Why I Have No Faith in the Audio Drama Community

[10/31 UPDATE: After doing some soul searching and seeing how New York rebounded on Halloween night after a terrorist incident, I have decided to continue The Gray Area, although I will be taking things much slower. I have recorded a new announcement here and apologize for my dramatic gesture. I have let the below post stand as it is. Thanks — Ed]

I’m very sad about this, but I see no other option. I am ending production on The Gray Area as of today. I had written most of the second season and had big plans for two more years. (The original twenty script skeleton that I had planned to produce over four years still sits in a binder.) But it has become clear in recent days that all paths to a creative collaborative life are now closed to me and that anything I do in the future must be done alone and on my own terms. It is becoming more difficult for me to trust people. Too many have formed incorrect impressions and spread false tales about me and it is nearly impossible to produce an audio drama without a community. The “community” that does exist is quite determined to eat its own rather than prop everybody up.

It didn’t start out this way. And this isn’t going to be one of those tales in which I claim myself as virtuous or infallible. I do have a tendency to open my mouth and frighten people when I’m telling the truth. But in this case at least, my solecisms were far and few between. Making audio drama gave me another chance at life when I really needed it, especially since I had made an attempt not long before all this to end my own life. And I’ll always be grateful that I at least had this for a time.

I was flailing in the wind after the worst setback of my life. Nearly every door was closed to me. But audio drama revealed to me that I was not finished and that I had stories to tell and that, moreover, people really enjoyed being around me and collaborating. I had forgotten how much fun it was to work with actors, which I had not done in many years. Producing this show with an incredibly talented and generous cast helped me to find and free myself. It turned out that there was a very happy and more emotional person inside me, one that I had kept closeted for more than a decade because I feared being viscerally naked and vulnerable. I had spent far too many years being clever rather than real, cultivating a rage-driven writing persona that turned out to be personally and professionally damaging to me.

The Gray Area provided me with an outlet with which to reinvent myself. The energies that I had once put into angry offerings transformed into the nobler goal of dramatizing stories that were positive and, I hope, beautiful. I pursued moral questions that I had been afraid to dip into before and felt myself maturing. The show was a finalist for the Parsec Awards and was nominated for five categories in the Audio Verse semifinals. For this, I was and I remain terribly honored, humbled, surprised, somewhat in disbelief, and grateful.

Before this felicitous house of cards collapsed, I learned that there were others out there who were not only willing to go on the journey with me, but to become vital muses and collaborators. I did my best to pay back every favor in kind and was careful to compensate all of my actors. And it all went very well until I started releasing the show in April. As more people latched onto the series, other producers started inventing excuses to dissociate from me. Reddit threads in which I announced the new show, which initially proved popular, were downvoted by the anonymous over a single afternoon. Some iTunes trolls went to the trouble of leaving one star reviews to ensure that I could never make it onto the iTunes charts. While attempting to form partnerships, I was the subject of two kangaroo courts by instant message over what had been Googled about me, one of which extended over many weeks. In this second one, which involved membership in a co-op, my understanding was that everyone was largely in agreement that my show and present deportment was good, but that my past was bad. I never even get the opportunity to talk or listen to these people or share my side of the story. I was demonized instantly and never got a chance to prove my amicable worth.

Unfortunately, I have discovered that the world does not grant you clemency or forgiveness or even reentry when you have a past. No amount of grace or kindness in the present can ever overturn what a hard indefatigable minority views as a public stain that must always remain exposed even many years later. And if you screw up — and everyone screws up — it is cited as the dominant part of your apparently vile character. Moreover, the smallest communities are ripe with people who abuse their authority and influence, inventing troublemakers rather than forging alliances or sniffing someone out as a potential competitor when stepping in if anybody needs help is really the group dynamic that produces the best work. I wasn’t out to make trouble and it was absurd to perceive me as a competitor. I never sought to compete with anyone other than myself and I went well out of my way to promote any audio drama I learned about. I also donated to many Patreon and Kickstarter campaigns.

I also paid the price for being open and inclusive and desiring to help, with people becoming accustomed to my lavish contributions and some never bothering to return the favor. Not that one should keep a ledger, of course, but I made the mistake of taking this personally in a few cases. Every other audio drama producer seemed to be included on grand projects. I was shut out and in some cases directly ridiculed. One producer went to the trouble of harassing me on the evening that I learned that a dear friend of mine had died, almost as if he were waiting for the right moment to strike. This was a guy I had supported monthly on Patreon. He claimed that I was harassing producers. I was not. I had no desire and I was too busy editing. I felt increasingly dehumanized. Giving voice to how I felt, attempting to relate to others and be human even when I didn’t intend any harm (and I hereby publicly apologize for any mistakes I have ever made, many of which I am entirely unaware of because, you know, we haven’t talked!), only served to foment the Slack channel gossipmongers whispering that there was something off about that Ed guy with a scabrous past. I now understand that I was overly optimistic in thinking that my work and my geniality would somehow allow me to beat the rap of the scenery-chewing heavy that others had mythologized me as. What’s the point of even believing in people anymore? When presented with a figure who has screwed up his life, and I certainly have blundered mine, people usually prefer villains to redemption stories.

In the end, I was belittled and betrayed by someone whom I deeply respected or who I at least trusted enough to tell the truth, which turned out to be a big mistake. We had a private correspondence in which I offered to help her brainstorm for a festival. I offered to fly out on my own dime. I could perform, do tech, bake cookies, whatever. For this, I was told to “find my own tribe,” which was a polite way of telling me to buzz off, and essentially excluded from involvement. I informed her why this was not cool. She made accusations about my mental health. I decided to let off some steam about the “finding my own tribe” jab (without naming her) in a friends only Facebook post in which I expressed that I was no longer angry about it. She saw the post and, irked by it and one of my good friends also finding the line offensive, this person, an admin of a major audio drama community for which I had given five dollars each month for well over a year (that monthly donation will also stop today), reacted by blocking me and abusing her position as ostensible community peacekeeper, a role she still played this afternoon while doling out plaudits about the “community” and its “best and loveliest of talented creative folks” on Audio Drama Sunday. Now I wonder how many other audio drama producers she secretly detests beneath the rosy persona. I truly thought all this had ended when I completed puberty.

As audio drama has grown in popularity, others have sought to carve up territory and make plays for power. This is understandable. We all want to work full-time doing what we love. What’s not so understandable is when other audio drama producers block or crucify people over the most insignificant slight. (And in this case, I am speaking not of me, but of other producers who have felt a weird wrath from those determined to denounce them.) Beyond the fact that these are minor disputes that could be easily tidied up in person over a beer, I’m truly baffled whenever grown adults behave like high schoolers. For who honestly has time for this? If you feel bad, can’t you just talk it out with the other person? Why has our society shifted to one in which even the most minor political disagreement is enough to block someone for life? A community is only a community if people work to know and forgive each other, if not live with each other. If good work comes from someone who I don’t care for, I will always single it out. If an interesting idea comes from a person who has demonized me, I will credit the soul without fail in an essay. And who knows? Maybe I might learn to like someone a little more if I commit myself to understanding how she thinks or where she’s coming from. (Shoutout to Dan Kois. We’ve been mortal enemies for years, but congrats to you and Isaac Chotiner for your Angels in America oral history. I enjoyed reading your article and am glad that you two are expanding it into a book. See how easy that was? And it was all true!)

But that’s not what happened here. And the hell of it is that I was just as guilty of overreacting over the “find my tribe” line. Why are so people eager these days to flip the board after long periods of amity? Does all the good and generosity simply vanish if someone has muttered one sentence you find offensive? Maybe it’s the political atmosphere. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re all feeling overwhelmed. Maybe people feel terrified and unsafe and the block button serves as the way for them to exert some illusory control in a world gone mad. But dammit, we still have to live with each other.

The result of all this is that I have lost all hope and interest in audio drama. All the passion and the tears I poured into my season two scripts now feels like a terrible lie that I cannot salvage or make true. I really feel that the world that I painstakingly created for myself over two years has been permanently besmirched, if not outright destroyed. All I ever wanted to do with this project was tell meaningful stories about the human condition, help out other audio drama producers as much as I could, get people jazzed about audio drama, and peacefully connect with others. The great irony of audio drama is that all these practitioners who spend many hours listening closely to words have no real acumen for listening to each other. And why do that when you can stay busy being contemptuous on Slack or private message? Shit talking is the more convenient option.

Well, I don’t want to be a part of this “community” anymore. This isn’t the drama I signed on for when I started making audio drama. It’s not the making of the audio drama that has exhausted me, but the nine-dimensional chess game you apparently have to play to avoid pissing people off. I have no room for this puerile toxicity, which is symptomatic of a larger problem with social media. What I’m going to do now is figure things out. I have deactivated my Facebook account. I have closed my two Twitter accounts. I will shut down my Instagram account as soon as I can find some time. This “constantly connected” lifestyle creates needless resentment and is very anti-community. Or maybe I’m just fated to be a lifelong failure at belonging. Whatever the case, I need to step back for a while from the social media landscape.

I want to figure out a way to believe in people again. I want to figure out how to believe in myself. I know I will do it, but that way forward is certainly not going to happen through the audio drama world. Not unless people learn to grow up and direct that careful listening and feeling in the areas most needed.