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?
KABERLNE: Tiny spoiler, you will be seeing The Voice Inside Your Head getting into hot water with a strange government later this 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 may be one of the best British comedies in years. But you won’t find it on the BBC or Netflix and you won’t find it in theaters. To celebrate Audio Drama Sunday, we conducted a lengthy chat with head writer David K. Barnes and his nimble co-conspirator Felix Trench to find out how this hilarious and independent production was put together.
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.
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.
To celebrate Audio Drama Sunday, we chat with Lauren Shippen, creator and producer of The Bright Sessions, in a wide-ranging conversation about how Los Angeles traffic can be inspirational, YA, therapy dialogue, genre, the 1985 movie Clue, and neck snapping.
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.
If you want to listen to The Bright Sessions, go the website. You can also chip into The Bright Sessions‘s Patreon fund, which greatly helps this show stay afloat.
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.
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.
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.
BECOMING JANE JACOBS
by Peter L. Laurence
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 376 pages)
Washington Square, which was David Bowie’s favorite place in New York, remains one of the most peaceful congregation points in the city, open to all souls and hospitable to all classes. Its great marble arch spills a lambent glow on the many students, lovers, and artists who talk and love and perform beneath the leafy shadows. Skateboarders ollie around the magnificent fountain. Kids stage epic pillow fights and participate in vivacious lightsaber battles. Stanley Kubrick once played chess here. You will find a slightly grumpy musician hauling out his massive piano on the weekends, dutifully educating any and all receptive ears on classical music. Protesters have gathered here to redress this nation’s many ills. Beatniks (including future mayor Ed Koch) have played their guitars here, fighting valiantly through the ages against ignoble police crackdowns. The park is so naturally welcoming of outliers and oddballs that I have read aloud some of my strangest prose here many times, only to have smiling strangers accost me. “That’s the craziest shit I’ve ever heard,” said one man who gave me a five dollar bill last autumn. “Keep it up.”
Had it not been for Jane Jacobs, this magnificent monument to motley promise might have become just another concrete eyesore.
In 1952, the tyrannical urban planner Robert Moses hoped to bifurcate the park with a loud road carrying the bestial name of Lomex (short for the “Lower Manhattan Expressway”), operating under the theory that automobile traffic should not be impeded by anything so fanciful as regular people chilling out on a Saturday afternoon. Moses, as documented with extraordinary detail in Robert A. Caro’s excellent biography The Power Broker, believed that New York City should belong to the cars. He was one of the most feared and inflexible city administrators that New York has ever known. But Moses met his match on the Washington Square fight.1Due to the enormity of Caro’s volume, this vital episode in New York history had to be cut from The Power Broker. I have reached out to Caro to see if he would discuss Jane Jacobs (and other issues) with me. Caro was gracious. He respectfully declined, citing work that needed to be done on his forthcoming Lyndon Johnson volume. The Jacobs/Moses fight has been vigorously chronicled by Anthony Flint in his excellent volume Wrestling with Moses. An essay on Moses and The Power Broker is forthcoming on these pages.
A brave woman by the name of Shirley Hayes, whose great efforts have often been overlooked by some historians, created the Committee to Save Washington Square Park. Jacobs, who was busy raising a family and writing articles for Architectural Forum, received one of Hayes’s flyers and, immediately recognizing the threat to city life, joined Hayes’s committee, wrote to Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri and Manhattan Borough President Robert Wagner, and vowed to do anything necessary to fight Moses. The two women bonded over their love of Greenwich Village. Jacobs was greatly impressed by Hayes’s refusal to compromise for a less obstructive roadway. Jacobs began talking with local shopkeepers and started to attend city meetings. And it soon became apparent that the only surefire way to save the park was to make the fight a full-time job.
Moses countered with a submerged four-lane roadway alternative, but the neighborhood had caught on quick to Moses’s wily ways. Hayes, Jacobs, and an activist named Edith Lyons were, by this time, bombarding City Hall with thousands of letters opposing this wanton destruction of a major public center. Using her connections, Jacobs persuaded Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Lewis Mumford, Charles Abrams, and William Whyte to join the cause. And because Jacobs was as masterful in administrative acumen as Moses, she broke down the efforts of saving Washington Square into manageable tasks, reminding all in the neighborhood that they must not give into Moses’s efforts to buy them out or compromise. She was also shrewd in humanizing the battle. She often brought her three children with her when persuading the locals to sign the petition.
By 1958, Moses’s narrower road proposal was being seriously considered by the City Planning Commission. The committee appealed to Carmine De Sapio, a slick Tammany Hall man who never seemed to leave home without his sunglasses. De Sapio was then serving as New York Secretary of State. He believed himself to be a soigné sophisticate, but he was on the downslide due to his mob connections, the city’s growing exhaustion with corruption, and his inveterate tendency to sell out judicial nominations. Nevertheless, this somewhat crooked politico was a man of the Village and was one of the rare people who could smoothly resist Moses’s manipulation. (As documented by Caro, De Sapio once turned down an offer from Moses to place all of the Triborough Authority’s insurance money with one of the firms that Mr. Sunglasses was associated with.) And De Sapio, for all of his faults, did feel very passionately about the park. He couldn’t say no to the activists standing outside City Hall with their twirling pink parasols reading PARKS ARE FOR PEOPLE.
Jacobs and the Committee celebrated their triumph. Moses, never a man to accept defeat without imperious implosion and aggressive paperwork, made a last-ditch effort to widen the streets around Washington Square Park. But by this time, the city had tired of the squabble and hoped to move forward. Moses resigned as parks commissioner, effectively scampering away after Jacobs and Hayes won what had seemed to be an unwinnable fight.
Jacobs’s work in preserving the park gave her the confidence she needed. In 1961, she published her tremendously influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Many of the conversations she had with Village residents, along with the information she soaked up while organizing the battle, led to invaluable observations about sidewalks, public life, city grids, the need for neighborhood diversity, and faith in everyday people to forge and evolve great cities. But Moses’s Lomex scheming was from over. In the 1960s, his plans to raze neighborhoods for massive expressways resurfaced. Jacobs would fight these efforts too, this time operating with a working treatise on how to keep cities fun and vivacious. She even wrote a protest song with Bob Dylan and got arrested in 1968 during a meeting.
* * *
One hundred years ago, Jane Butzner was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Very little is known about her early life. Despite becoming a highly visible figure who went out of her way to speak with the people who created a neighborhood, she was fiercely protective of her private life and was often baffled by anyone who was interested in it. What we do know is that her parents believed that cities were the center of human life. This likely set off Jacobs’s lifetime preoccupation with the effect that cities had on human life, which extended even to the ways in which cities imported and exported products (The Economy of Cities) and even their impact upon nearly all economic activity (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, a smart and often needlessly ignored rebuttal to Adam Smith).
Jacobs wanted to be a writer from a very young age and had pieces published in the Girl Scouts magazine, American Girl, in 1927. She read poetry when she was eleven and continued to write verse well into the mid-1950s, a creative approach that would later be seen in the fictitious city considered in The Economy of Cities, the dialogue drive of The Nature of Economies, and even a children’s book published in 1990 called The Girl in the Hat.
Jacobs long presented herself as a humble woman who just happened to get involved in a major metropolitan scuffle. But a new biography by Peter Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs, has cogently argued that Jacobs spent many of her early years honing her knowledge about cities. As a reporter at Amerika, she was nimble in her supervising and editing and quickly worked her way up to publications editor, free to write articles on any subject she learned. At Architectural Forum, she studied urban blight quite closely and proved to be as divergent in her views as her editor Douglas Haskell. Jacobs and Haskell forged a working relationship that was predicated on exploring the social consequences of building. Both were determined to fix problems fast rather than wait around for some shining idealistic model to shimmer into being. Laurence points to the remarkable environment of architectural criticism at the time. Architects regularly threatened any critic with libel. And this resulted in many writers pulling their punches. But Haskell, a quiet firebrand who coined the term “Googie architecture” and who had just received the okay to be more bold and outspoken from the lawyers, told Jacobs that it was okay to throw a few stones.
Jacobs began to critique schools, hospitals, and housing projects in 1952. Laurence, who scoured through the Haskell Papers at Columbia, reveals that Jacobs was not only exceptionally enthusiastic about her work, but determined to publish project reviews before anyone else:
I have a plot to try to get him to change his mind, which I hope works, and it would probably help if he got a note expressing interest in these other things — especially Trenton which we ought to get our hooks into soon if we want it.
Laurence also points to early conceptual kernels that later grow into promising husks for Death and Life‘s wide-ranging fields, such as Jacobs suggesting that a college library build a transparent ramp to create “eyes on the street” (echoing her call for street watchers and good lighting on sidewalks). Yet Jacobs also had to live with Forum‘s misguided legacy, such as an egregious 1951 article (“Slum Surgery in St. Louis,” written by another author) that praised the troubled Pruit-Igoe project. Jacobs never named the source of the article even as she railed against Le Corbusier’s tower-centric excess in her most celebrated book. Yet in these early days, Jacobs was not immune from casting aspersions about urban blight. Her March 1953 essay “New Thinking on Shopping Centers,” which Jacobs later regretted, dispensed platitudes about creating “blightproof neighborhoods” and “higher land values.” In 1955, Jacobs also viewed a Philadelphia redevelopment project steered by Louis Kahn as a ripe opportunity for unslumming.
Laurence’s invaluable excavation into Jacobs’s early thinking not only allows us to see a prototype for the clear urban models she was to develop through her activism and her writing, but, as we see Jacobs shed some of her less inclusive views about communities, the early thinking serves as a rebuttal to the kind of wildly misinterpreted absolutism spouted by hacky gasbags at Slate. It is certainly true that the New Urbanists who have followed Jacobs have often been white and affluent. Even as a young man walking around the Marina District of San Francisco, which was in the early noughties nowhere nearly as affluent as it is now, I felt deeply annoyed at how gentrification had aligned itself so neatly with many of Jacobs’s enticing ideas. But anyone who has actually studied Jacobs closely knows that she clearly wanted to plan a city for everyone:
In our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity, intricately mingled in mutual support. We need this so city life can work decently and constructively, and so the people of cities can sustain (and further develop) their society and civilization. Public and quasi-public bodies are responsible for some of the enterprises that make up city diversity — for instance, parks, museums, schools, most auditoriums, hospitals, some offices, some dwellings. However, most city diversity is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the formal framework of public action. The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop — insofar as public policy and action can do — cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish, along with the flourishing of the public enterprises. City districts will be economically and socially congenial places for diversity to generate itself and reach its best potential if the districts possess good mixtures of primary uses, frequent streets, a close-grained mingling of different ages in their buildings, and a high concentration of people.
And because Jacobs was more of a pragmatist than an idealist, Jacobs immediately followed up this passage from The Death and Life of Great American Cities with astute warnings on how diversity is prone to self-destruction (for any dimwitted skimmers banging out malarkey for Slate, that would mean gentrification), prescient caution about how the pursuit of profit for hot nightclubs and tourists “[undermined] the base of its own attraction, as disproportionate duplication and exaggeration of some single use always does in certain cities,” and a deep concern with the way building deprived localities of their diversity. Jacobs was well aware that sustaining a city required constant attention to these details, which was precisely the whole purpose of her final book Dark Age Ahead.
Jacobs’s Washington Square victory was a fight for one component of a neighborhood, not its entirety. And as we celebrate the one hundredth year of her great urban legacy — in an age when Uber and AirBnB have worked very hard to erode the very diversity that Jacobs was championing — her work is a vital reminder to be a part of our community in all its many forms. Our singular perspective is far from the only one.
In his new book, Thomas Frank argues that the Democratic Party is to blame for income inequality and our national ills. In this lengthy Q&A, we flesh out and argue over Frank’s thesis, examining the historical trajectory that has led to the present crisis of weak-kneed liberals and “the party of professionals.”
No matter what kind of liberal or centrist you are, there’s a good chance you’re likely to look to recalcitrant Republicans blocking Obama’s appointment of a Supreme Court Justice or a redfaced fount of colossal stupidity and cartoonish arrogance who is currently running for President as prominent harbingers of our national ills. But in his new book, Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank, co-founder of The Baffler and author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?, has boldly pinpointed the blame for our growing woes at a Democratic Party that has increasingly turned its back on the working class, cleaves to austere notions of meritocracy, is more likely to serve Wall Street than Main Street (despite campaign rhetoric from years back), and continues to adopt policies popularized under the Clinton Administration that have drastically altered the way seemingly liberal politicians serve the people.
I caught up with Frank as he was racing around the country on a book tour. He was gracious enough to respond to my whirlwind of questions — for his book is very much an argument that begets argument — while adroitly pushing his way through the publicity cyclone. Our lengthy conversation touched on the professional class, progressive Democrats who don’t fit within Frank’s theory, the degree to which one should hold a grudge against a politician, and the kind of bold experimentation that may be necessary to reverse income inequality.
You point to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter calling Russia “unprofessional” when Putin launched airstrikes against Syria in the fall of 2015, as if bombing the bejesus out of another nation was akin to some middle manager throwing a tantrum over the room temperature during a pivotal board meeting.
I’m fascinated by this idea of any remotely dissenting comment being considered “unprofessional.” It seems a close cousin to the outrage culture that has popped up on social media, whereby any group outraged over an “inappropriate” remark proceeds to demand the immediate firing of those who uttered the sentiment. Both developments stifle necessary discourse that is needed to argue out a difficult subject. But I’m wondering how this relates to income inequality. Perhaps many Americans, from Obama on down, have become indoctrinated in a kind of voluntary censure of any remotely disagreeable opinion. And it cuts both ways. Obama did suggest in September that students were too “coddled” for complaining about offensive viewpoints. In all fairness, is this something that we can entirely level at corporate America? I doubt very highly that any brightly painted break room with pinball machines and Guitar Hero in the corner is going to transform workers into Babbitt-like conformists. So where are Americans learning these cues? What accounts for young voters rejecting the Faustian bargain with their support for Bernie Sanders (curiously unmentioned in your book) or, for that matter, mainstream Democrats who often vote against their own interests by endorsing an endless wave of centrist candidates?
THOMAS FRANK: What makes professionals interesting to me is that they are a privileged social class. They are not the billionaire Koch Brothers, but their top ranks include some of the richest people in the nation. Depending on how you define them, certain kinds of investment banking personnel are professionals, as are Silicon Valley CEOs, and most corporate managers, and so on. My goal in Listen, Liberal is to understand what happens when our left party is dominated by this cohort and dedicated to advancing their interests. The answer is: Income inequality grows and grows.
Basically, professionals are inequality on the hoof. They are inequality walking and breathing and singing little songs to itself about how noble and right it is that the tasteful and deserving people are on top and the boorish stupid ones are on the bottom. And then taking a break to smack their lips over a particularly piquant IPA or a delicately iced artisanal cupcake.
That professionals do these things —- that they sing their own triumph -— in a very nice and polite language really shouldn’t surprise you. The Victorians were the same way. The only thing that’s new is that this slice of our upper class has persuaded itself that their politeness is some kind of left-wing political virtue, that it somehow excuses or inoculates their class privilege, and that the bad manners of the lower orders disqualifies any grievances they might have against the system.
Bernie Sanders isn’t mentioned in Listen, Liberal because it’s a book about Democrats and he didn’t identify as a Democrat until very recently, which (by the way) seems to cause no end of annoyance for Democratic party leaders. I was fully aware of his existence, however, and in 2014 I conducted a long interview with him for Salon —- asking his opinion about Democrats, even.
The young voting for Sanders makes perfect sense to me. They are the new proletariat, saddled with crazy student debt and facing a world where the old middle-class dream is suddenly impossible. They did exactly what they were told to do —- go to college! study hard! —- and look at what happened. Look at what a shitty trick the adult world pulled on them. As soon as they were old enough to sign those student loan papers, we put them in debt.
CHAMPION: Your book spends a great deal of time quibbling with the way in which “the best people” are selected for prominent positions and for more lucrative jobs. But I don’t know if professionals can be entirely blamed for the vagaries that you ascribe to them. They may not be suffering like those who were victimized by lenders during the subprime crisis, but they too are motivated by the need to keep food on the table and must play the game if they hope to survive. If the professionals are being nice and polite, tweaking their LinkedIn profiles and marketing themselves at networking functions as “the best,” aren’t they merely succumbing to the rules and folkways of a ruthless capitalist system that no longer welcomes outliers or innovators? To what extent are professionals responsible for this apparent synthesis (to use a “professional” buzz word) between playing it safe and growing income inequality? When did this impulse start? Would you go out on a limb and call these professionals “willing executioners” (a la Goldhagen) in an altogether different nightmare?
FRANK: This is the biggest question of all, isn’t it, and it needs to be asked because I have sketched out a picture of a country in which invisible and even unmentionable forces like class interest seem to pull people this way and that. It is particularly noticeable because the people I’m describing are the ones we always think of not as being part of a “class” but merely as being “the best”: The highly educated people at the top of our system of status and respect.
I think they do have free will and agency, or else I wouldn’t write books like this one —- which is addressed to the very class I’m criticizing, with a big old index finger pointing at them from the cover of the book.
So I think they are culpable to some degree. They should know better. These are highly educated people we’re talking about and they should understand that much of their worldview is based not on fact but on superstition and prejudice —- their unquestioning attitude toward trade deals, for instance, or their knee-jerk contempt for working-class people. You mention their fixation on creativity and innovation, and it has always intrigued me that the literature of creativity and innovation is complete rubbish and yet they eat it up anyway, tuning in to the TED talks and going about their utterly un-innovative business.
The story has some complications, too. We have a powerful political party given wholeheartedly to the interests of professionals, but it seems not to notice that certain professions are crumbling (journalism, the humanities) and others are in danger of being corrupted altogether (accountancy, medicine, real-estate appraising). The professionals who have seen their livelihoods thus ruined are angry and even sometimes come to identify with blue-collar workers who have seen their cities destroyed by the Democrats’ great god “globalization.” But the party of the professionals doesn’t listen to these unfortunate members of its own precious cohort.
The ones out front keep playing the game, as you put it, weirdly unconcerned while the devil takes the hindmost. The devil will get to them too, eventually, but in the meantime the winners do not show any sign of awareness. That blindness fascinates me.
CHAMPION: But the Democratic Party is also the party of Elizabeth Warren, Barbara Lee, John Conyers, Robert Reich, and Donna Edwards, among other progressives. For all the justifiable criticisms leveled against Democrats for hewing too closely to mainstream neoliberalism — or, for that matter, the recent viral videos of Hillary Clinton refusing to address Black Lives Matter’s Ashley Wlliams on mass incarceration or angrily responding to Greenpeace’s Eva Resnick-Day — we are nevertheless dealing with a political climate in which “socialism” is no longer a dirty word. You criticize Reich’s The Work of Nations for endorsing the “symbolic analysts” even as he criticized income inequality and even as you point to his ongoing work against economic injustice. But is this really on the level of Deval Patrick joining the board of leading subprime lender Ameriquest in 2004 after fighting on behalf of the marginalized and the impoverished? Effective political reform is often about compromise. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson have argued that standing doggedly for one’s principles and refusing to compromise is an endorsement for the status quo. Is there an acceptable level of compromise that can reconcile this disparity between an indignant working class that feels left out of the process and what you identify as a lack of awareness from the “party of professionals”?
FRANK: I acknowledge of course that there are exceptions to my theory, and that there are lots of good Democrats out there. There may even be good Republicans out there. Robert Reich is one of the good guys today —- one of the best guys, actually -— but The Work of Nations, which he published way back in 1991, really got the problem of inequality wrong. It heaped praise on what he called “symbolic analysts” (one of many terms of endearment Democrats have made up for white-collar professionals) and announced that, in the future, we would all either have to join their ranks or serve them.
You ask if that’s as bad as one of the missteps of Deval Patrick. I truly have no idea how I would make such a judgment. One is an influential book of economic theory, the other is a promising Democratic politician signing up with a notorious subprime lender. They are analogous deeds, in a way, but also in different categories.
Nor do I really know what the acceptable level of compromise is in some abstract way. I will say this, however: The entire history I trace is one of ordinary people’s interests being systematically ignored and overruled by a clique of upper-class liberals who are in love with their own virtue. They have no trouble with compromise in one direction. Leading Democrats are forever trying to strike a deal with the Republicans in Congress on Social Security and the budget —- think of Obama and his pursuit of the “grand bargain,” a phrase which was my working title for the book. But when it comes to people on the left, Democrats usually invite them simply to shut up. These are people they can’t stand. On this, see: The works and achievements of Rahm Emanuel.
CHAMPION: How does splitting hairs over a neoliberal position taken twenty-five years ago by someone who you now acknowledge to be a bona-fide progressive help us to understand how the Democratic Party has changed or what we need to do to combat it? Let’s contend with bigger fish. You heavily criticize Bill Clinton in your book. And I would tend to agree with you. Bill Clinton’s alliance with Dick Morris, his signing of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, his deregulation of telecom and interstate banking, and his willful repeal of Glass-Steagall all feel very much like the actions of a “bad Democrat” and the kind of narrative that gets swept under the rug in these discussions on how many Democrats aren’t terribly dissimilar from Republicans. I’m sure you’re familiar with the infamous story behind Bill and Hillary Clinton’s first date, which involved the pair crossing a picket line and offering themselves as scabs so they could see a Rothko exhibit at the Yale Art Gallery. This aligns neatly with the problems you’re identifying. But it also suggests that the more pernicious qualities of compromise lie dormant inside any politician who aspires to great power. You also observe that Obama’s three great achievements — the 2009 stimulus package, Dodd-Frank, and the Affordable Care Act — are undermined by Democrats who follow up with a professional-minded consensus. If we’re going to call out the “party of professionals,” don’t we need to consider the full narrative of how the more prominent figureheads have stood against the working class instead of singling out comparatively minor indiscretions from those who are now fighting against income inequality?
FRANK: You’re talking about Robert Reich and The Work of Nations again. My understanding of history is that we are supposed to seek the truth about how the past unfolded regardless of whether historical actors later change their minds or express regret for what they did. Bill Clinton has apologized several times for the 1994 crime bill as well as for many other things; that might make us think more highly of him as a person but it doesn’t undo the crime bill or erase its consequences from history. Similarly, The Work of Nations was an essential document of its time. It was very influential in the early years of the Clinton Administration. Its author was made Secretary of Labor. That Reich has changed his views since then is commendable —- and I think very highly of what he’s doing now -— but his conversion to a different point of view in recent years doesn’t change the political culture of the 1990s.
I most definitely think we need to underscore how prominent Democratic figureheads have stood against the working class, and in particular we need to look at their ideas and their legislative deeds. This is why I go into such detail on the legislative history of the Clinton years, focusing especially on the five items his admirers actually celebrated him for: NAFTA, the crime bill, welfare reform, deregulation of banks and telecoms, and the balanced budget. All of these were disasters for working people, either directly or indirectly.
The issue of compromise and consensus is a fascinating one. Democrats have been far more earnest seekers of consensus than Republicans, and I wanted to know why. This is one of the biggest differences between the two parties, and the “party of the professionals” hypothesis explains it perfectly. The politics of professionalism is technocracy, an ideology in which the solution to every problem is known to educated people and the correct experts. When they look at Washington, technocrats know that politics is just a form of entertainment that gets in the way of the right-minded; it blocks the educated people from doing what everyone knows is the right thing; and therefore technocrats always gravitate to the same answer: try to reach a grand bargain with the smart folks on the other side. Thus Obama on the budget, and thus Clinton on Social Security.
CHAMPION: History is certainly about understanding how powerful figures alter their viewpoints and adjust their positions. But if Reich was willing to change, why then is a putatively liberal government so unwilling to adjust its course? You point to how FDR employed experts — such as Harry Hopkins, Marriner Eccles, Henry Wallace, and Harry Truman — who were all outliers in some way, many with a lack of academic credentials that led to bold ideas and off-kilter policies. But Roosevelt’s response to financial paralysis was also famously guided by the mantra “Above all, try something.”
It was certainly “bold, persistent experimentation” that Roosevelt called for in 1932, but some historians have argued that it was both the law of averages and Roosevelt’s centralized authority that allowed for his much needed reform to happen. If we want to repair income inequality, is our only remedy some autocratic figure operating in the FDR/Hamilton mode who is granted supreme authority and willing to employ any tactic to do so? Or are there other remedies that aren’t teetering perilously towards such absolutism? To cite one example of the Beltway dynamics in play here, it remains to be seen whether Republican senators will change their mind on potential Supreme Court Justice Merrick Garland, but the legislative opposition suggests that “bold, persistent experimentation” isn’t going to be allowed anytime soon and that any future Democratic President is fated to be hamstrung by the very technocratic compromise that you’re understandably condemning. On the other hand, “bold, persistent experimentation” — as recently documented by journalist Gabriel Sherman — is precisely what has allowed Trump to sink his talons into the 2016 election as much as he has. Trump is a perfect example of politics as “a form of entertainment that gets in the way of the right-minded” and this didn’t even come from technocratic Democrats. So is there any real hope for repair? Do you feel that there’s any truth to Susan Sarandon’s recent suggestion to Chris Hayes, mired in controversy, that a potential Trump Presidency might inspire more people to take a gamble on a progressive revolution (if that is indeed what is needed here)?
FRANK: As it happens, there was a golden moment for boldness and experimentation in recent years, and it came and went in 2009 after the collapse of Wall Street and its rescue by the Federal government. Many things were possible in that moment that weren’t possible at other times. But that particular crisis went to waste. Obama deliberately steered us back toward the status quo ante, and worked hard to get everything back like it was before. “The Center Held,” to slightly modify the title of Jonathan Alter’s second Obama book.
Regarding Trump: I am a big fan of Franklin Roosevelt, and I don’t think that Trump is comparable in any way. Being willing to go before the cameras and say anything, like Trump, does not really put a politician in the same category as FDR, any more than does being a jazz musician who is a great soloist or a comedian who’s really good at improv.
Your concern about the present situation possibly requiring an autocrat or an absolutist is very intriguing, however, and it’s a common fear. But flip the question around a little bit. The way I see it, autocracy is already here —- economic autocracy, I mean -— and democracy is the solution. It is true what you say about Roosevelt wielding power like few other presidents, but the things that really turned this country around involved economic democracy more than they did the heavy hand of the state. I am thinking in particular here of two things that we identify with FDR, antitrust and organized labor. Both of them involved challenging oligarchy by empowering countervailing forces, either competitors or workers.
Let’s talk about unions for a moment. They are profoundly democratic institutions even when they aren’t full democracies themselves (a common problem) because they extend the idea of democratic rights and voice into the workplace. For decades Americans thought of unions as a normal part of civil society, and yet today they are dying, thanks to the one-sided power of corporate management -— and the indifference of their friends in the Democratic Party. What’s awesome about unions is that they would help enormously to reduce inequality, and they would do it without the heavy hand of the state. No need for massive redistribution by Washington: just allow workers to have a voice, let them negotiate a contract with their employer, and they will take care of it automatically. More democracy will solve the problem.
CHAMPION: But is democracy enough to combat economic autocracy? We’re dealing with a strong plutocratic base of mainstream Democratic voters and whatever fallout we’re going to have in this post-Citizens United political landscape. The “fight for $15” battle, arguably labor’s greatest recent development, is part of the conversation only because workers made this happen at the local level. There are also pragmatics to consider. Bernie Sanders gave a recent interview to the New York Daily News Editorial Board that has made the rounds. Aside from the stunning revelation that Sanders is unfamiliar with subway MetroCards (which is understandable), the larger concern was that Sanders appeared unable to pinpoint a precise method for breaking up the banks. At the beginning of the book, you describe a Seattle firefighter asking you if there was any economic savior that would prevent the middle class from sinking into poverty. You write, “I had no good answer for him. Nobody does.” If you’re asking the so-called “symbolic analysts” to jump on board the bus passing through Decatur, they’re going to need an answer. They’re going to need more than a loose theoretical idea of what the Fed can do to rein in JP Morgan Chase and corporate greed. What can you possibly tell them to shake them out of their status quo stupor? Is this a struggle where working and middle class liberals are fated to fight in their respective corners? How might technocrats be persuaded to become more inclusive beyond revisiting the historical record?
FRANK: There are all sorts of practical things that can be done to address inequality and halt the deterioration of the middle class; I mentioned two of the biggest in my last answer. Doing something about runaway financialization is also a good idea, even if Bernie Sanders couldn’t name the exact legal method by which he would do it in that one interview. Inequality is not an insoluble problem. What that firefighter was asking, however, was what kind of band-aid will be tossed to working people under our present course and our existing system. Clearly the answer to that is . . . nothing.
Well, maybe something. Maybe, under President Hillary Clinton, there’ll be microloans for all. Good times.
However, to make something real happen will require a major political reversal, a reversal in which politics once again reflects the interests of the country’s working-class majority. This will only happen if such people themselves demand it, and it heartens me to see that we are moving decisively closer to that this election year.
The main thing required of the comfortable liberal class in such a situation is to take a good long look at themselves and their happy world and understand that they aren’t the bearers of virtue and righteousness that the media constantly assures them they are. They need to understand that a good chunk of their political worldview is based on attitudes that are little more than prejudice toward people who didn’t follow the same university-based career path as them.
What they need is a moment of introspection. What they need is to understand that those people in Decatur are their neighbors, their relatives, their fellow Americans, and that’s why I wrote this book.
Susan Sarandon’s recent remarks on “revolution” have been distorted by a terrified cadre of pro-Hillary media types that have willfully overlooked important observations about how to rectify a broken system.
If you learned about Susan Sarandon’s remarks on Monday night’s installment of All In from a sensationalist Slate article written by Michelle Goldberg, you might have believed that the famed actress and lifelong progressive had called for balaclava-wearing Bernie Sanders supporters to throw Molotovs and overturn burning cars on live television. You might have believed that Sarandon had willfully aligned herself with the #NeverHillary campaign recently launched by Karl Rove’s super-PAC, basking in the prospective anarchy from a clueless tableau of Hollywood privilege. But after seeing Chris Hayes’s interview with Sarandon, I was stunned not so much by Sarandon’s remarks, which were observational and pragmatic and hardly evocative of Yippies levitating the Pentagon, but by the way in which Sarandon’s thoughtfulness had been so deliberately mangled by a “journalist” who had announced, only one month before, that she would be voting for Hillary Clinton.
Goldberg painted Sarandon as “a rich white celebrity with nothing on the line” and insinuated that she was part of a group of “posturing radicals on social media who pretend Clinton would be no better than Trump.” But Goldberg’s superficial remarks failed to fairly and accurately represent the far more important dialogue about what electing a compromise candidate to the White House really means. Can’t one have doubts about Hillary Clinton as President even as one simultaneously recognizes the threat of Trump? Why should such a position be shocking?
It was Chris Hayes who transformed the Sanders/Sarandon notion of revolution into “Leninist” with his leading question, not Sarandon. And it was Goldberg, cavalierly cleaving to Hayes’s framing, who trotted out the wholly inapplicable Ernst Thälmann parallel used so frequently to illustrate how German progressives failed to unite to stop Hitler’s election as Chancellor. Never mind that the German election of 1933 did not involve a two party election and that, should Hillary clinch the nomination, it is doubtful at this point that any Bull Moose-style third party will emerge to reproduce these conditions.
As Orwell once wrote, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” And the truth Sarandon was telling involved how income inequality, the erosion of the middle class, and the failure of career politicians lacking the spine to sign on for the Fight for $15, have caused a not inconsiderable number of Americans to place their stock in outsiders like Trump and Sanders. As I argued in December, one doesn’t have to be a Jacobin subscriber to comprehend that this is a perfectly natural response to an establishment that has failed to rectify serious injustices in any substantial way. We are living in circumstances that call for far more drastic progressive action than the Democratic status quo. This isn’t even that “revolutionary” of an idea, but it is revolutionary by weak-kneed American political standards. And if this quieter form of American “revolution,” which has been seen quite prominently with young voters flocking in droves to Bernie Sanders, is delayed this election cycle, then perhaps there is a stronger likelihood of a revolutionary front emerging after the atavistic horrors of a potential Trump presidency. That’s how revolutions work, you see. They revolt against an establishment. They don’t even have to be that extreme. But Chris Hayes and Michelle Goldberg refused to entertain these fine distinctions. For all their pro-Hillary pragmatism, they couldn’t seem to understand that you could play a comparable long game as a revolutionary.
HAYES: Right, but isn’t the question always in an election about choices, right. I mean, I think a lot of people think to themselves well if it’s Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and I think Bernie Sanders probably would think this…
SARANDON: I think Bernie probably would encourage people because he doesn’t have any ego in this thing. But I think a lot of people are, “Sorry, I just can’t bring myself to do that.”
HAYES: How about you personally?
SARANDON: I don’t know. I’m going to see what happens.
HAYES: I…I cannot believe that as you’re watching the, that Donald Trump…
SARANDON: Some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately. If he gets in, then things will really, you know, explode.
HAYES: Oh, you’re saying the Leninist model of “heighten the contradictions.”
SARANDON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Some people feel that.
HAYES: Don’t you think that’s dangerous?
SARANDON: I think that what’s going on now — if you think it’s pragmatic to shore up the status quo right now, then you’re not in touch with the status quo. The statue quo is not working, and I think it’s dangerous to think that we can continue the way we are with the militarized police force, with privatized prisons, with the death penalty, with the low minimum wage, with threats to women’s rights, and think that you can’t do something huge to turn that around. Because the country is not in good shape. If you’re in the middle class, it’s disappearing.
And you look, if you want to go see Michael Moore’s documentary, you’ll see it’s pretty funny the way they describe it. But you’ll see that health care and education in all these other countries, we’ve been told for so long that it’s impossible.
SARANDON: It’s like we’ve been in this bad relationship and now we have to break up with the guy ’cause we realize we’re worth it. We should have these things. We have to stop prioritizing war. And I don’t like the fact she talks about Henry Kissinger as being her goto guy, for the stuff that’s happened in Libya and other things I don’t think is good.
“I don’t know.” Not #neverhillary. “I’m going to see what happens.” A reasonable statement given that the final election is still a little less than eight months away and that there is still plenty of time to deliberate. “Dangerous.” The idea of even remotely considering how our present system isn’t good enough to help out the working and the middle classes, even under a Hillary Clinton administration, and using the probability of a Trump presidency to consider future momentum.
This really shouldn’t be that shocking. Thomas Frank’s recent book, Listen, Liberal, of which I will have more to say about in a forthcoming dispatch, doesn’t mention Bernie Sanders at all, but points to several examples of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama failing to honor the needs of the working class and willfully distancing themselves from the New Deal. It is no great secret that the last three decades of mainstream Democratic politics have been less about providing a safety net for hard-working Americans and more about enforcing conditions in which they will have to go into debt and willfully acquiesce to an unchecked plutocracy. And it is shameful that any criticism or uncertainty expressed about this Faustian bargain, which uproots lives and diminishes American potential, is now considered by apparatchiks like Goldberg to be akin to pissing in the pool.
These are developments that allow any progressive to maintain some lingering faith in a feral political system and that demand higher dialogue, not clickbait snipers distorting and demeaning radical ideas for a paycheck.
by Kathleen Spivack
Knopf, 304 pages
For many years, magical realism felt to me like literature’s answer to a prop comic. It was the cheapest screwdriver in the author’s toolbox, an indulgent and nigh unpardonable offense on the level of the dreaded Third Act Misunderstanding whereby a character’s real motivations are revealed in an aloof and seemingly careless manner that could have been avoided had the protagonist only asked a few vital questions near the beginning. Magical realism was the entitled ruffian who hit you up for spare change yet never had any intention of working. Sure, you gave the fellow your last dollar anyway with the somewhat naive faith that he would either get his act together or, failing that, live interestingly, but you somehow got the sense that your offering was probably going to tallboys and meth.
In trying to understand why magical realism has irked me, I began to realize, conversely, that I’ve always sustained a love for fantasy and its many offshoots. There’s a great delight in reading any novel offering a smart and goofy juxtaposition of historical icons or mythical tropes. I think of Tom Carson tinkering with both Joyce and Sherwood Schwartz in his deeply underappreciated novel, Gilligan’s Wake (almost a couch potato counterpart to Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld novels) or the satirical thrust that fuels Angela Carter’s remarkable Nights at the Circus, in which a woman sprouts wings not long after she is hatched from an egg and joins the big top. I also enjoyed the wave of Bizarro fiction that sprung up a few years ago, which blew the lid off magical realism’s conceit by pushing it into punkish terrain that felt authentically absurdist. I certainly couldn’t resist the thrill of a panoramic phantasmagoria, such as the crumbling world contained within Mervyn Peake’s excellent Gormenghast trilogy. Writers like Fritz Leiber won me over into their imaginative worlds by imbuing such unforgettable characters like Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser with comic depth (or, in a more urban fantasy mode, the Jungian and historical references that Lieber weaved within Our Lady of Darkness). Octavia E. Butler and China Miéville have often made me forget that I was reading a fantasy altogether because they grounded their universes in vital social and moral questions. Clearly, I always needed a bit of what UCB improvisers call “base reality.” 1The question of hard genre lines etched permanently in the turf was taken up by Jon Evans in 2008, who proposed an entirely new spectrum of “surreal fantasy” and “systemic fantasy” as a counterpoint for a putative magical realism/fantasy dichotomy. Evans suggested that the Literary Establishment (his initial caps) scorned systemic fantasy as it embraced surreal fantasy. But when a highly discerning literary man like Julian Barnes describes good magical realism as novels that possess “structure and logic and cohesion just as much as normal realism or anything else” and points to the obvious fact that quality varies in any genre, Evans’s fired shots feel less like a useful fusillade and more like a guy trying to load a malfunctioning musket over some perceived and frustratingly unsupported slight.
So my reluctance has never been about what the artist is willing to conjure up, but the manner in which the story is told. I have held Pinocchio’s story dear to my heart ever since I first read Carlo Collodi thirty-five years ago. I’m happy to accept a piece of wood whose nose grows when he fibs because Pinocchio is imbued with the very human motivation of wanting to be a boy. By contrast, the Tim Burton film Big Fish infuriated me because the great myths that the protagonist invents to bury his pain felt tedious and mawkish: these were very human needs that, in execution, transmuted into quite obvious and soulless mechanisms to advance the narrative and called attention to themselves. But I never felt this way about Terry Gilliam’s ballsy and underrated Tideland, which also contends with how fantasy is a method to cope with the real. That was because Gilliam had the courage to depict, with incomparable poetry, how escaping reality was a double-edged sword. And his fierce vision, which even the cogent Jonathan Rosenbaum called a “diseased Lewis Carroll universe,” was a sharp and welcome contrast to the insufferably bourgeois and risk-averse Burton, whose contributions to magical realism and fantasy continue to resemble more of a desiccated bean counter than a genuine artist.2Similarly, despite its grotesque imagery, György Pálfi’s 2006 film Taxidermia is far more alive and original than anything in Burton’s career — in large part because Pálfi is as equally willing as Gilliam to go there.
Magical realism’s worst moments, such as the many cardinal sins committed by the wildly overrated Salman Rushdie, involve a tremendous contempt for the reader’s suspension of disbelief, almost a crippling anxiety to go the distance with something that is emotionally true rather than an “anything goes” choice. The bad magical realist always opts for the shoddy shortcut. For example, we are expected to buy into The Satanic Verses after two actors descend from the heavens from an exploding plane and hit earth without so much as a scratch. (Even when First Blood had Rambo plunge off a cliff face with barely a bruise, an altogether different sort of magical realism, at least the filmmakers were willing to show us that Rambo suffered from memories of being tortured in Vietnam. When a film helmed by the director of Weekend at Bernie’s respects the audience more than a Booker Prize-winning author, it is enough to cause pause.) To add insult to injury, this duo becomes an angel and a devil. Rushdie’s approach is especially egregious because it comes saddled with grandstanding claptrap in which this creative transgression is aligned with illusory import, such as this needless and quite awful sentence:
Up there in air-space, in that soft, imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic, — because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible — wayupthere, at any rate, changes took place in delirious actors that would have gladdened the heart of old Mr. Lamarck: under extreme environmental pressure, characteristics were acquired.
The searing chutzpah of this flagrant aside, which not only claims some tenuous association with Lamarck (the beginnings of a half-baked 550-page riff on immigrants vastly outshadowed by the work of Junot Diaz, Arundhati Roy, Alfredo Vea, and many more), but has the temerity to justify its lack of inventive prowess with the “anything becomes possible” line, was probably responsible for me feeling terribly queasy about reading anything written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende for a long goddam while. But maybe I detected, quite rightly as it turns out, that Rushdie was a man who was less committed to the art and more concerned with having a doting shoulder to cry on each year when the fine folks in Stockholm wisely denied him the Nobel.
Some years ago, Other Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Michael Crummey’s Galore. I very much enjoyed the novel and, when I talked with Crummey as he rolled through New York, I was relieved to hear that he was a bit discomfited by Marquez as well. I learned that Crummey was more concerned with reckoning with 19th century Newfoundland, in which much of its population lived hardscrabble lives that often ended around fifty-five. Galore, with its discovery of on albino inside a beached whale, felt to me like magical realism done right.
But now that I’ve read Kathleen Spivack’s Unspeakable Things, a book so jampacked with story strands that the only way one can really describe it is to point out that it involves émigrés who have fled from World War II’s turmoil and who are contending with unanticipated memories (apologies for the pat summation), I believe I’m now ready to stop avoiding magical realism. For long stretches of this wonderfully vivacious and often daring novel, it never occurred to me that the book was magical realism, even as the fingers of prominent violinists (the Tolstoi String Quartet, which appears to be based on the infamous Kolisch Quartet) express Nazi sympathies or one of its major characters (Anna, aka the Rat, called so for spending so much of her life sedentary) is physically transformed (complete with burnt-in handprints) after repeat sexual assaults by Rasputin. Spivack’s invention is rooted in a keen interest in prewar Vienna that has been reflected in many of her poems and a great love for music that, as Spivack revealed in a recent Rumpus interview, was carefully compartmentalized through playlists she selected for each character that Spivack would play while writing. Unspeakable Things is willing to impart an atmosphere through many moods. Aside from the aforementioned magical realism, there is a lyrical drive — such as an Esperanto-hawking idealist named Herbert in denial about his personal accomplishments, the ghost of Herbert’s gay son that seems to curl around any stray pipe, and the “keen animal sharpness” of New York’s harsh winds. There is an attention to telling gesture with the Rat’s constant smoothing of her hands against her clothes and a witty portrayal of the traveling musician’s life with an appreciative audience who leaves far too many casseroles at the violinist’s door.
One never feels betrayed by Spivack because her particular spin on magical realism is never used gratuitously. The Rat’s compulsion to dance, her exhaustion from an “an orgasm of endless talking,” not only serves the story, but is a subtle callback to Freud badgering his female patients during the Vienna Secession. Spivack is more inclined to explore the inner minds and hearts of her characters and the Holocaust’s lingering shadow through behavior that emerges from her characters. One never has to worry about some portentous “soft, imperceptible field…made possible by the century” that the reader MUST pay attention to. But just as Spivack’s novel strikes varying levels of invention to propel its narrative, it also manages to tap into a surprising well of hilarity, sadness, outrageousness, and foreboding within its engaging pages.
Interestingly enough, Spivack herself is seventy-seven and Unspeakable Things is her debut novel. And I very much wish this book had been around twenty years ago instead of the infuriating Rushdie. Because if this novel had been one of my main introductions to magical realism, I never would have soured on the form. And I certainly wouldn’t have taken six weeks to tell you why this book is worth reading.