Crossposted From The Sonic Society, August 26th, 2018
Recently, I was catching up on the Audio Drama Production Podcast and I listened to Steve Schneider’s excellent discussion with Sarah Golding about the importance of having a powerful beginning. Steve is a deft writer/producer, and always has some key insights in what makes excellent audio drama. And this made me consider what struck me most in the many, many, listening hours I’ve enjoyed over the years. First, I thought about what the ultimate goals are to producing all art, and in particular audio drama.
Sir Philip Sidney once said that poetry should “Teach and Delight.” Building on that idea, I felt maybe there were a couple more goals (or unintended consequences) as well. Here’s my list of four goals for audio drama development:
- Entertains (Delights)- First and foremost if an audio play doesn’t entertain the audience, I think we can all agree that it failed its most basic purpose.
- Teaches the Audience- Entending past simple entertainment, good audio dramas provide interesting information to the audience. Whether the listeners come away with an understanding of human nature, a deeper appreciation for a particular vocation, or simply some interesting trivia, teaching an audience something new appeals to our basic nature to grow and learn. “After all, Mr. Watson,” Holmes frowned. “If you examine Mr. White’s nails on his left hand, you’ll notice they are expertly manicured, whereas the fingernails on his right hand are long and hardened. Therefore, not only is he a guitar player as we’ve already deduced, but he plays his instrument left-handed. Something no right-handed individual would accomplish!”
- Enlightens- An audio drama that enlightens the listener, leaves them profoundly transformed. Powerful performance and themes impact the individual as they consider the deeper meaning between the audio work and how it compares and reflects in their lives and self-concept. Stories that enlighten the listener, provide inner truth in a world that can sometimes feel meaningless.
- Inspires- And finally, an audio drama goes beyond transforming a listener with universal and personal truths, may inspire a listener to share the information, or live their own truth echoing by example what they have learned. In doing so, an inspired audience spreads meaning far beyond the confines of a story and into the greater community and world.
You’ll notice in the four goals that there is a natural progression from influence beginning with a larger group to a very personalized experience. Certainly, not all audio dramas fulfill all four goals, nor need they. The author’s purpose in telling the story often makes the decision as to the intent of their their impact. Since all four goals is a personal voyage, let me share with you some (certainly not an exhaustive list) audio dramas that have made me think and inspired me to be a better audio playwright.
Crazy Dog Audio: Gerry in the Dark Passage– Originally aired on Sonic Society episode #13, Roger Gregg uses this tale to demonstrate how powerful inner monologue can truly intensify story, tension, while still infusing meaning with a deep social commentary.
Suspense: Sorry, Wrong Number– This classic OTR originally starred Agnes Moorehead and was written by Lucille Fletcher. One of the most recreated scripts in audio drama history, Fletcher’s expert use of the telephone demonstrates how terrifyingly realistic stories can be told through the medium of sound. This suspenseful epic inspired two of my earlies shows Right Number, Wrong Party and Messages using the same conceit.
Red Panda: Tis the Season– The most knowledgeable pulp writer in modern audio dramatic history, Gregg Taylor masterfully delivers a festive story previously only found on the pages of a Will Eisner comic book. This feature brought insight into the relationship between how “closure” and vivid artwork is translated between the paintbrush of the comic book, into the paintbrush of the audio world.
Colonial Radio Theatre: Barrymore– Originating from the award-winning William Luce play, this Theatre of the Mind adaptation, dispels any doubt that a small one-man show couldn’t hold a listening audience spellbound for hours. While many audio enthusiasts today insist on smaller, bite-sized episodes, Jerry Robbin’s “Barrymore” performance brazenly stands in the face of such declarations.
Best Plays: On Borrowed Time– This “Best Plays” classic tale adapted for radio, highlights how a small cast is key in telling engaging audio stories. Large casts confuse audiences and dilutes character connection. More than six actors can begin a cascade of diminishing returns.
The Truth: The Dark End of the Mall– Casper Kelly’s modern-day classic from Jonathan Mitchell’s “The Truth” podcast highlights two key elements in great writing- expectation and reward. The author clues and intrigues the audience throughout the feature by feeding expectation and changing the result. This short feature has three main turning points- none of which occur in the early part of the play. The audience deepens their wide-range of emotional connection beginning with amusement, morphing to concern, and finally, realization brings abject horror.
Midnight Radio Theater: The Woman in the Basement– Through one of the greatest series most people have never heard, writer/producer Billy Senese revolutionized dialogue in the modern audio drama play. While many writers rely on two modal attitudes in their characters- those being Whedonesque sarcastic quips or “tell-all” rage expositions, Senese mastered the art of silence. Exposing that what is most important in a scene isn’t what the characters tell you, but what is revealed by what is not being said. Less talk and more meaningful dialogue creates complex characterization and requires the audience to lean in and engage fully with the drama. Vocal ticks may clue us into elements of a character’s personality. Nuanced dialogue informs the audience what the character values.
This is in no way my complete list of favourite audio dramas. Such an exercise would rival the manifest of Noah’s ark. Your list could well be equally as long, and perhaps it’s a better question to ask- What audio dramas have changed the way I listen, think, and write?
If you consider which audio dramas profoundly inpact life and your art, you’ll have a much more meaningful and personal list to cite.