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.
Monday, January 31, 2011
Barker's play is a true classic of modern audio drama, and is essential listening for any student of the medium. Elissa Guralnick, in Sight Unseen, provides a deep analysis of the play, so I won't deconstruct it here. Aside from being well written and well acted, what makes this play so important is its reliance on visual imagery. The execution of the title refers not to capital punishment, but to the execution of a painting.
Set in 16th century Venice, Scenes from an Execution is about a talented female painter named Galactia who is commissioned by the bigwigs of the city to paint a giant painting to commemorate their victory at the battle of Lepanto. But Galactia has a fiery independence, and insists on painting the battle as she sees it – an inhumane tragedy, a collection of violence and disaster. The city leaders, on the other hand, want her to modify her work to satisfy their vision – that of the glory and honor of Venice.
Throughout the play, we glimpse the visual imagery that is so controversial. Barker uses language and description to create in our minds what the painting looks like – in a way that is powerful and visceral, and truer than any literal depiction could be. The subjective, fluid state of our minds manufactures a rich tapestry of striking images.
Aside from the visual aspect of the play, I also admire the thematic tensions of the story – the conflict between art and commerce, the question of how art should reflect a society. Should it show Venice the beauty and honor that Venice wants to see? Or should it hold a mirror close to its blemishes? This theme is later explored in John Arden's The Bagman. With equally powerful results.
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Each entry for a radio play should, ideally, be able to provide the essential details to bring context and understanding to each play. Cast, crew, and author (the most important) can link to more information on the subject. Part of what this does is create a mental understanding of what the thing is. And that encourages people to access it. A movie, for example, has a lot of context packaged with it. If I want to watch a movie I can go to a store or look online, and see the cover art, read the blurb, look at the credits, etc, and make a decision on whether to purchase or view it or not. One of the things I hope the Audio wiki does is to help people make decisions to listen to radio drama. If I know that I like one John Fletcher play (Death and the Tango!), then I can click on his entry and look at all the other plays he's done, and seek out more of his work. Likewise, if I listen to a radio play that I don't particularly like, I can make decisions to avoid others like it. This is an aspect of interaction that is fundamentally lacking in audio drama. Particularly the BBC websites. They're terrible! And inconsistent. Finding useful information from the BBC about their own content is very difficult, and it's very strange because, although they clearly have a large, built-in audience for their radio content, they aren't doing much to service their audience with community-building opportunities or even basic information to make the content more accessible. It's not that difficult (or costly) to keep track of what gets broadcast and when. Why make the guy at radiolistings do it all? He's a fan! Fans should be enjoying the content, not doing the work that the BBC ought to have done a long time ago. In any case, the ADW itself can't be a BBC project, because the scope is ALL radio drama, not just the BBC.
Each entry also has a section (it's part of my txt template that I copy and paste into the html input) called “critical reception.” That's a typical subsection in most wikipedia entries, but I am thinking that maybe it's not going to work for the Audio Drama Wiki. It might be wishful thinking. There's just not enough critique of radio plays to make it work. Even the actual radio critics like Gillian Reynolds aren't terribly useful, and it's hard to get links to their past reviews. Fan-based reviews would be a possible way to incorporate critique into the entries, provided that they came from a source that was in some way “authoritative” like a blog specifically dedicated to reviewing radio plays, or something like that.
It would also be great to include the personal views of the writers and artists responsible for creating the radio plays, that could go in a separate subsection of each entry, something like “Comments from John Fletcher” about a particular play.
One thing that the ADW doesn't have at all is a rating component. Goodreads has this, along with a user- review component, and it's useful. Individuals on goodreads can rate, on a scale of 1-5 stars, how much they liked each book. It's something that would be really beneficial for audio drama, acting in a decentralized “curatorial” capacity. But the wiki format can't really accommodate that – both physically and socially. I think if there were a rating in the Wiki structure, people would confuse the article entry with the rating. We don't really want a lot of random opinions cluttering up what is supposed to be an impartial information source.
Where a rating system would work well is in a centralized clearinghouse for selling audio drama. Some place where, like CD Baby, or iTunes, one could go and, for a nominal fee, (it would have to be pretty cheap) purchase for download an audio play. The BBC could do this, it would ultimately be beneficial for them, because it would promote and monetize the massive catalog they (theoretically) have. I realize of course that they don't have that archive, but it really would take a stable, long-term institution like the BBC, that has a certain amount of bureaucratic and economic muscle, to make a central audio drama distribution platform possible. But iTunes ISN'T the answer. Neither is Audible. Audio drama needs a platform that is just a bit more specialized, in order to generate stronger community ties. Not that audio drama has no community. It has it. But those ties are weakened by those four big problems that I've already discussed elsewhere in the blog. That's not to say that audio drama shouldn't be sold on those other platforms. It should, the synergy would be beneficial, it would reach a wider audience, etc. But in the end, audio drama needs its own “home.” Because that feeling of “home” is what maintains a strong community.
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
The BBC does not maintain, to my knowledge, a database about their radio output. If they do, it's not accessible to the public. Sure, there are listings on their web site, but these are confusing and far from comprehensive. Wikipedia has some information on radio plays, but most of the information we're talking about falls outside Wikipedia parameters, particularly with regards to notability. For an online encyclopedia with Wikipedia's scope, they just can't handle information about obscure radio plays. And that's ok. They don't have to.
But we can be as specialized as we want to be.
Over the years, many people have spent incredible amounts of time working to preserve, promote, and maintain knowledge about audio drama, particularly BBC content. They are volunteers who have rescued and cataloged audio drama, since the BBC doesn't even maintain archives of their work. And these people exist all over the world, working independently or in small groups or networks, trying to raise the profile of audio drama. The problem is, they can't all work together. It's as if there's a giant puzzle – the Radio Drama Puzzle – spread out across the continents, and many different people have pieces of the puzzle, and are assembling their pieces separately. But there's no one coffee table on which to assemble the entire picture. There are several examples.
Nigel and Alison Deacon's Diversity website is probably the best online resource for information about British radio drama. They've spent many years and thousands of hours archiving and compiling information about radio plays, authors, and practitioners. They've done an amazing job, but there's two issues with Diversity.
One – they're basically doing all the work alone. It seems like they have had information sent to them from other people, but when it comes down to it, they have to collate and enter the data and then post it on their website themselves. If I had a piece of information to complement their work, I wouldn't be able to add it there myself. They would have to upload it themselves, and they're busy enough as it is. With a wiki-style interface, I could input the information that I have, and other people can add and modify it, and make it better.
Two – The data on Diversity doesn't link to itself. With Wikipedia, each entry is connected to other entries, forming a useful network of information. But on Diversity, the information isn't aggressively cross-linked within itself. I can click on the entry for Rhys Adrian and get one long page about it. But I can't zero in on specific radio plays, or click on cast members or producers who have worked on the Adrian plays. The information doesn't flow to other information.
This is an extremely comprehensive site that is very hyperlinked with itself. But the format is difficult for the eye to follow, isn't presented in easy to navigate lists, and is limited in terms of how much information can be presented . Also, the person who runs it apparently (and unfortunately) is very ill, and can't devote as much time to it. This raises the issue of longevity in an information repository. When a comprehensive database is undertaken by an individual, there's always the danger that life circumstances, financial or personal or medical, might interfere and jeopardize the project. To be truly useful, and to grow as an authoritative source of information, an audio drama database needs to be independent of individuals, able to last in perpetuity.
The solution to this problem of centralized knowledge is, as far as I can tell, a wiki. To this end, we've created one – the Audio Drama Wiki, hosted by Wikia. Wikia is the commercial arm of Wikimedia, and I think offers the stability for a long-term collaborative project. And if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, nobody needs to worry about the whole thing disappearing.
So, if you are interested, check it out. I'd love to get whatever help I can. There are some easy ways to get involved:
Steal from Wikipedia. There are many articles about audio drama on Wikipedia already. Copying and pasting some of them into the Audio Drama Wiki is a quick and easy way to generate content. Just be sure to edit the content for relevance and formatting. A lot of the information the ADW should include is information that is too specialized or obscure for Wikipedia to bother with. But the main articles, such as Tom Stoppard or Howard Barker, for example, are great springboards for creating more articles in the ADW about specific radio plays.
Content from Diversity. Basically, all of the information the Deacons have compiled needs to be entered into the Audio Drama Wiki. Just be sure to cite the source. They've worked long and hard for many years gathering that info, and should be properly credited.
Content from Radiolistings. It all needs to go in!
Credits from audio broadcasts. If you've got audio files from radioarchive, for example, each torrent usually comes with a text file including the title, author, and cast and crew of the radio play. This information can be easily copied, pasted, and formatted to become an Audio Drama wiki page. Or, if you don't have an accompanying text file for your audio, just listening to the credits at the end, jotting them down, and entering them into a wiki page would also do the trick.
Together, I think we can make this happen.
Monday, January 10, 2011
When it comes to actually producing audio drama content, one of the big hurdles, especially in the US, is that of performance. Because people tend to only be aware of old time radio (OTR), they aren't aware of more modern performance standards. Both artistic and technological developments have substantially changed what modern audio drama sounds like, especially with regards to how the actors perform the script.
An OTR radio program often has a very broad performance style, with the actors performing into microphones that had a limited frequency and decibel response, attached to recording equipment that had difficulty capturing the dynamic range of a vocal performance. Such programs were broadcast in mono, often performed live, and despite the craftsmanship with which they were made, were not able to strive for subtler or more naturalistic or truthful performances. There are some exceptions. But if you want to hear a good audio drama performance, you have to look to the BBC radio output.
I recently read Radio Acting by Alan Beck. It's an extremely useful book, the only one I've come across that provides on-the-ground detail of how the BBC produces radio drama. Knowing how they operate is vital to becoming a good actor or director for audio. He also coalesces concepts and practices into specific, original terminology, which gives people like us a language with which to communicate about the things we are hearing. Particularly, he breaks down the actor's relationship to the microphone into five key positions. These positions (of proximity) are used to place an actor within a certain distance to the microphone, in order to achieve certain affects. Position 1, for example, is the closest, and is used for the most intimate audio drama dialog, usually an internal monolog, something that expresses the interior mental process of an individual. Position 2 is a little bit further away, for intimate conversations between two characters, and for general narration. Position 3 is used for general conversation between two or three characters. Positions 4 and 5 are used for background action, for entrances and exits, and for movement to and from more intimate positions.
Beck discusses other concepts that I found particularly useful, such as how to, as an actor, prepare for a role, and how, as a director, one can communicate with an actor to achieve the desired results. The artifice of audio drama is a difficult problem to overcome – with a limited amount of physical movement and interaction with fellow actors, a lot of traditional acting methods are frustrated when applied to the medium. But there are ways around this problem. I'll detail one of my acting class experiences in another post, that might be a useful example.
The book has a few minor drawbacks. It was published in 1997, and I think that digital technology has probably had an impact on the methods of production that he discusses. It also assumes a certain level of vocal and performance proficiency. I guess that's not really a drawback, but I'd recommend getting a bit of acting or vocal training before approaching this book. You'll need a basic level of general technique in order to use this book most effectively.
If you are interested in performing or directing modern audio drama, this book is absolutely essential. I was skeptical of it at first, but after reading it, I have become convinced. Beck provides a language for discussing the subject, specific examples, and even includes anecdotes and thoughts from prominent practitioners, both actors and directors. You can purchase the book HERE.
Also, Alan Beck has a web site that has some great information on it. I'll be reading and incorporating some of his work into the discussion in the next several months.