: We started with the basic premise of two competing funeral directors and knew that they’d have to be in a small community for the comedy to work. I decided very early on whilst plotting the first episode that it’d be best if Rudyard had lived in this community all his life and that Eric was brand new, arriving in that episode, and that the power struggle would be essentially one-sided. A village on the mainland seemed to me to provide too many avenues of escape — Rudyard could essentially move, if his pride would let him — and so we thought setting the series on an island would isolate everybody and raise the stakes.
Though I’ve read Robinson Crusoe and seen The Wicker Man and so on, I can’t say I was inspired by any of them, though I am generally very interested in the history of tiny islands and countries. Small communities developing their own traditions and taking whatever they want from the culture of the outside world… I was also born and raised in Portsmouth, UK, which is an island steeped in naval history. Quite honestly, however, very little of all this is reflected in Wooden Overcoats!
FELIX TRENCH: I’ve listened to radio comedy since I was a teenager; I suspect that’s the same for a lot of us who get into it. I grew up in mainland Europe and an abiding memory is staticy BBC Radio 4 LW fading Dead Ringers in and out as we waited for the lights to turn green.
I began Audioscribble with a couple of other actors in 2012 (in a graveyard weirdly) as a way to make work for ourselves in a medium we love but has few openings. There’s a long tradition in comedy of starting out on the radio and coming back to it (like Mitchell and Webb did recently or Stephen Fry’s series on etymology). Having a state broadcaster like the BBC who run much of the most listened to/watched radio and TV and make their own content probably has something to do with that. It never occurred to me that we’d do it another way.
CHAMPION: What accounts for some of the unusual mathematical factors (a mouse tells the story — a very small being; two competing funeral parlors)? Do you feel that scope inevitability arises from creative limitations?
BARNES: It’s usually a function of storytelling. There are two competing funeral parlours because three would dilute the impact of the narratives and characters. The island has one of everything because then you can keep going back to those locations and develop recurring characters. The narrator being a mouse arose from the fact that when writing the first episode I wanted to tie the narrator into the action, and felt that the episode needed to end on a twist that would intrigue the audience enough to listen to Episode 2. I’d early on established that Rudyard’s only friend was a mouse and then thought, well, why not make the mouse narrate the show? A mouse can observe everything without being observed itself! And she’s writing a memoir for commercial gain, which explains why she’s (a) telling us all this, and (b) telling us only the “good bits”. Almost everything that happens in WO is a result of a carefully decided plan on how best to tell the story in an involving and entertaining way.
TRENCH: Limits are amazing. They force you to focus on story which is the most important thing. In Season 1, David purposefully looked for writers for the team who had a background in playwrighting knowing that he could add the jokes later if needed. Giving yourself a limit (or even better having someone give it to you) pulls you out of the patterns you’re comfortable with and makes you think in ways that you wouldn’t have before. I’ve worked as an actor both on roles I’ve written and roles I haven’t and I vastly prefer the latter – it’s more satisfying to look for a way into someone else’s mind than roll around in your own. The pitching process to the usual radio channels in this country recently became a lot harder to break into which is what ultimately forced us to gamble on podcasting.
CHAMPION: Did such a mantra extend to some off the writing (such as many of the seaside adventures)? Also, just how in the sam hill did you two goofy fellows hook up for this?
BARNES: There’s certainly a lot you can do with audio. There are huge sequences in some of our episodes which would be very expensive to film as television, and tricky to do on stage (the flooded mortuary swimming in corpses, Rudyard’s clifftop excursion…). So, as long as we can effectively communicate what’s happening to the audience, we like to try out a few big set pieces. Also, the idea that the island is a mile wide and yet has all these things on it is conceptually very interesting and ridiculous in a way I think is best suited for audio. You couldn’t visualise it on TV, and in written prose you’d probably notice how improbable it was. On audio you kind of go along with it. I told my writers to establish whatever they wanted on the island because Piffling could certainly accommodate it.
TRENCH: David and I have known each other since 2006. We were both studying at Edinburgh, along with our production manager, Liz. I graduated the year before them and moved to London and, long story short, we all ended up living together. I met Tom Crowley on a playwrighting course in 2012 and he and I have worked on projects together ever since. We’ve often noted how our careers tend to parallel each other’s and we’ve ended up in the same spot from different performance backgrounds. I initially pitched to him a short film about rival undertakers for us both to work on/be in and we made some plans but never followed through. Six months later, we revived the idea as an audio sitcom and brought it to David as a concept. He disappeared for twenty minutes then came back with a treatment for episode 1, I had a quiet word with Tom, and we asked if he’d like to run the show. I’d worked with David on a couple of other projects before — including an audio comedy — and knew that whatever he’d do, it would be good.
CHAMPION: Wooden Overcoats has this interesting tension between a bustling cadre of characters and the inherent limitations of a small community. Given the intimacy of the medium, how ambitious do you think audio drama can be in sustaining an epic scope? As you point out, you can certainly stage epic incidents, such as flooded mortuaries.
TRENCH: Radio 4 adapted Neverwhere recently, Naxos gave us a Michael Sheen-led Sophocles cycle, there was a big Lord of the Rings adaptation in the early 80s, Hitchhiker’s crossed the axes of time, space and probability, and just last year we had all the John Le Carré Smiley books so… pretty ambitious. I think the size is in the storytelling choices. Radio is well-suited, as you say, to intimate because you’re talking in somebody’s ear. You’ve got a different set of toys at the IMAX, different again at the theatre. There’s a truism in acting that goes something like “play the size of the room, not the size you want to play”. Radio is to an audience of one which is strange in any other medium (I think, I can’t think of any examples right now) so it’s up to us as creators to create that sense of the epic, if that’s what we’re going for, for a single audience. I think who that audience of one is is changing though. There is a difference between listening to the Afternoon Play while chopping vegetables and listening to Night Vale while curled up in bed or on the tube. If I tell you a story from three feet away, it’s different to if I tell it in your ear. The current wave of podcast dramas are even more direct than what we’re used to — probably more so than ours which takes a very traditional approach but adds in the Madeleine narration to tie us to the podcasting world.
CHAMPION: During the writing, the pragmatics of production, or the jarring discoveries in post-production, have you run into any hurdles that have caused you to scale back in any way?
TRENCH: Not yet! David’s a good enough writer not to demand the impossible and the producers are good enough producers to provide the impossible anyway. We were constantly surprised listening to Season 1 how much detail they’d put in. There’s a moment in Episode 4 where Madeleine is chased by a clockwork toy which you only catch if you listen carefully, Antigone’s survival suit became a full on 60s cosmonaut’s outfit, and our composer provided specific background music for the big set pieces.
CHAMPION: I also noticed that, in your Kickstarter campaign, you’ve invited your supporters to devise a creative form of death. To what degree are you beholden to entertaining an audience? In what creative ways do you diverge from this?
BARNES: I’d say that we’re entirely beholden to entertaining our audiences. However, the best way of doing that is to create what we personally believe is an entertaining programme and hope that our audiences enjoy it too. I tend to write my scripts with a view to thinking up a dramatic and/or amusing situation, and then going, “If I were in the audience, what would I want to see?” And then once I’ve come up with a few scenes on that principle, I finish with, “How can I put a twist on this that they wouldn’t have imagined themselves?” I think that’s the way to satisfy your audience, hold their attention, and keep them wanting more.
I have known writers who entirely disregard their audiences, which I think is arrogant and foolish. Your audience buys tickets to your shows — or downloads your podcast — and recommends you to their family and friends. You’ve got to provide them with something worth their while, or they’ll find it elsewhere. But equally, the old maxim that “people don’t know what they want until they’ve got it” holds true. We all enjoy getting some more of the same but we tire of it very quickly. It’s why I like having guest writers on the series: not only does it take some of the pressure off me, but they also come up with fresh ideas and perspectives that I’d never have come up with by myself, which reinvigorates the series.
I think it’s the dramatic qualities of the show which keep our audiences listening and re-listening. When I delivered the “Bane of Rudyard” script to my directors and was asked to produce another seven, they said they wanted to do this show in the studio rather than in front of a live audience. They wanted me to explore the dramatic potential of the characters and situations without having to flood the series with one-liner gags (which can make a comedy sound superficial unless the writing is exceptionally sharp).
As Felix mentioned above, I tend to approach writers from theatrical backgrounds like myself. Not all of them had even written comedy before but they all had superb instincts for creating dramatic situations. I said to them, “Don’t concentrate on being funny, whatever you do. Let your imagination run free, and focus on being interesting.” It doesn’t take a great deal of work to take something serious and make it amusing (or the other way around). My favourite episode to write in the first season was “Georgina and the Waves,” in which one of the silliest situations of the series evoked some of the most wrenching character drama, and still managed to be — I think — very funny. In this respect, I’m heavily influenced by Alan Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playmaking, an essential read for any writer.
From the feedback I’ve read, our audiences have really taken our characters to heart, and I believe that’s because whilst Rudyard and Antigone etc. are ridiculous, they’re also based in something very real. They’re hurt and ennobled and motivated by the same things we are. They never do anything just to make the audience laugh, yet I think they’re very funny characters all the same.
CHAMPION: Since we’re on the subject of ambition, I am curious if the large cast was always part of the plan. Was your approach simply to create a fun story and figure out how to attract high caliber talent (along with figuring out their schedules) in the act of production?
TRENCH: We always knew we could get highly talented writers and actors because London is brimming with them. There’s a real problem here, like in other big creative cities, of the opportunities being scarcer than the workforce. We owe a lot to Max Tyler, Sarah Burton, Peter Wicks, Pip Gladwin, and Holly Campbell who play many of our islanders and smaller roles throughout the series, or help out at live shows when the series actors can’t make it, and are all brilliant.
Bringing in producers Andy [Goddard] and John [Wakefield] gave the project bigger scope than we had originally thought about. They introduced the ideas of full scoring and live instruments, episode guests on top of the regular company, and approaching a few household names.
CHAMPION: Did you have any narrow production scheduling confines that you had to meet (either out of necessity or self-imposed)?
TRENCH: Once the studio’s booked, those are your dates. It’s difficult to rearrange when you have a big team.
CHAMPION: it is my understanding that many of your actors worked for free. This leads me to wonder whether you forewent rehearsal and simply recorded the sides in the time slots that the actors available. (Obviously, any working actor is going to have to say yes to paid work first.) Is a quality script enough of an incentive for a talent to commit time and energy for a long-form production?
TRENCH: All of our actors worked for expenses in Season 1 — we covered food and travel for the initial readthroughs and the recording. There was a lot of pizza. Rehearsals are unusual in radio, at least here they are. You’ll have the readthrough, maybe a few readthroughs if the script’s in development, and then perhaps a rehearsal before the take which will include a bit of blocking but it’s not like theatre. The whole process is closer to TV. We had a bit of flexibility with the recording process which gave us the luxury to record in sequence — which we did over four days. A couple of scenes had to be done out of order when guest’s schedules changed but not much. From an actor’s perspective, in sequence is amazing because you know exactly were you are in your mind at any one point and it’s easier to play the moment. As to the script, depends on the actor! The people who came on board with us did so because of the scripts.
CHAMPION: What deals did you have to cut to get people on board beyond this?
TRENCH: None that I know of. Maybe Andy secretly makes breakfast for the actors every morning. If he does, I want in.
CHAMPION: How many of the principals have pledged to return to the second season?
TRENCH: We haven’t yet reached the stage where an actor’s unavailability has led to re-writes, though I must always remain prepared for that being a potential issue until recording takes place.
BARNES: The scripts are still being written and cast requirements being drawn up, though those actors to whom we’ve already spoken about returning to Season Two have stated how keen they are to do it. Our four principals – Felix, Beth, Tom ,and Ciara – are certainly on board.
CHAMPION: Has actor availability forced you to alter any of the scripts (in either season)? I was also hoping to learn more about how David works with the other writers. What replaces a writer’s room in radio drama? Lots of Skype sessions? Emails? Dropbox and Facebook groups?
BARNES: All of my writers live in London, so it’s always feasible to meet them in person. However, they’re also all very busy, so it’s rare that I can get them into the same room at once. The pattern for Season One, which I repeated for Season Two, was to meet each writer individually to discuss the series, its characters, and any ideas they had. Then there’d be a meeting of the whole writing team — which, because of availability, is probably the only time we’ll be together in one place — during which everybody gives the broad outline of a few episode ideas. These are bounced around, discussed, and by the end of the meeting every writer has an idea that everybody is excited about. From then on, I keep in contact with each writer individually by e-mail or telephone.
My feedback on breakdowns and drafts is often extensive because I tend to know what I want from each episode once the writer has devised their idea. But the flip side is that I want to allow writers a lot of room to work by themselves the rest of the time; nobody likes somebody breathing down their neck when they’re trying to create!
CHAMPION: How much revision do you think is enough?
BARNES: Most problems with a story can be solved very early on at the scene-by-scene breakdown stage. That’s when you know if things don’t make sense, or an episode isn’t likely to be paced properly, or lead characters don’t have enough to do. If necessary, I’ll rework a writer’s breakdown myself and suggest that it’s probably a good compromise between their original idea and how it might be best deployed within the context of the show.
After that, the writers will do a first and then a second draft. I then take over, doing any necessary edits and re-writes. If the writer is happy with those, it goes to my producers for their opinion, and I may carry out additional edits based on their feedback. Then it goes to a full reading with available actors, with the writers and producers present, and a discussion will ensue. Any additional edits (usually very small by this stage) will occur before we get into studio to record. For Season One, I could count the number of lines that needed alteration in the studio on one hand, really. We really knock them into shape and ensure that everybody is happy.
Generally, the more work put in earlier at the planning stage, the fewer headaches later on. When we did our Season One readthrough, it was a case of, “This particular line doesn’t work,” rather than, “This plot doesn’t work.”
CHAMPION: What mistakes do you feel you made during the first season? How do you keep the door open for continued “on the job” learning?
BARNES: Everybody was, as you say, learning on the job, so I’m sure everybody can point to things they’d do differently the next time round. The trick is to carry on doing the things that worked and to experiment to make them work even better! From a writing perspective, I’ve never been entirely happy with how the last episode devotes a considerable amount of the climax to the machinations of a secondary character; that was me trying to tie up as many plot threads as possible in too short a space of time. The production certainly pulls it off, but I should have found a more elegant solution at the time. I’m trying to pace things slightly better in Season 2, with the final episode placing the leads front and centre. Otherwise, for my first attempt at head writing and script editing an entire series, the whole thing went much more smoothly than I’d imagined!
CHAMPION: Audio drama is a free and liberating medium with many very cool, exuberant, and passionate people forming a magnificent community. But do you foresee any dangers to the inevitable professionalization of audio drama?
TRENCH: Bigger companies coming in with bigger budgets will make it harder for smaller outfits to be heard. We’re in a time of opportunity where nobody quite knows the rules and we’re all working out how we fit together and that’s lovely. But I agree. It won’t necessarily last. My hope is that if something’s good, the democracy of the internet will give it coverage to flourish. This is a really great medium for new creative voices everywhere to make themselves heard and reach a wide audience without too much outlay. I’m looking forward to finding out who else is out there and what stories they want to tell. The downloadable podcast drama I’m aware of is based mostly in North America … and us. Even if we stick to the English-speaking world, where’s everyone else? I want to hear a really great Australian or New Zealander or Irish or South African podcast drama. There’s one being put together in South Korea but recorded all over I’m very excited about, because of how it’s being made as much as the story – that’s a product that just couldn’t have existed until recently.
CHAMPION: In describing how Wooden Overcoats came into fruition and the way in which the second season is being put together, it seems to me that the creative/production process is very much about reacting to concepts and working out the expression of these reactions through revision and readthroughs. But you can’t calculate everything. I’m wondering the degree to which you two agonize over this and how you contend with any perfectionist streaks.
BARNES: I have deadlines I need to meet: it’s as simple as that. At the moment, I’m several months away and the writing is still pretty slow. I’m agonising over every line, every syllable, revising as I go, pacing the room and pondering if this is the best way to go about constructing a scene. I’ve just spent three hours deliberating over whether Georgie should be having a certain conversation with the Mayor or Madeleine. Pretty soon, however, I won’t have the luxury of time, and I’ll just have to fly by impulse, which is when I tend to do my best writing on the whole (so long as I’ve got my stories planned in advance, which I’m happy to say is the case). I need adrenalin, I need to stop second-guessing everything. But then again, I do dedicate a lot of time to ensuring that my dialogue is going to sound right in the mouths of my actors, and a single misplaced syllable can ruin the comic flow of an entire scene, so my perfectionism certainly comes in handy. Just so long as I meet my deadlines.
TRENCH: I’m not involved in the writing decisions and deliberately keep myself separate. I’ve bounced a few ideas around and suggested things when asked at readthroughs but David has written extensively within the genre, studied at a respected institution, takes an active interest in his craft and is continually analysing and learning from other people’s work, working out and refining his own opinions and pallet. Throw me into that mix and I’m just a nuisance. I’ve only got the vaguest idea what’s planned for Season 2; I’ll find out at the first readthrough and I’ll really enjoy doing that and picking up the reigns with the things I do. From an actor’s perspective, as far as agonizing and perfectionism goes, I put as much prep and scriptwork in as I would for any other part then trust to that. The lion’s share of my work happens in the time leading up to recording. But I don’t really get retake envy on listening because that way madness lies and anyway that’s what directors are for. I always try to learn from listening to the finished episodes and look for room to make whatever the next thing I do is better. My only frustration is that the nature of audio work, unlike film or stage, means it’s inherently on-script. When you’re recording eight episodes back-to-back over four days, there’s not enough time to learn it securely and this isn’t the kind of material that takes paraphrasing kindly, nor is that particularly fair on the others with you in the studio. I try to do a loose learn and put the script aside as much as possible because the sound of someone reading is very different to the sound of someone in the moment, you can usually tell. That’s something I’ll be working on getting better at.
CHAMPION: The trio of mini-episodes that you recently released — especially the poignant “Casebook of Dr. Edgware” — reminded me that Wooden Overcoats has somehow found a distinct style that allows for occasional tonal shifts. The humor can often be conceptual (I think of the tape recorder in the newsroom), committed to cheesy puns (Random Mouse), farcical (Antigone’s romantic pursuits), and adventurous (the later episodes set more around the sea). Did you gravitate towards any particular comic strain in the beginning? At what point were you aware of a particular Wooden Overcoats house style?
BARNES: My original conception of the series was to infuse it with Gothic horror leanings, drawing upon some of my literary interests, but as I developed the characters in the pilot script – and as the other writers brought their ideas to the table – it was the humour that came to the forefront. Essentially, I just wrote what I personally thought was funny: obsessives who cause their own problems and can’t see it, being repressed when everyone else is a libertine, a touch of mild surrealism and perversity. There’s a dark thread running through it all, of course, which arises from the subject matter, but I try not to push it too much. It’s meant to be inherently enjoyable, not gross people out. I also like to avoid vulgarity and swearing, partly to increase the potential listenership but also because it forces more interesting uses of character, language and rhythm.
I’ve seen the series compared to Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Father Ted, Keeping Up Appearances, and so on, mainly as it’s a British sitcom and those are some of the closest references (especially to an American listenership), which is immensely flattering. My own radio / TV influences are in fact somewhat older – Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son are the ones I mention most – though also take in literature (Wodehouse) and theatre (Alan Ayckbourn). Ayckbourn in particular wrote tremendous roles for women and his great work in that regard always goes under-reported. But the other writers for Season One –- and now for Season Two -– will bring their own influences to bear, and then my directors and the actors will shape it all themselves and provide a consistent tone.
TRENCH: The readthroughs. I’ve worked with David and I’m familiar with his work and Overcoats is very him. He knows the rhythms needed in a scene to build up to a joke. I remember in early drafts he’d talk about putting in a placeholder joke until he came up with something better while he retooled the actual story around it but he knew instinctively where the joke had to be and the scene scaffolding that needed to go around it. I did a play with David once that had a gag in it that required someone overfilling a cup of tea. He spent hours experimenting with cups and muttering lines to himself to find the exact length of line that would work after putting in the stage direction. That’s the Barnes touch.
Beth, Ciara and I found during recordings that a house style emerged in performance. When we’re outside Funn Funerals or outsiders come in, the focus is on the characters who don’t work for the business. Every character is big and funny and ours become vehicles for their comedy. Any time the Mayor steps in, for instance, everyone becomes the straight man to him because he has the absolute highest status (and his insecurity in that status brings the comedy). But when it was just the three of us in the parlour, we found a sort of manic energy — like being constantly at Red Alert on the Enterprise — that worked for us. We really love doing those scenes. The character who breaks that boundary is Eric. Because he’s the antagonist, he can never quite be one of us but on the other hand he’s frequently the sensible audience lens for us so becomes the straight man against the Funns. A lot of the comedy comes from us assuming the higher status against Eric then being undermined by reality — except for in the Eric/Georgie storyline which has its own dynamic that gives Eric the punchlines.
CHAMPION: Are these mini-episodes your effort to show the audience where you intend to shift towards?
BARNES: Not really. They’re opportunities to experiment with form and expand upon our secondary characters, which helps us to develop their role in the main series. Rosie Fletcher’s “Random Mouse” was written to be an entertaining way to essentially trail Season Two; “Agatha Doyle and the Honey Trap” is a lighthearted Christie-style mystery by Tom Crowley; and “The Casebook of Dr. Edgware” by Tom and myself provides a new perspective on Season One from the viewpoint of a character who only originally had one line of dialogue. The ones we have coming up are entirely different too. But Season Two will continue the style and tone that we created in Season One, whilst taking the stories in a new direction.
CHAMPION: What input have the actors had on where you’re moving towards stylistically? Or is this really something that comes about naturally when you assemble a large cast of characters?
TRENCH: David has suggested I answer this one because he’s being even handed about breaking up the questions. Which is very lovely of him and I haven’t a clue. He told me the other day he now writes Rudyard with my voice in mind so with any luck I’ll be considered for the part if we do Season 2.
CHAMPION: Also, I listened to an Audio Drama Production Podcast interview with David and John Wakefield where the two of you described being very committed to homemade foley. How early in the production did you have the FX in place? I’m especially curious about the timing of Madeleine’s squeaks, which always seem to punctuate the right moments and remind us that we are in a comic environment. The squeaks also tend to soften some of the more unusual premises, weirdly rooting the narrative into something that’s real. The squeaks almost feel like something on a score sheet. At the risk of outing myself as a sonic obsessive type, I have to ask about the squeaks! How many do you have? Did you time them in the script? To what degree did you mess with the squeaks in post? Did the squeaks ever save your ass on a flub?
BARNES: They are indeed all script; Madeleine insisted on that. She’s a true professional, providing us with vocals that could run the full emotional gamut that a mouse can reach. It’s very difficult to find talent like that. After lengthy negotiation, she’s agreed to come back for Season Two, and the production team is immensely grateful. We wouldn’t know what to do without her.
CHAMPION: Well, David may be a fair-minded gentleman, but I’m not going to let him get away from unpacking this point! Does the concern for status, which I feel is a staple of good drama, emerge as much in the act of production as in the writing, even when you have a large character such as the Mayor? Or is this as rigorously planned as David’s inherent fixation upon timing? David’s placeholder jokes remind me of how Paul McCartney had “Scrambled Eggs” in place of “Yesterday” as he was still working out the lyrics for that now classic song (with the “Scrambled Eggs” version later performed decades later in a newly enhanced form with Jimmy Fallon). This may simply be the approach of a highly obsessive mind, for which I have nothing less than the most heartfelt appreciation for, but I am very curious how David contends with the vast unknown story element, perhaps an invisible territory of pages going well beyond overfilling a cup of tea! David, do you feel that story sorts itself out easier than specific lines?
BARNES: There’s the old story about [Billy] Wilder and [I.A.L.] Diamond spending ages trying to come up with a decent last line for Some Like It Hot and ultimately going with their placeholder gag because they couldn’t think of anything better, and now of course that line is one of the most famous in movie history. But of course it’s not a line that sings out of context; entire plot threads have been leading up to it, and it’s an immensely satisfying — and very, very funny =- capstone.
On the other side, writers can come up with an absolute zinger of a line and then tie themselves into knots trying to make their story support it, and typically that line will be one of the first to get cut by a decent editor. The best dialogue is the dialogue that fits the situation you’ve created.
Every writer has sat down at some point and just started writing dialogue without an actual purpose, and it’ll typically go nowhere and not be very good. It’s easier to sort out dialogue than a story, because plotting is torturous, but I think it’s nearly impossible to sort out good dialogue if you haven’t sorted out the story first. And then your story might change in the writing of the dialogue, which is great too. Switching destinations is fine, but you ought to have at least one in mind when you set out.
CHAMPION: Might this also account for the island’s vast tableau? Do the other writers serve as relief pitchers for your vivacious baseball game on this front?
BARNES: I feared when I wrote “The Bane of Rudyard” that we might exhaust the story potential within a few episodes, but then the other writers showed me that, yes, there was much more you could do with this set-up. I took a lot of inspiration during that first writers’ meeting, where my job was essentially to ask “What excites you about all this?” and then decide which answers inspired me the most. For both seasons, I’ve found it easiest to help the other writers develop their stories first and then formulate my own in response, but I begin with some firm ideas about what I want the series to do, to say and to explore, and I’m OK with telling a writer, “I’m not wild about this idea, can we do something else?” But then, all of the writers have come to the table with at least one idea I’ve adored instantly, and those ideas get developed into full episodes.
CHAMPION: What’s the biggest mistake you made in Season 1?
BARNES: Owing to busy schedules. the episodes were edited concurrently with release dates, which led to a lot of pressure and sleepless nights for all involved. The sound design is very involved and Andy and John require a lot of time to do their magic. We’ve sorted this out for Season Two. But remember: always allow for more time than you think you need.
CHAMPION: What’s the most extraordinary thing that you had to do to get an actor on board Wooden Overcoats?
BARNES: Character comedian and attractive man Kieran Hodgson was lured to the studio with the promise of sparkling dialogue. Instead he was placed before a microphone and told to moan orgasmically in French whilst we scrutinised him thoroughly for about forty-five minutes. He’s since gone on in other productions to speak whole lines of actual dialogue, albeit for far more disreputable companies such as the BBC.
CHAMPION: What’s the greatest piece of advice you could offer to any emerging audio drama producer?
TRENCH: Be professional. Be original. Be ambitious. Sorry, that’s three but I think they’re all very important.
Professional means treating every aspect of your production with equal importance. Strive to work with new people and strive to create opportunities. As soon as you position yourself as someone making a thing, you enter a world with thousands of unheard voices who maybe don’t have the luxury of your ear so make it easy for them to find you and work with you. It also means learning about what came before and positioning yourself within that. Listen to as much as you can, not just drama podcasts, from as many different countries.
I say original because I’m seeing a lot of very good audio drama coming out in similar areas of storytelling. There’s a leaning towards genre and faux-documentary — maybe the Night Vale and Serial influences. I think a canny producer would ask themselves what they can do to separate themselves from the trend. A police procedural? A period piece? I’d listen to a Western. It also means thinking about what you can do with the medium. Beef & Dairy Network and The Bright Sessions are great examples of being playful with the fact that, at the end of the day, a podcast is just a sound file. Two examples from recent(ish) years on the radio: have a listen to Continuity, which was Alistair McGowan as a radio continuity announcer having a breakdown on air between fake trailers parodying Radio 4 formats, and Warhorses of Letters by Marie Phillips and Robert Hudson which was an exchange of love letters between Napoleon and Wellington’s horses.
And ambitious is the fun one. We can do anything in audio drama so… do. Submarine scrap yard? Two enzymes chatting while they ferment grapes? The parliament of the birds? I want to hear these worlds. What can you do that would require a massive time and money budget on telly? And what can you do that’s not been done in other media? Equally, be ambitious in how you make it. Look for great studios, look for unusual recording spaces, see how many countries you can get people involved in one project… there’s more (and more immediate) scope for us in this medium than any other I can think of so use that advantage to the full.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled onto an extraordinary audio drama called The Bright Sessions and listened to every episode with a speed and an enthusiasm rivaling a ravenous rabbit discovering a carrot field. The podcast is ostensibly a psychotherapist secretly recording her therapy sessions with young people, with each tape labeled with a mysterious taxonomic nomenclature. We come to learn that not only do these young people have special powers (the ability to jump through time, the capacity to read other people’s thoughts, et al.). But what makes The Bright Sessions so compelling is its more intimate approach. You won’t hear New York City destroyed in grandiloquent fashion after a superhero battle. But you will delve deep into the hearts and souls of the show’s characters.
I contacted the show’s creator Lauren Shippen (she also voices one of the patients, Sam) to express my appreciation and soon found myself in a fun and lengthy email volley about how Shippen came to create The Bright Sessions, thoughts on what radio drama can do for genre that other forms can’t, and some discussion of the 1985 film Clue. In tribute to the hashtag #audiodramasunday, which has recently taken Twitter by storm, I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of Audio Drama Sunday interviews with radio drama creators and their programs to help listeners and producers alike get a sense of the marvelous offerings out there.
EDWARD CHAMPION: In audio drama, we have quite a number of wonderful podcasts being made that deal with investigations — what I call the “missing tapes” genre (The Black Tapes, Tanis, Limetown, et al.). These shows have responded, perhaps knowingly or unknowingly, to Serial‘s great success. It’s almost as if audio drama needed its own spin on the “fake documentary” style pioneered by such television shows as The Office, Parks & Recreation, and the like. But somehow your hook, which involves a psychologist taping the sessions of her clients, manages to transcend the tropes. I’m very curious to know how much you researched the audio drama climate before you started creating this show and if you learned any lessons on how to build an audience from your potential investigation. Also, I’m not sure how steeped you are in Dr. Jacob L. Moreno‘s notion of drama therapy, but where did your interest in psychotherapy come from? Why did you feel psychotherapy would be a great format for radio? (I’m also wondering if you’ve ever listened to the podcast, The Psychology of Eating, an often inexplicably fascinating show that deals with patients talking about their eating habits.)
LAUREN SHIPPEN: I actually wrote the first episode of The Bright Sessions in June of 2014 — before even Serial had been released. While I love the faux-documentary format of those podcasts (and of course, adore Serial), that trope didn’t yet exist when I first came up with the concept of The Bright Sessions. Instead, it was somewhat inspired by two very different radio shows: Welcome to Night Vale and BBC’s Cabin Pressure.
I was listening to these shows while stuck in the famed LA traffic and fell in love with the idea of audio drama. These shows showed two very distinct, very different paths to take: Welcome to Night Vale is mostly one man speaking into a microphone and Cabin Pressure is a whole cast with a large production budget performing in front of a live audience. As much as I enjoy Cabin Pressure, I don’t have the same resources as the BBC; the WTNV route seemed more manageable — I had a nice microphone and a vague idea of editing. But I ultimately realized I couldn’t pull off what WTNV does. I think WTNV works as a largely one person show because of three things: Cecil Baldwin’s performance, the beautifully surreal but funny writing, and the music by Disparition. Without a similarly magical combination of things, one person talking can get boring fast.
I wish I could say the therapy concept came out of some deep, clever thought process but – if memory serves – I was sitting in the aforementioned traffic, talking out loud to myself as the character of Sam (this is a weird but important part of my writing process) when I realized I needed to give her someone to talk to. The first thing that popped into my head was “therapist” and from there, the floodgates opened and everything started to fall into place.
I wrote that pilot episode in essentially one sitting. Then I got swept up in other things and didn’t touch it for a year. By the time I came back to it, I had become more familiar with the audio drama landscape as a whole. I had binged Serial, Limetown, and The Message. But my format was already determined. That being said, I did look to these and other shows to see how and where they existed online and how they promoted themselves.
I’m tangentially familiar with Moreno’s work, but The Bright Sessions was not particularly influenced by any one psychological theory. I used my sister — an actual psychologist — as a resource for how a therapist would talk or what methods they might use and did online research when necessary. I think my interest in psychotherapy actually comes from my background as an actor. The conversations you hear in the podcast are very similar to internal conversations I will have when developing a character – you have to figure out all their baggage, what makes them tick. Bizarrely, a lot of acting techniques are pretty similar to therapeutic ones, so it was easy to connect the dots.
I think the therapy format works especially well on radio for two reasons. One: it’s straightforward and easy to follow. It can be hard to pull off convincing action in an audio format, but it’s very easy to put together two people having a conversation. Two: there’s a voyeuristic element to it that I think is intriguing to people. Even though our patients are extraordinary, they are still dealing with very real, human problems. I think there’s a lot of entertainment to be mined out of that and a lot to relate to. And because it’s an audio recording and not a video, I think it gives the listener the feeling that they are really there, listening in.
And no, I have not listened to The Psychology of Eating, though it sounds like something I need to put in my feed!
CHAMPION: On the subject of psychotherapists, I think one of the reasons your audio drama works so well is because Julia Morizawa is tremendously believable as Dr. Bright. We often hear an annoyed edge in her voice, a vague artificiality often vacillating with something real, with the slight pause just before she has to enter into that professional therapeutic mode. I’m so glad that your audio drama is paying attention to these minute cadences, whether deliberately or organically. It’s one of the aspects of therapy that can be irksome when you’re on the couch! And it leads me to wonder what work you did with Julia to hit these very precise notes and what prep you’ve done with your actors in general. Of course, what I’m detecting here may very well be the natural intimacy of radio! After all, if you listen to any of Anna Sale’s interviews on Death, Sex & Money, it often sounds like a therapy session. Why do you think the radio format lends itself more to a therapeutic vibe? Should audio drama be hitting this sweet spot if it expects to win over larger audiences? Also, how did these conversations with yourself in traffic contribute to the writing process you worked out?
SHIPPEN: Julia is a magical superhuman and The Bright Sessions would not be a tenth of what it is without her. That sounds like hyperbole; it isn’t. I’ve known Julia for about two years – we met in acting class at the BGB Studio in North Hollywood. That same studio is where I met Briggon Snow (Caleb) and Charlie Ian (Damien) — it’s a studio full of crazy talented people and I take as much advantage of that as possible. The moment I realized I didn’t want to play Dr. Bright myself (and yes, that was something I briefly flirted with), my mind immediately went to Julia.
I wish I could take credit for all the nuances that Julia brings to the role but all the layers and subtle shifts you hear are a testament to Julia’s talent as an actor. We certainly discuss the character and the story; I give my impressions and Julia always comes prepared with insightful questions and ideas. The first time we recorded, she lugged this enormous binder with her — it had the scripts, her own personal character biography, and pages of notes. Her dedication and attention to detail has made Dr. Bright an incredibly interesting and complex character and really changed the way I approached the writing her. No one, including myself, knows Dr. Bright better than Julia and I think that shines through.
On the whole, I don’t do much prep with my actors. I honestly don’t even give them that much direction when we record. They are all very talented people that I have worked with before and I trust their instincts. I’m still amazed I was able to convince these brilliant people into doing this little project — I really feel like I have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our cast.
Our especially dedicated listeners (of which we have more than I could have dreamed — another embarrassment of riches) will be familiar with the music playlists I made for each character. While these have been very fun to share with our audience as bonus features, I made them for myself as a writing tool and for my actors as a way to round out the characters for them. While we were recording the first season, I shared these playlists as well as Pinterest boards. While not directly related to the plot, these were used to express some of the less tangible aspects of the characters.
I think the phrase you used, “the natural intimacy of radio”, is exactly why it lends itself to the therapeutic feeling. With radio, the listener can imagine whatever they want about how the person looks, what the setting is like, etc. This engagement of the imagination engages us emotionally as well and creates this atmosphere of intimacy. I think this is furthered by the fact that most people listen to podcasts alone, with headphones on. It feels personal in a way that TV or film doesn’t. As for an audio drama sweet spot, I’m still trying to find that myself.
The traffic conversations have been a big part of my life in LA and I’m sure have gotten me a few strange looks at stoplights. When I’m working on a character — whether it’s one I’m auditioning for or one I’m creating from the bottom up — I have to determine some things about how they talk. Where in my voice does their dialogue sit? What’s their cadence? What filler words do they use? This can all be worked out on paper or in a script, but I find it’s much easier to work through this process out loud.
So, when I’m doing a task that is taking up most of my focus — driving, cooking, doing dishes — I’ll pass the time by having imaginary conversations with these characters. Some of these conversations simply help me get into the mindset, but some end up in the final product. I think I was able to write that first episode in one sitting because I had worked out most of it in the car when driving back from Santa Monica during rush hour (never do this).
CHAMPION: I’m tremendously fascinated with the work you’re doing with the actors to establish these characters and very curious how, in this case, Julia’s notes altered the writing. How much of this story do you have planned out? And how much of the story has been dictated by the notes from the actors? What did these music playlists reveal about these characters that, say, unpacking a history and a backstory didn’t? Your filler description reminds me very much of how David Mamet layers his scripts with underlined emphasis and includes all these filler words or how someone like Kevin Smith is especially demanding of inflection points. My own feeling is that there’s a certain futility in this process. Because there isn’t a single writer, no matter how talented, who can completely transcribe human speech without the final artistic output sounding deliberately stylized. This can often take us away from the reality of what we’re experiencing — unless, of course, one is deliberately striving for a heightened reality. But it does raise some questions. Because no matter what the art, one does have to find a balance between reality and fiction. If we’re reading transcribed speech from Mark Twain or Emma Bovary’s inflections, our minds can fill in the details. But radio is more explicit about speech, even if we’re still using our minds to imagine what’s happening before us. How do your conversations in the car help you to find a compromise between some “authentic” blueprint and the organic nature of conversation that you end up recording?
SHIPPEN: I had written the first nine episodes (which make up the first season) before we all sat down for the first table read. I had a clear idea of who these characters were and where I wanted the story to go. And then I heard it out loud, as interpreted by smart, talented people, and things shifted. I don’t want to go too much into what the initial overarching plot of The Bright Sessions was for fear of changing people’s perceptions of what it is now, but hearing Julia interpret the character of Joan Bright changed the way I thought of the character. She became more real, more human, and her motivations changed somewhat as a result. This shift changed a lot of other characters as well.
Similarly, our production meeting before season two provided a lot of inspiration. I shared the first few scripts and told the actors what I had in store. And then they shared their ideas about the characters and how they wanted them to grow. A lot of the plot for season two grew out of that. The finale episode of this season is a direct result of that production meeting and a few ideas that Charlie Ian floated around. A lot of The AM has been influenced by ideas that Julia has had. So, while I do all the actual writing, my actors absolutely deserve a lot of story credit for the second season.
I don’t know what the music playlists revealed to the actors — that’s probably something I should ask them. For me, the mixes provide the general mood of the character; an energy. I listen to the mixes before writing the characters to get me in that mindset. It can also help me zero in on an overall theme within the character. For example, I built Sam’s whole playlist pretty quickly (she’s the character I voice so I know her very well) and afterwards I realized how much of the content had to do with the idea of “home.” That discovery told me a lot about the character and what was important to her.
I think you’re absolutely right — no writer can ever perfectly mimic natural speech. My use of filler speech, aborted starts to sentences, stutters, etc. function more as goal posts for the general speech pattern of the characters. Caleb says “like” a lot — he’s a teenager, he doesn’t always know how to express himself so he uses this filler word and doesn’t finish sentences sometimes. Sam has a lot of ellipses in her speech. She’s a nervous person so she stops to think of the right…word. I’ll write these kinds of things into the script and then the actors will adopt them and put them in the natural places, even when they aren’t written in. Then it becomes a volley between me and the actor — I write something, they improv and ad lib, I adopt those natural inclinations into writing the next time, so on and so forth.
The car conversations are vital in the early stages of developing a character. I can try and write out their speech patterns but it won’t solidify until I start saying it out loud. There are things that will look good on paper but sound stilted or unnatural when spoken aloud. And then there are questions that need to be answered. Does the speech go up at the end — if so, how would that affect the way they structure their sentences? Where do they pause? Why do they pause? Do they have to fill the pause with speech or can they sit in silence? All of these questions need to be answered and are easiest when worked through out loud. I don’t often return to these car conversations after I’ve gotten used to writing a character. Thought they can be helpful for figuring out how two characters who have never met talk to each other because each character relates to every other character in a unique way and that is going to change their speech.
CHAMPION: Aha! So as I suspected, your actors almost serve as “editors” for your scripts! This leads me to ask how you manage all the very helpful input you get from your talent. This may be tangentially related to the issue of natural vs. stylized speech, but have you ever faced a situation where your vision for the storyline gets disrupted by all the ideas from others? If so, how do you manage all the notes? How locked is the script when you eventually record it? Also, how and where are you recording it? Given that the patients are teenagers, I’m wondering if you ever considered using actual teenagers for the part. Aside from the car conversations and your work with the actors, do you talk to a lot of high schoolers to get a sense of their angst? (I’m thinking especially of Caleb and the adept way you handle his sexuality.) Given that you seem to be responding to what you have previously established with each episode, what steps have you taken to ensure that you never get caught up in tropes or predictable storylines? Do you have a natural end point in mind for The Bright Sessions?
SHIPPEN: The input from actors never feels too overwhelming or disruptive because it comes in bits and pieces. I’ll send out a script and get some questions and comments back and then I’ll make small adjustments to the script. A lot of the larger ideas come from “wouldn’t it be cool if” conversations about the overarching plot or character development. An actor will make a suggestion or float an idea about what could potentially happen in a season or in an episode and, if it works, I’ll take that suggestion and work it into the existing structure. As the sole writer of the podcast, all the details and specifics are up to me.
When we record, the script is 98% locked in, I’d say. It’s a final draft (that never seems to stop it from having typos) but occasionally an actor will ad lib or ask to say a line a slightly different way. But, beyond from a few minor line changes or improvs, the scripts tend to be consistent from page to episode. Editing also sometimes happens in post-production – I’ve cut out lines in the past that worked on the page but didn’t in the editing bay.
With a few exceptions, we record the episodes with both actors sitting across from each other, with individual mics on them. We go through the episode in it’s entirety a few times as I give notes. It’s a lot like acting in a class — we’re not crammed into a sound booth recording each line one-by-one — instead we’re recording the episode pretty much as it would happen in real life: two people sitting in a room together (my bedroom in this case — we’re very high tech).
Technically, only one of the patients is a teenager: Caleb. Adam is also in his teens, though not a patient, and Chloe is 20 when the series begins, so only just over that period in her life. But no, I never considered using actual teenagers. Firstly, there would be a lot of logistical and practical issues recording with someone under 18 and secondly, I never considered anyone other than Briggon for the role of Caleb. And he has nailed the high school voice, as I knew he would.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I talked to a teenager — I wish I could say I’ve done in-person research, but most of Caleb’s plot line is directly inspired by all the YA novels I read. Yes, I do still read Young Adult fiction. I’ve met my fair share of adults who don’t consider that a good use of time, but I politely disagree. YA fiction is consistently growing and changing and there are some real gems to be found. I read a lot, and in a lot of different genres, and one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. It is a book that I couldn’t put down and it has lingered in my mind ever since. I think it has had a lot of influence on the writing of both Caleb and Chloe and I can’t recommend it enough.
I also spend a lot of time on Tumblr, a website that definitely skews towards a younger audience. There’s actually quite a bit of linguistic discussion that happens on the site and I think I’ve absorbed a lot about how teenagers speak and interact. On top of that, I read fan fiction — not of The Bright Sessions, but of other things. Fan fiction is written about and by many different people, but a good portion of it either explores the lives of teenagers or is written by teenagers. Reading teenage dialogue written by a teenager will give you a pretty good idea of what teenagers sound like. So I think my ability to write compelling high school dialogue is a combination of reading YA fiction, reading fan fiction, and observing teenagers on social media.
This actually transitions well into your question about tropes. A lot of fandom conversation and fan fiction is centered around the idea of tropes — either leaning into them or breaking them. In order to avoid tropes, you have to know what they are. And yes, you can watch a lot of film and television, listen to a lot of audio drama, and read a lot of books to get an idea of what the cliches are but it is helpful to have tropes distilled for you. That’s what happens in fandom discussion.
All that said, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about making things unpredictable. I focus on what stories I want to tell and sometimes that means taking a hard left and sometimes that means jumping directly into a trope – after all, cliches are cliches for a reason. But, to keep things engaging, it’s important to make a slight tweak when engaging with tropes. The Bright Sessions is built on this idea. A mysterious time traveler shows up! But…she can’t control her ability. A high school football player is having trouble expressing his emotions! But…not for the usual reasons. I think it’s really fun to lean into story beats that are familiar but give them a different flavor.
As for keeping the plot from getting predictable, I think it’s a delicate balancing act. A certain amount of predictability is a good thing, in my opinion. When I see a listener comment with a prediction about the plot, I’m pleased if that prediction is very close to correct. That tells me that I’m on the right path, that I’m not going to jump the shark. However, you don’t want your audience to be able to predict everything. And that’s where the red herring comes in (Clue is one of my all-time favorite movies and I’ve had to delete an entire paragraph explanation of why because this isn’t my chance to write a dissertation of Clue). Currently, I’m seeing a lot of predictions about the end of season two that could be correct. The predictions make sense in the context of what has happened so far but they are largely in response to something that is a bit of a red herring. As a result, I think the end of the season is going to be unexpected at the time and make complete sense looking back (that’s my hope anyway).
As for a natural end point for The Bright Sessions…no, I don’t have one. I’ve heard a lot of other audio drama creators say “I know exactly what the last episode/last line/last season of my podcast is” – I am not that person. I had no idea how this season was going to end when I started it. I know where I would like characters to end up emotionally but I’m really just letting this thing organically develop on its own terms. We’ll see where that takes us.
CHAMPION: Your method of scouring for youthful banter reminds me of how the great novelist Megan Abbott conducts research. She also writes about young people very well and scours many online forums to get the tone right for her last few books. But I’ve detected a bit of Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon in The Bright Sessions. I’m curious to know more about The Bright Sessions‘s literary influences (including YA, of which, being a wide reader myself, I’m certainly not going to pull a Ruth Graham here!). Also, we’re living in a time in which we are saturated by endless superhero movies, Hugo Awards ballot stuffing by frightened white middle-aged libertarians, Comic-Con as a publicity machine, fan entitlement, and numerous other intrusions into genre storytelling. But the many genre audio drama podcasts I listen to — such as yours, Ars Paradoxica, Atheist Apocalypse, Tanis, Lily Beacon, Wolf 359, Eos 10, The Cleansed, far too many wonderful shows to list here — seem relatively insulated from these developments. It’s almost as if audio drama is operating in its own hermetic corner, relatively safe from any General Zod neck-snapping controversies. Do you think audio drama runs the risk of getting co-opted? Or capitulating to the audience too much? What do you feel you owe the audience? Do you think audio drama is enough of its own animal to beat the odds? And why (or why not) do you think that is?
SHIPPEN: I think it’s hard to say what’s not a literary influence on The Bright Sessions — everything I’ve written could probably be traced back to something I read once. I am an avid reader and I feel like every book I read becomes a part of my brain. YA has definitely had a big influence, David Mitchell is always in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about world-building (especially on top of existing reality — he’s a master at that), and Philip Pullman (an all-time favorite of mine) has definitely had a roundabout influence on the last few episodes of this season (and on my brain in general).
I think audio drama is excelling in genre storytelling for a few reasons. Firstly, genre film and TV can often fall into the trap of focusing too much on the “smashy-smashy” (as NPR’s Glen Weldon calls it). While people, myself included, go to these films for action, it is sometimes given attention to the detriment of character or plot. Unless the action is innovative and exciting enough to hold up a film (as it is in Mad Max: Fury Road, though that movie has pretty much everything going for it, in my opinion), you can’t just blow up buildings (or have Superman snapping necks) and hope people will be satisfied.
Audio drama is truly incapable of making that specific mistake. Action can happen in audio form – the audio montage in Wolf 359‘s “Mayday” is a stellar example of this — but action isn’t the go-to. Instead, the focus goes to the characters and the worlds. When you can’t distract the audience with shiny effects or crazy stunts, you have to work twice as hard to give them something to chew on. I think that motivates audio drama to innovate a lot more than other mediums.
Secondly, I think audio drama benefits from being independently produced. It costs money to make a podcast, but not Mad Max $150 million kind of money. There’s no studio to appease, no execs to give notes, no 20 person marketing team ready to merchandise your idea. Having audio drama be entirely in the hands of its creators provides the kind of freedom you can’t find in big genre movies. As a result, you see a lot more risk-taking and a lot more diversity in audio drama. Half of the podcasts you mentioned have female protagonists; Marvel has yet to make a female-led movie. There have been numerous news stories recently about how female characters in genre films were changed to male for fear that a female character wouldn’t sell toys. Even when genre creators try their best to widen the pool of main characters — and I really do believe that they are trying — there is a larger machine at work that can stall progress. To my knowledge, that machine has yet to exist in audio drama.
I couldn’t presume to predict where the audio drama world is headed — I’m still a newcomer but I feel like things have shifted in the year I’ve been working on The Bright Sessions. There’s more content than ever and the quality of said content seems to be getting better and better. I think there will certainly be attempts to co-opt audio drama — after all, it is a rapidly growing entertainment sector with low overheads and excellent advertising potential — but I don’t know what form that will take or how successful those attempts will be. But, whatever happens, I think audio drama will continue to find new and exciting ways to tell stories, whether independently or under a larger umbrella. Bigger is sometimes better.
As for what I feel I owe our audience: I want to continue to entertain and surprise them. I want to keep things unpredictable without making them ever feel like they’ve been misled or cheated. I don’t think I owe rainbows and sunshine — the audience doesn’t have to like every plot point or character — but I owe thoughtful writing, even when it’s painful. I owe them continued and respectful character development, enthusiasm to rival their own, and a satisfying conclusion to a story they’ve invested in.
As to when that conclusion will come is anybody’s guess.
(This is the ninth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The American Political Tradition.)
Sunset Park is a cozy part of Brooklyn trilling with children making midday escapes from big brick schools, with a few old factories that wail great threnodies whenever the moon winks a ditty about displaced residents on a cloudy night. There are robust workers and tight-knit families and bahn mi bistros and bustling bakeries from which one can savor the tantalizing nectar of glorious Spanish gossip squeezing into the streets. If you are tipsy after too many pints at the Irish pubs lining the southwestern fringe, there are 24 hour donut shops serving as makeshift diners, with loquacious jacks cooking up chorizo hash for any hungry ghost in a fix.
This is the region, along with East New York and Flatlands and Bensonhurst, where Brooklyn’s true soul still shines. It remains insulated from the Williamsburg hipsters oblivious to the high rise monstrosities now being hoisted near the East River or the yuppies who cleave to Park Slope’s gluten-free stroller war zone like children keeping to the shallow end of the pool. But the motley banter rivals the bright babble bubbling five miles east in Ditmas Park and even the chatty ripples that percolate just two miles south in Bay Ridge. In Sunset Park, you can pluck the city’s most enormous plantains from bold bodega bins bulging with promise, talk to the last honest bartender at Brooklyn’s best bowling alley, or walk beneath a Buddhist temple for some of the finest vegetarian Chinese grub in the region. It is a place of repose. It is a place of fun. It is a place to live.
Yet as great and as welcoming and as improbably enduring as this part of Brooklyn is, it could have been bigger. And for a long time, it was. Until Robert Moses came along.
There are many grim tales contained within Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker — an alarmingly large and exquisitely gripping and undeniably great and insanely obsessive masterpiece of journalism documenting the most ruthless urban planner that New York, and possibly America, has ever known. If you love New York City even one tenth as much as I do, you will find many reasons to shout obscenities out your window after reading about what Robert Moses did to this mighty metropolis. It was Moses who killed off the free aquarium, open to all, that once stood in Battery Park. It was Moses who pitted reliable mass transit lines serving regular Janes and Joes against highways designed solely for those who had the shekels to buy and upkeep a car. It was Moses who believed African-Americans to be “dirty” and who, in building Riverside Park, stiffed the Harlem section of playgrounds (seventeen in the West Side; one in Harlem) and football fields (five to one). Moses was so casually racist that most of the parks he built, the parks that secured his popularity, served white middle-class New Yorkers. But working-class families needed these parks more and were often reduced to opening a fire hydrant in the streets and playing in the gutter during a hot summer.
Not a single person in power will ever change the Manhattan skyline in the irreversible way that Moses did. Robert Moses had massive ambition, savvy savagery, limitless arrogance and energy, improbably large coffers that he willed together through a bridge bond ploy, a panache for grabbing and holding onto power, and a sick talent for persuading some of the most powerful figures of the 20th century to sign crooked agreements and/or get steamrolled into deals that screwed them over in quite profound ways.
For me, one of the acts that sums Moses up is the way in which he ripped out a major part of Sunset Park’s soul by erecting the Gowanus Expressway above Third Avenue. This is a toxic concrete barrier that still remains as cold and as gray and as unwelcoming as the bleakest rainstorm in December. To this very day, you can still hear the Belt Parkway’s thundering traffic as far away as Sixth Avenue. During a recent walk along Third Avenue on a somewhat chilly afternoon, I surveyed Moses’s handiwork and was nearly mowed down by a minivan barreling out of Costco, its back bulging with wasteful mass-produced goods, as a mad staccato honk pierced my ears with a motive that felt vaguely murderous.
Robert Moses wanted to make New York a city for automobiles, even though he never learned how to drive. And in some of the neighborhoods where his blots against natural urban life remain, his dogged legacy against regular people still persists.
Sunset Park’s residents had begged Moses to build the expressway over Second Avenue. This was closer to the water and the industrial din and might have preserved the many small businesses and happy homes that once punctuated Third Avenue’s happy line. But Moses, citing the recently opened subway that now serves the D, N, and R underneath Fourth Avenue and the available support beams from the soon-to-be-demolished El, was determined to raise a freeway on Third Avenue that he claimed was much cheaper, even though the engineers who weren’t on Moses’s payroll had observed that one mere mile of freeway looping back to the shore wouldn’t substantially reduce the cost. But Moses had fought barons before and had made a few curving compromises while constructing the Northern State Parkway. Armed with the power of eminent domain and a formidable administrative power in which bulldozers and blockades could be summoned against opponents almost as fast as a modern day Seamless delivery, Moses was not about to see his vision vitiated. And if that meant calling the good parts of Sunset Park a “slum,” which it wasn’t, or spouting off any number of lies or threats to destroy perfectly respectable working class neighborhoods, then he’d do it.
As documented by Caro, the Gowanus stretched a raised subway line’s harmless Venetian-blind shadow into a dirty expanse that was nearly two and a half times as wide, wider than a football field and twice as onyx. The traffic lights were so swiftly timed that one had to be a running back to sprint beneath the smog-choking blackness to the other side of the street. The condensation from the steel pillars created such a relentless dripping that it transformed this once sunny thoroughfare into a dirt-clogged river Styx for cars. The cost was seven movie theaters, dozens of restaurants, endless mom and pop stores, butcher shops that raffled Christmas turkeys, and tidy affordable apartments — all shuttered. Moses did not plan for the increased industrial traffic that sprinkled into Sunset Park’s streets, just as he hadn’t for his many other freeways and bridges. Garbage and rats accumulated in the surrounding lots. There was violence and drugs and gang wars. The traffic tightened and slowed to a crawl, demanding more roads, more buildings to gut, more more neighborhoods to disrupt for the worse.
Who was this man? And why was he so determined to assert his will? He fancied himself New York’s answer to Georges-Eugène Haussmann (even reusing a doughnut-shaped building for the 1964 World’s Fair that the Parisian planner himself had put together in 1867), yet didn’t begin to earn a dime for his tyranny until his forties. (He lived off his family’s money and secured early planning jobs by declining a salary.) He thought himself a poet (not an especially good one), but if he had any potential prose style, it turned sour and hard and technocratic by the time he hit Oxford and received his doctorate at Columbia. He worked seemingly every hour of the day and took endless walks, memorizing the precise points where he would later build big parks and tennis courts. And he loved to swim, taking broad strokes well beyond the shores in his sixties and seventies with an endurance and strength that crushed men who were two decades younger. Small wonder that Moses gave the city so many public pools.
After I finished reading The Power Broker, I wanted to know more. I found myself plunging into the collected works of Jane Jacobs (Jacobs’s successful battle to save Washington Square Park was left out by Caro due to the enormity of The Power Broker‘s original manuscript), as well as Anthony Flint’s excellent volume Wrestling with Moses (documenting the battles between Moses and Jacobs), an extremely useful volume edited by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth T. Jackson called Robert Moses and the Modern City that may be the best overview of every Moses project (and attempts, not entirely successfully, to refute some of Caro’s claims), as well as a wonderful graphic novel from Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez (Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City) which I recommend for anyone who doesn’t have enough time to read Caro’s 1,200 page biography written in very small print (although you really should read it).
I wanted to know how a man like Moses could operate so long without too many challenging him. His behavior often resembled a spoiled infant braying for his binky. When faced by an authority figure, Moses would often threaten to resign from a position until he got his way. Moses used this tactic so frequently that Mayor La Guardia once sent him a note reading, “Enclosed are your last five or six resignations; I’m starting a new file,” followed by city corporation counsel Paul Windels creating a pad of forms reading “I, Robert Moses, do hereby resign as _______ effective __________,” which further infuriated Moses.
The answer, of course, was through money and influence that Moses had raised through a bridge bond scheme floated through the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, with Moses as Chairman:
Moses wanted banks to be so anxious to purchase Triborough bonds that they would use all of their immense power to force elected officials to give his public works proposals the approval that would result in their issuance. So although the safety of the banks’ money was already amply assured by Triborough’s current earnings (so great that each year the Authority collected far more money than it spent), by the irrevocable covenants guaranteeing that tolls could never be removed without the bondholders’ consent, and by Triborough’s monopoly, also irrevocable, that guaranteed them that if any future intracity water crossing were built, they would share in its tolls, too, Moses provided them with additional assurances. He maintained huge cash reserves — “Fantastic,” says Jackson Phillips, director of municipal research for Dun and Bradstreet; “the last time I looked they had ten years’ interest on reserve” — and when he floated the Verrazano bonds he agreed to lay aside — in addition to the existing reserves! — 15 percent ($45,000,000) of the cash he received for the new bond issue, and not touch it until the bridge was open and operating five years later. Purchasers of the Verrazano bonds could be all but certain that they could collect their interest every year even if the bridge never collected a single toll. Small wonder that Phillips says, “Triborough’s are just about the best bonds there are.” Wall Streeters may believe that “any investment is a bet,” but Robert Moses was certainly running the safest game in town.
In other words, Moses pulled off one of the most sinister financial games in New York history. The Triborough Authority could not only collect tolls on its bridges and capitalize on these receipts by issuing revenue bonds, which would in turn generate considerable income for Moses to fund his many public works projects, but it was capable of spending more money than the City of New York. Which meant that the city often had to come crawling back to Moses. And if the city or the state wanted to audit the Triborough Authority, this operation was so incredibly complicated that it would require at least fifty accountants working full-time for a year in order to comprehend it. Government did not have this kind of money to place safeguards against Moses. Moreover, it needed Moses’s financial assistance in order to provide for the commonweal.
It wasn’t until 1968, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor John Lindsay put an end to these remarkable shenanigans by siphoning tolls into the newly created Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The bondholders might have sued over this. It was, after all, unconstitutional to uproot existing contractual obligations. But Rockefeller’s brother David happened to be the head of Chase Manhattan Bank. And Chase was the largest TBTA bondholder. In a glaring case of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” the Triborough Authority as puppet organization for Moses was finished. Moses was forced to abandon his role. And the man’s political hold on New York was effectively finished after four decades of relentless building and endless resignation threats.
It seemed a fitting end for a man who had maintained such a stranglehold over such a large area. Six years later, Robert Caro’s biography appeared. Moses wrote a 23 page response shortly after the book’s publication. Caro’s rebuttal was five paragraphs, concluding with this one:
It is slightly absurd (but typical of Robert Moses) to label as without documentation a book that has 83 solid pages of single-spaced, small-type notes and that is based on seven years of research, including 522 separate interviews.
Next Up: Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act!
If you were a good mother, you would have gone shopping every week in the way that even the most cash-strapped parents somehow manage when they have children to take care of. But you let the food run out and you kept it that way for weeks. You always told us that we could “fend for ourselves.” If you were a good mother, you never would have stopped at Burger King on your way home from work before handing my sister and me a dollar a piece to walk down to the AM/PM. This was your idea of dinner: have two small and hungry kids amble by themselves along an avenue with a sketchy sidewalk to purchase mildewy hamburgers from a gas station: thin tasteless patties on processed buns, without even the solace of lettuce and tomato, that had been sitting under a heat lamp the entire day — this as you guzzled wine and watched Love Connection on the couch, hoping to live vicariously.
If you were a good mother, you never would have allowed my father to poison me with his homebrew formula when I was an infant. I was sent to the hospital in coughs and sputters and came very close to dying. Those who witnessed this unfathomable incident recall him cackling with a cruel congratulatory glee just before he fired up a fresh Pall Mall. He never owned up to his neglect, much as you didn’t. I would learn the wrong lessons from both of you.
If you were a good mother, you never would have allowed him to bury my small sensitive head into the couch. He pressed the palm of his hand against my flailing golden curls, which were always in need of an overdue snip, and pushed my trembling nose into the couch. I couldn’t breathe. But that wasn’t enough for him. He gripped his firm and cowardly paws to my throat and, if you were a good mother, you certainly never would have let him try to murder me again — especially with my horrified sister watching this entire spectacle and bravely intervening. If you were a good mother, you would have understood that this man was dangerous, even before the accident that came about because he was too stubborn to wear a seatbelt, the accident that threw him through the windshield of a VW bus onto some part of Mowry Road as he shirked many responsibilities that I take very seriously as an adult, the accident that scrambled an already scrambled brain, an accident that has led me to rightly question and rectify the recklessness I appear to have inherited.
If you were a good mother, you never would have snorted lines of cocaine through your greedy beak (I never witnessed this and, because I am committed to truth and fairness, I am obliged to observe that this is an inference divined through what I learned later through life experience, but did you really think we didn’t notice the powdery mirror you kept on your bedroom floor?). If you were a good mother, you never would have imbibed several boxes of cheap wine each week or brought strange men over or left us with shady babysitters who committed unspeakable acts. If you were a good mother, you might have stopped the one babysitter who forced me to suck him off and another babysitter, just a few blocks away, who told me that if I didn’t touch her, she would report what a horrible child I was and what a bad mother you were — not that there weren’t kernels of truth to her threats. If you were a good mother, you might have understood that one of the reasons I was diffident for so many years was because of all this and that I needed therapy, not your chastisement or your phony encouragement because I couldn’t work up the nerve for a very long time to ask girls out, much less make a move if I somehow managed to land a first date. But I can do that now. And I’ve never done so much as a bump in my life.
If you were a good mother, I never would have destroyed so many friendships and relationships. But, to be fair, that fatal flaw is entirely on me. And to be clear, every mistake I have ever made is on me. I don’t know if you’ll ever understand that this is the way life works. I’ve seen echoes of your self-destructive tendencies in my own life, which I now watch and curb like the most formidable hawk. But I know how to act and to apologize and to do right. I’m so sorry that you still don’t.
If you were a good mother, you might have understood that my flagrant nips into the liquor cabinet all throughout high school were a method of smothering the pain.
If you were a good mother, you never would have locked me in my bedroom during the entirety of seventh grade. If you were a good mother, you never would have stood there, doing nothing as the second man you married locked me out of the house as I stood outside, shivering in little more than underwear and a blue blanket that had been nipped at by the dog and spending part of the night sleeping with shame and fright in a parking garage.
If you were a good mother, it wouldn’t be so painful to answer questions about my family from people who like me and want to know me and let me into their lives. Why the fuck do you think I was an interviewer for so many years? Aside from being legitimately interested in other people’s stories, it was a great method to avoid talking about myself.
If you were a good mother, you never would have traveled one hundred miles and broken into my apartment and made me call the police, who patiently explained to you why what you had done was not okay. You never would have sent me an anonymous package (try taking better heed with the postmarks) containing a copy of Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, the same copy that is now perched on the shelves of the woman I loved for nine years who threw me into the streets after she had, with ample justification, had enough of me.
If you were a good mother, I never would have longed for you to die, a terrible thought that I believed for far too long would release me. But I now know that I am the only one who can live with myself. I don’t want you to die, but I don’t want to know you and I don’t know if I can ever forgive you. When a social worker told me at my lowest point that you couldn’t be that bad, it took every ounce of personal strength to resist reaching across the table and beating him to a senseless pulp for his flip and uncomprehending remark about something that has caused me unbearable pain for so many years. But I know that, while we share parts, I am not you and that I am not my father and I know that there are other ways to react.
If you were a good mother, you would have known that leaving 120 comments on my website in less than 24 hours was highly disturbing. If you were a good mother, you’d know that sending me a relentless spate of packages (all marked RETURN TO SENDER by me and placed dutifully back in the mailbox) are the actions of a stalker, and that bothering me and somehow tracking down a phone number that only a handful of people knew when I was at my worst point disrupted my healing process. I was quite capable of healing and becoming a better person without you.
If you were a good mother, you would have understood that my incessant joke-cracking was a form of survival. You might have known that learning to laugh at yourself is a way of discovering humility. If you were a good mother, you’d understand that subsisting in a marvelous universe and living a happy life involves not assuming that you are at its center, but being grateful for every small moment and giving to others even after you’ve had a rough day or you’ve been terribly hurt. I remember the way in which you were ridiculed by the Sacramento Union when you were photographed in a ratty dress at a charity event and how you took this so personally that you badmouthed the newspaper. What the photographer did was cruel, but, if you were a good mother, you would have known that there were other good people who worked at that newspaper and that most people are kind and that these kindnesses outweigh the casual wanton acts that every human has to deal with. On the night of your 47th birthday, when we went to a comedy club in Old Sacramento, the host made a few cracks at you between acts and you took this so much to heart that I stood up midway through his verbal fusillade and diverted him with a comical aside, suggesting that I would fuck him if he kept up his advances. The audience laughed. After the show, when we were all consoling you, I went up to the host and personally apologized for your conduct. He asked if you were okay and offered to apologize to you, but you were already out of the building. You could not understand that he was putting on a performance. If you were a good mother, you would have faced him and discovered that he wasn’t a bad guy. You might have possessed courage. You might have brushed this off.
The crisp new outfit that you purchased every week over groceries, when your kids were skinny and starving. The new car you bought because, in your own words, it made you feel young. If you were a good mother, you would have understood that growing old is not something to be feared, that youth is a false ideal, and that life deepens as you push past your fortieth birthday.
If you were a good mother, you would have known that Mother’s Day and your birthday were the most horrific days of the year. You demanded that the world stop what it was doing and dump all its attentions upon you. You’d drink yourself into a sad stupor of self-loathing that made us very worried and very frightened. But we would always tell you that we loved you and that everything was going to be okay, when you were supposed to tell us that.
If you were a good mother, you would have known how to say “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.” I had to learn this on my own. You remain incapable of saying these vital words to this very day. How many joyful moments have you missed because of your puffed up pride and your resolute narcissism?
If you were a good mother, you might have understood that taking me to a church on a weekly basis, where one member of the congregation said of me, “There’s something of the devil in that boy,” was not healthy for a budding atheist. I knew there wasn’t a god when my father burned me with his cigarettes and spoke to me in a calm voice just before beating the shit out of me. I know that no amount of faith in a fictitious entity would help me reckon with the deep burns.
If you were a good mother, you might have known that I reacted so hostilely to you selling your fur coat to buy me a guitar on my birthday because the gesture was not about celebrating my life, but about your sacrifice — something that never should have been an issue in the first place if you were a responsible person. But I have to hand it to you. My guilt did get me to learn the guitar.
If you were even remotely aware of why you aren’t a good mother, you would have taken precautions on the night I was conceived. While no one is ever fully prepared to be a parent when those two pink lines materialize, you refused to understand that, the minute you knew you were due, you had responsibilities to a new life and a duty to be a good mother.
If you were a good mother, you might understand that I am terrified of becoming you, that I am scared of having children even though I very much like kids and nearly every kid seems to adore me, that one of the reasons I allowed self-destructive behavior to subsume me for so long is because I share some of your terrible qualities. If you were a good mother, I never would have had to wait until the age of forty to tell myself with fewer doubts that I am a kind, marvelous, and happy person who has every reason to live and that, despite your behavior, I still deserved to be born. But I also know, even if you had decided to be a good mother, I probably still would have ended up a mess of a human being. But I am now far less of a mess. And even though I know that you have prayed for reconciliation after more than twenty years of silence from me, having you in my life remains an impossibility. Because you refuse to accept that you are anything less than a good mother.