Manifesto

Mission Statement:

Audio drama is one of the most intimate and expressive dramatic mediums, rivaling theater and film in poetic, visual, and narrative qualities. Many people are unaware of this - a stigma lingers that "radio drama" is a scratchy, cartoonish thing of the past, as if people thought that cinema ended with silent movies, unaware of all the great films made since that time. In reality, audio and radio drama is the great frontier of modern theater - with subtle, intimate performances and powerful, gripping stories.

My aim is to promote a discussion of the art, sociology, theory, and future of this remarkable artistic form. The current state of audio drama is precarious, but through careful consideration of how content is presented, distributed, and interacted with, I believe that the radio and audio drama community can grow and prosper and reach an even wider audience.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Audio Drama Foundation

The World Service Archive Project, released in beta testing recently, is an earth shattering occurrence. It really is huge. We're close to a tipping point for radio drama. But something is missing. A foundation.

As a professional writer who lives in a world of nonprofit foundations and arts organizations (I work for the largest arts organization in non-metropolitan New York), I've had the chance to observe them in action.

They raise money. They work to boost, enrich and preserve whatever their speciality is. They spread the message. They champion. They protect.

Radio drama has no such institution. It may be the only major artistic medium that doesn't have an incorporated cheerleader. And think of the medium's latent power – a current reach of millions, a potential for much more, with a low cost of production and low technological barrier to entry.

I've written before about all the other institutions that radio drama does not have. The medium lacks an accessible body of work, a core mass of critical theory, organized content curators, as well as social functions that support and promote it. The Audio Drama Wiki and this blog are my attempt to provide knowledge and reflection into the mix, with the wiki being the ultimate, inevitable way to share and collate information and make the body of work “seen” and present in cyberspace. But my reach is very small.

A person has limitations that do not hinder an organized group.

So what would an Audio Drama Foundation do?

  1. Raise money. Private foundations and government arts grants are out there seeking projects to give money to. Audio drama has great potential to empower artists, engage communities that do not currently have a voice (or budget to express that voice) in a large context. Audio drama also has an untapped potential for use in education. Kids exploring the craft of writing drama can actually end up with a final product without spending lots of money. A young playwright could never get their project staged in such a professional way.

    Grantmakers do not give money to individuals. They give to organizations with track records, who then often sponsor individual artists. Only a foundation could capture some of this capital. 

  2. Enact education programs to build youth audiences. Most of the people in the US are not interested in radio drama. The people who are tend to be old and nostalgia-hungry. Working in politics has taught me two important lessons – that you can't change peoples minds, and that you don't need to. All you have to do is find the people who share your passion and empower them.

    To that end, education programs for children are the best way to alert new audiences to the potential of the medium. There is an inherent affinity for it that is built into humans; the act of listening to human voices is fundamental to us, and therefore always relevant to new generations. Education programs incorporating radio drama expand our audience and teach and empower children simultaneously. That's a damn good bargain.

  3. Fund the Wiki. Ultimately, the Audio Drama Wiki needs custom space. And it needs security and depth that a team of volunteers may not be able to achieve alone. I've toyed with the idea already of paying someone to write entries, since the amount of material is so vast and the wiki-enabled within the radio community is so small. The wiki needs to grow and absorb all the information from the BBC and Diversity, and stay current, in order to be the topographical map of the medium. 
  4. PR. Radio drama needs a serious public relations campaign. It needs stunts like competitions and sponsorships, it needs small press runs that publish old scripts. It needs academic symposiums.

    A coherent media message enacting strategies for making the medium feel present in the world is vital, given how fragile and ephemeral its footprint is alone.

    It needs a cheerleader with a budget. 
     
  5. Advocate. No organization currently represents the specific concerns of radio drama listeners and practitioners. The Writers Guild in America can barely advocate for the screenwriters; it doesn't even know what radio drama is. Likewise, other guilds seek to protect small constituencies, not the medium as a whole. 
  6. Preservation. The physical history of the medium resides in many different places. In diffuse collections of the VRPCC, in the black holes of the BBC archives, and in attics of private hobbyists. A foundation could help put these strands together, or at least help to preserve them in their separate places. 
  7. Build Bridges. There are only two types of radio drama entities that currently exist. Professional producers such as the BBC, and amateur hobbyists. An open gulf lies between them, a disconnect in terms of communication, culture, and priority.

    A foundation can bridge these types of gaps, and can form partnerships with groups, with the award ceremonies that currently exist, with other countries around the world, and bring these different strands together at a common table. A single person can't do that. The job is just too big. But there are many potential partnerships and areas of mutual interest to explore.

    If I cold call someone and say “hi, my name is Bob,” they will likely brush me off. But if I call that same person or organization and say “hi, I'm Bob from the Audio Drama Foundation,” the reaction is suddenly different. The tiny social shift changes the game.
An Audio Drama Foundation is the missing link between all the elements that currently exist.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

World Service Drama Archive

Check it out!  One of the monumental breakthroughs in recent radio drama history.  The World Service has posted roughly 700 radio plays in low-quality streaming format.  Downloads are not allowed, and you have to request an account to sign up to access them. 

This is just a trial for now, check it out while you can!!

World Service Drama Archive, list on Diversity

Friday, December 28, 2012

David Pownall

Check out this great interview with playwright David Pownall at the Seattle Star:

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Because the Scenery is Better

 As a little interlude before I finish up The History of Titus Groan, I'd like to share a little gem I found on youtube. It's a 1989 BBC documentary by Robert Clamp.
 



33 minutes long, it features some lovely interviews and rare behind-the-scenes footage of the BBC audio drama machine in action (perhaps at the height of its powers?). 1988 was a time in which media was still consolidated, but technology had opened up the aural possibilities of sound recording in new and interesting ways.

One of the things I love about this documentary is how it shows the production methods. The scene with Edward de Souza at the microphone, recording the intros for the Man in Black series, capture the control and the internal quality of his performance. It's a rare thing, being able to watch a real radio actor give a real radio performance. Notice how he's not mugging. A startling contrast from what you find in live “old time radio” performances, which aren't radio at all, but are actually theatre with an extra shtick.

A director asks an actor to smile! That's one of my little tricks, too You can hear a smile, though people don't believe me when I tell them that. Smiling is such a simple term that denotes a vast and subtle amount of different subconscious actions. The result is a small but noticeable change in vocal timbre. It changes the way an actor feels, and it changes the way their mouth and face shape the raw sound that comes out of the body. And it gives the scene partner something to play off of.

And the location work! The scenes of Mike Walker's Australia series, with multiple actors walking along through crunching leaves, weaving in and out of patches of sound to evoke the epic crowd in a panorama of furtive industry. Or, what about that simple scuffle on the bonnet of a car, where two men press themselves against the hollow metal with grit teeth, a fight about to erupt. These are all great examples of what one of my acting teachers used to call “actually doing it.”

The example my professor used was the door. In amateur films, there's always a door that an actor walks through, and the door itself isn't important but the actor goes through a lot of trouble to imitate walking through the door to enter the shot. While standing next to an actual door. “Just walk through the door,” my professor told me. “Don't 'act' if you don't have to. Just actually do it.”

This documentary is a rare example of the BBC promoting its radio assets. It also does something very delightful – it puts faces to names. I've talked before about how the facelessness of radio drama production makes it harder to connect with the apparatus that makes the programs possible, and it's sad that the BBC ignores this aspect. Giving an audience a glimpse behind the scenes, and introducing them to the writers and producers and actors who create the content truly enriches the listening experience.

Sometimes listening to audio plays feels like going to an automat, those 1930's New York diners. A person walks in, puts a coin in the slot, and a tiny door pops open to dispense a sandwich. You might glimpse a sleeve or a tired eye from the anonymous chef behind the wall of portals. The concept has a retro chic but is not much fun in reality. It produces a wall of coldness.

I sit and listen to a BBC play sometimes and wonder who these people are. Why do they make the creative choices they make? What are their passions and backgrounds, what are their contexts? The plays stand by themselves as wonderful creations, but that wall of anonymity doesn't serve the work. It makes it more distant.

My improv troupe is opening at a new location next month, a year-long residence at a good comedy club. Part of the gig, after the show is done, is to hang out at the bar and have a drink. Because even though the audience has just seen the show and consumed our “product”, there's something special about “behind the scenes” that people really love. And it doesn't matter what I do at the bar, I'm not obligated to talk to anybody or exert any pressure or effort to do anything. I just need to be there. And maybe have a drink. The mere presence of the performers adds depth and dimension to the experience.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Titus Groan and Gormenghast, BBC 1984

Part Two of my series discussing radio adaptations of Mervyn Peake.  

This was a more difficult task than I had anticipated. I found that, in trying to juggle in my mind the multiple audio adaptations and the original source material, it was nearly impossible to clearly refer to the language and keep it in mind without a text in front of me. Something about the very medium makes that a challenge, particularly when discussing works of such length. I took as many notes as I could throughout the listening.

The two plays (Titus Groan and Gormenghast) form the 1984 BBC adaptation of Mervyn Peake's novels. But only the first two. Rock star Sting was a big fan of the novels, and as such secured the film rights but was unable to gather the funding to make a big screen adaptation happen. Instead, he managed a radio version, staring himself. Brian Sibley, already well-regarded for his work in adapting Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for the BBC, helmed the scripts.

The first thing I noticed was The Artist, played by Freddie Jones. I believe this is meant to be Peake himself in the role of narrator. The Artist weaves in and out of the plays, aggressively narrating, his voice found in only one side of the stereo sound. I really enjoyed that. Jones, unlike the ABC Narrator, takes a more intimate approach to his material, and the use of stereo position sits him next to the listener, instead of above the action. His close microphone proximity brings the audience in closer. The extensive narration would have become very annoying if the producer hadn't made such an effort to do that. He starts sentences that are finished by characters. His voice bobs in between conversations and actions. He imbues the plays with Peake's voice and language, which is so vital to the novels. It sometimes seems as if the characters are in dialog with him. Peake's prose is a character in its own way, so having him woven deeply into the fabric is a good way to dramatize this.


And of course Sibley has The Artist begin with the insistent declaration “This is Gormenghast,” asserting this strange reality from the first moment.

This production in general features greater use of proximity and sound than the ABC series, although I hesitate to be so certain about this because the recording I have of the ABC series is not very good. But it seems in keeping with what we know about BBC versus ABC radio drama. The BBC was cranking out a lot more than Australia was, and I'm sure had a larger budget and better access to the technical equipment and the specially designed studios, etc. There is more detail in the sound design of the BBC version, and the acting generally gets more subtle and close. Early on, we even get into Sepulchrave's head, an unusual choice for a character who is so remote from everyone, whose inner life is so opaque. Sibley's choice to begin with him is interesting, instead of with the birth of Titus or with Steerpike. Sibley sets up the status quo, and then shatters it with the arrival of Titus and Steerpike in short order.

We come into contact with the thoughts of Steerpike, played by Sting. He begins to fall short immediately. Remember, Steerpike decides to leave the kitchen for a very clear reason. He is being abused. Sting doesn't quite get the sharpness and urgency of Steerpike pestering Flay. And Flay, at the same time, lacks the guttural quality of speech that is found in Peake's dialog for him. Thus far, only the TV version with Christopher Lee has, I think, correctly rendered Flay's vocal nuances. It is a very unique voice, a dry, dusty croak, a mouth that has calcified from years of “yes, master”. Flay is a gothic, petrified Jeeves, not a costume drama butler. Even David Warner lacks that similar grotesque flavor, in his portrayal of Sepulchrave.

Nannie Slag's speech to the outer dwellers always gets me – these people who seem to derive nothing from the castle are so singularly in allegiance to it. I suppose it is the only thing that gives them an identity.

Sheila Hancock plays the dual roles of Corice and Clara. Again, the characterization doesn't quite go all the way. Hancock is a great actress but what makes the twins so uncomfortable is their obvious mental handicaps, the sortof creepy inbred childishness spiced with venom and resentment. Hancock plays them much straighter than she should. I also wonder at the convention of having one person play both characters. If you try to give them the same voice to indicate their twin-ness, the dialog would get too muddy and confusing. But if one person plays both characters, you can't get that real interaction which is so interesting. I think the TV movie, once again, solves the problem by casting two different actresses and having them synch their words at certain times. It conveys their shared mind and their twin-ness. Here, however, the effect is lost and nothing is gained.

I love some of the sounds I hear in this, but I long for sharper moments. Take Fuchsia's first encounter with Steerpike. Here the princess is supposed to be a fanciful child. Lonely and vulnerable, Steerpike uses his eloquence and hypnotic tongue to charm her into friendship. He recognizes quickly what he needs to do to manipulate her. Except, in the rendering, Sting exhibits little of this charm and eloquence, and Fuchsia likewise has little of the romantic babble that defines her character. Later, Steerpike employs the same tactic with Irma Prunesquallor, and again Sting fails to deliver a believable portrayal of persuasion. The narrator has to tell us that Steerpike is being insincere.

In fact, throughout the two plays, Sting really just doesn't have the range of voice or the subtle craftsmanship of an actor to deliver necessary story points. Notice how flat he is with the twins when convincing them to burn down the library. Notice his nonchalance at the very end, when, cornered like an animal, the Artist tells us that Steerpike loses his mind, and the cleverness and guile fades away into rage and savagery right as he is finally found and killed. The Artist has to tell us this, because we cannot hear it in Sting's voice.

There are other moments within these two plays that I do love. Maurice Denham as Barquentine is a joy. So is Bernard Hepton as Prunesquallor, although I think he held back more than he needed to. The Cat Throwing scene, with the rustling animal sounds, works well. So does the opening of the second play, as Titus rides through the castle on a little horse and the artist brings us along with him through the various halls and pocket domains. It is a scene that is more possible in the BBC adaptation than in the ABC version, with its extra level of fidelity and dynamic range. In Fuchsia’s final scene, we see her grown up and contemplating suicide. She has changed over the years, although she would have changed more if the character had been established more specifically in earlier scenes. And yet, despite this lack of dynamic, her death is touching – the quiet, melancholy monolog, teetering on the edge, the knock on the door from Titus, the accidental plunge into the flood waters. Heartbreaking and graceful. Water running in the background, the ancient castle flooding, purging itself. 
 
These 1984 BBC adaptations (which exclude the third novel!) won Sony Awards, and yet they do lack something of the essence of the source material, not in the script or adaptation perhaps, but in the characterization and vocal performances. One of the most delightful aspects of Peake are his rich and fascinating grotesques. Each one of the characters, like Dickens before him, is comprised of exaggerated, extreme features that signify aspects of their essences. And although the cast comprises British luminaries, it fails to take those performances far enough, extreme enough, dangerous enough, to sufficiently render Peake's creations. It plays them straight. It doesn't take enough risks. And, in the center of it all, the “clever little monster” of Steerpike. Voiced by Sting, he seems neither clever nor a monster. In this casting, the plays ultimately fail.

The two plays seem complete within themselves at first glance. But remember we're talking about adaptations here – Peake's thematic arcs are not satisfied with the rendering of merely the first two stories. They require the third novel for fullness and contrast. It is unfortunate that the BBC didn't do this the first time around, but it is exciting that, just last year, they finally did.

Next up, then, is Brian Sibley's new dramatization, The History of Titus Groan.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Gormenghast Trilogy - ABC Radio, 1983

-->Gormenghast is a good candidate for audio adaptation. It has been adapted three times – first by the ABC in 1983, and then twice by the BBC. There was also a four-hour TV version in 2000.

I chose this series because I wanted to examine a narrative that exists in multiple mediums. That's the best way to analyze adaptation techniques. An especially good candidate would be the Sherlock Holmes stories, which have undergone countless adaptations over the years, in every medium possible. But though I do love Holmes (especially the BBC radio series with Clive Merrison), the Peake material is a bit richer. 

The ABC radio version of the Gormenghast Trilogy was adapted by Michael le Moignan and Larry Lucas, with production by Frank Zeppel, Robert Cubbage, and David Chandler. It has two very unique features. One – it is the first adaptation to include the third novel, Titus Alone. Two – it is the longest adaptation, clocking in at eight hours.

Length is something that we are trained to be mindful of. Brevity is highly prized, and with good reason. But brevity and lengthiness are not always antagonistic. Some stories demand larger amounts of narrative space. The new series of Doctor Who is a great example of this – where the traditional format of a 90 minute Doctor Who story (the old four-parter) has given way to a 45 minute crunch of plot points. It leaves less time for the story to develop its own reality and sense of depth. Depth of course is just an illusion, a set of conventions (like “realism”) that we employ for effect. But it's a useful effect that allows narrative to be digested and believed.

The amount of narrative space in this adaptation of Gormenghast is the serial's greatest strength. The authors trusted the material, and gave the audience enough time inhabit the world in order to make it feel real and enveloping. In this case, it is especially important, because the story is fundamentally about that sense of place. Note how le Moignan and Lucas do not position Steerpike as the protagonist. We do not view this world through his eyes, the way we do in the TV adaptation. We shouldn't view it through his eyes, because he isn't the main character. Steerpike is a long-playing supporting role. In the series as a whole, Titus is the main character, he is the one whose psychology, in the third novel, we are eventually given primal access to. But underneath those first two books, especially when Titus is so young that he is essentially action-less, the place is the protagonist. It is the castle itself which arcs, imbuing everything with a strange, grotesque life force. The authors here have captured that, by allowing the story to unfold without centering on Steerpike, and by driving the story with a pitch-perfect narrator, who adds gravity while giving voice to the main set piece of the novels – Peake's volcanic prose. 
 
While the language is properly front and center, this production is not without flaws. Namely, with regards to casting and vocal performances. While Prunesquallor is accurately rendered, Steerpike sounds like an irritated bureaucrat from the get-go, instead of a young, abused urchin. When we cannot see Steerpike's physical transformation, it is up to the performer to render it. Unfortunately the actor doesn't quite work. Likewise, Mr. Flay doesn't speak with the staccato, almost guttural rhythm that is the character's signature characteristic. Christopher Lee's performance in the TV adaptation is particularly successful in that regard.

My last quibble with the ABC adaptation are the Titus Alone segments. A bit of background here. The first two novels in the series take place in Gormenghast castle. In the third, Titus sets out alone into a bizarre approximation of the real world, complete with modern technology and ariel surveilance. During the writing of the third novel, Peake became more severely afflicted with the illness that later killed him. You can see in the prose an intense paranoia, a jagged quality that is a much different flavor than the first two books. You can see in those pages a man struggling with his own mind. This radio production fails to capture that.


It's not just a tonal difference. The attitude of the prose of the third novel is fundamental to the purpose and meaning – it renders the odd Kafkaesque scenes (such as the appearance before the Magistrate) with an unhappy relationship to the reality the story conveys. Peake sets up the pieces of the plot and then uses his writing to communicate to the audience that modernity is something that is scary and confusing and not as it should be. It's more than just the plot.

I can understand how the producers of an eight-hour radio serial would not want a sudden tonal shift in the last two episodes. It would be jarring and unpleasant. But that's why the production team should have been more aggressive in rendering it that way. Because it's part of the meaning of the story.

Overall, this is a good adaptation, if not the best production. Next up, I'll tackle the first BBC version, starring Sting. 
 Yes. Sting.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Not Dead!

I'm not dead!  Work is ending this coming Friday.  Modern Soundling returns the following week.