All the Spectrum's a Stage: Part One

How audio drama can truly be a theatre of the mind

18 min read

Editor's Note: Here at Simplecast, we want to engage deeply with audio and help cement a foundational critical language when analyzing and critiquing podcasts, whether fiction or non-fiction. This manifesto on "theatre of the mind", and the connections between fiction podcasting (or audio drama) and theatre, is lengthy, split into two parts. As Transom did with Ariana Martinez's incredible two-part piece on Slowness in the audio industry, we encourage you to go through this exploration at your own pace and to not be overwhelmed, because work like this by active, engaged creators and critics are crucial to elevating and solidifying the attitude the mainstream has towards podcasting and podcast creators. Additionally, it is in the nature of digital media to be ephemeral. One of the two podcasts used as central focal points for this piece, The Vanishing Act, removed the first season of their podcast and explained why. We commend them on their rigorous commitment to ethical decision-making in art.

I wanted to start this piece out with something fun and quippy, something that would showcase my coolness factor, but let me just lay it all out there: I am a theatre kid and just proud enough of it to mix its geeky, cheesy pleasure with the business of what I do. All cheap potshots and stabs at the Pasek and Paul Industrial Complex going forward are done so with love, except for the Pasek and Paul bit because I once said that The Vanishing Act’s Augie Eckhart would commit violent assault against those two for the 2017 Tonys and by God I meant it. Be warned: here be showtunes.

Descriptions of audio drama as “theatre of the mind” have been around about as long as the medium itself. Its origins can be traced back to the way stage plays were adapted for radio, bringing everything from Shakespeare to the crime dime novel to a broader audience. Actors stood at microphones to read their parts live, foley artists at the ready to create any sound effects the story might need, and musicians provided the soundtrack as it was being broadcast. Without the widespread use of recording technology for these performances, audio dramas were simply a recreation of the experience of watching a play with one important sense missing.

Narration was the real star of the show, taking the audience through the story and filling in the key details that a stage production would naturally be able to convey. Sound design was sparse, cartoonish, and nothing like what we’re used to today. When critics at the time called it “theatre of the mind”, it was in a very literal sense: stage plays translated to a format that was half listening, half asking the audience to make up the rest of the details in their head; the original version of listening to a song on a road trip and creating a mental music video starring all your favorite characters.

A clip from the 1996 comedy-drama "Remember WENN", set at a Pittsburg radio station in the 1930s and 1940s.

Of course, as technology advanced, things shifted. Recordings became crisper, more accessible, and able to be played by just about anyone. Video killed the radio star, and television killed the audio drama, at least for a time. The medium persisted stronger in some places than others (compared to just about every other country, Great Britain is on top). Then, with a small smattering of shows in the 2000s and Welcome to Night Vale bounding onto the scene in 2012, audio drama came back with a vengeance. This time, however, one thing was different: we had DAWs.

The replacement of live sound design and scoring with the Digital Audio Workspace (DAW) is key to understanding why fiction podcasts (the term I will be using to refer to audio dramas from the 2000s onward) sound so different from radio plays (the term I will be using to refer to audio dramas pre-Y2K). Now producers could create far richer and more complex environments to place their characters in, chopping and dicing and distorting pre-recorded takes on a level not possible with tape. Fiction podcasts weren’t stage plays for your ears anymore – they were movies, TV shows, and short films.

While I for one welcome our new computer overlords and would never want to work during the time that carefully slicing tape with a razor blade was a majority of my job, I can’t help but feel that something was lost when we started looking to Hollywood for inspiration rather than Broadway. Maybe it’s my own biases– I’d take a community theatre production of Fiddler on the Roof over Top Gun: Maverick any day– but I think it goes deeper than that. I still love movies (I literally paid two hundred dollars to the state of Ohio to name myself after a guy from one), and so do millions of people. So what is it about live performance – the concert, the shadow-cast, the play or musical – that keeps us coming back for more?

I’ll have my answer to that question later on, but first: proof that it can be done today, here, in this medium. The “theatre of the mind” can be created in a modern-day fiction podcast, and there is one team out there who, I believe, nails it better than anybody else in the biz.

Farces in Audio: "The Vanishing Act" and "Fawx and Stallion"

Releasing its first season in 2020 and season two in 2021, The Vanishing Act (TVA) is like ars Paradoxica for people who really liked Cabaret, but thought the Emcee should have been a deeply put-upon, somewhat all-seeing, non-union narrator of potentially female gender who sounds like the meanest Starbucks barista you have ever seen tell a customer to drink bleach with her eyes. So: made in a lab for me.

Created by producer-writer team Lauren Grace Thompson (who is also the aforementioned narrator) and Ian Geers, the show is a love letter to every aspect of the culture surrounding making theatre: the good, the bad, and the health and safety violations. With acerbic wit and merciless familiarity, The Vanishing Act is both deeply cathartic to someone who knows asking actors to stop touching their mic tape is a losing game, and wonderfully comforting when I’m between shows and missing the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. It is as vast in its scope, cast, and timeline as any Kander and Ebb affair, tackling themes of community, complicity in oppression, how the sausage of art gets made, and historical queerness. The cast is an explosive, rollicking bunch, from the Gatsby-esque wannabe writer Conrad Webley Griffson, to the morally grey, “not so much mad as in need of a Lexapro prescription and a cold beer” scientist Lilith Von Hitzler, to the man I have described as “Dean Winchester for theatre majors who can’t do a pushup” and literally used the final project for my script writing class to hit with a bus, Augie Eckhart. From personally gathered anecdotes, Thompson and Geers specifically set out to end up at the exceptionally named vibe of “dirtbag Doctor Who”. They nailed it.

Their newest show, Fawx and Stallion (F&S), is another historical comedy that goes after a different target of the SuperWhoLock trifecta. (Disclaimer: Fawx and Stallion is represented by The Fable and Folly Network, where Schottelkotte is now the Director of Marketing. Work on this article began before F&S joined the network.)  Following the jealous and hapless neighbors of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, F&S takes the comedic potential of a lavender marriage to its natural extreme, featuring a lesbian plagued by her poor taste in friends and even worse taste in women (for whom I am putting a call to action right now, in this article, to get a gun), the human embodiment of “call the cops, I’ll have sex with them”, and their third wheel best friend who owns a singular brain cell that bounces around his head like the Windows standby logo. Together, the trio attempt to upstage Holmes and Watson through pure spite and moxie by solving a case while he’s away for the weekend. I’ll give you three guesses as to if they succeed.

Both TVA and F&S are farces, a genre defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, “a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations”. This type of storytelling was born and bred on the stage, originally placed between scenes of religious plays in the late Middle Ages to entertain the audience. According to a background from Appalachian State University, it became its own form of theatre during the 15th and 16th century in France, with the most well-known production being Shakespeare’s adaptation of Brothers Manaechmi into his own Comedy of Errors.

The genre continued to evolve over the centuries, from the late-19th century’s bedroom farce, to the door farce, to forms that could be adapted for film and television. Some modern examples include Seinfeld, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and essentially all of Mel Brooks’ filmography. Other farcical fiction podcasts are Wooden Overcoats and Two Flat Earthers Kidnap A Freemason. It’s a genre that lends itself particularly well to the audio medium, with its larger than life characters, over-the-top comedy, and emphasis on slapstick. 

A clip from the stage production of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" at Shakespeare's Globe, 2015.

That focus on big characterization can solve a common issue when working in only audio: telling all those voices apart without a visual distinction. When casting an audio drama, ensuring that each character has a unique voice that stands apart from the rest of the cast is paramount. Your audience needs to be able to quickly learn who’s who and match a name to a voice, and the best way to do that is what farce already encourages: big acting choices that clearly showcase personality. By the end of episode one of TVA, I could rattle off every single character and give at least one key detail about each thanks to the variety of voices and accompanying performances.

Theatre, especially farce, sits in that tricky grey area between down-to-earth, realistic acting and cartoony shouting that feels most at home on Nickelodeon. While tending towards the latter end of the spectrum can work when playing to the back of the house, it tends to feel overwhelming and off-putting when going directly into the listener’s ears. TVA walks that line by grounding the farcical words and actions of the characters in genuine human emotion– just expressed at a level we all feel but may not necessarily say out loud.

When Augie learns that he’s left his crush in the company of a man who is not only charming and handsome, but attracted to women as well as men, and whines, “I will kill myself! Anton, I will literally kill myself if he sleeps with Lilith!,” it’s not just a great delivery of a joke; it’s relatable. Who among us has not fumbled the bag and gone to tweet, “What if I jumped off a bridge like right now,” from their private account? When the emotions feel big enough for a conventional theatre, but the delivery remains comfortable to listen to via headphones, that’s when you’ve reached the sweet spot of directing for theatre of the mind.

Directing for Good Flow in Audio

Speaking of directing, that role tends to take more agency in a stage production than a fiction podcast (with the showrunner/head writer often filling that role by default, and the sound designer stepping in once recording is finished). Whether all of your actors can record together or you’re stitching together a scene in post, there are key tenets of how the rhythm of a scene comes together that you can keep in mind while working on the dialogue edit: beats, jumping, and flow.

Beats are the moments of deliberate silence in between speaking. They don’t just indicate a pause: in audio drama, they create a moment that is devoid of information. That silence can be used to your advantage, whether bringing up the tension in horror, or letting the audience take the temperature of the room during a moment of emotional climax. Let your beats enhance that contrast and be choosy with them. Because silence equals no information in audio, and because that feeling is so jarring, each beat should essentially be a darling you cannot bear to kill.

Jumping, or rather jumping lines, works twofold to keep the rhythm of a scene moving at a brisk pace and to make the dialogue feel natural and dynamic. People interrupt each other in real life all the time, whether by accident or on purpose. Building in line jumps, especially during moments of comedy or tension, maintains that momentum. This is a place where having distinct voices for characters becomes especially essential, but when done right, the listener becomes even more engaged in the dynamic of the characters speaking.

These two, along with the other choices the director makes in the booth or dialogue edit, come together to create flow. When a scene has good flow, it feels like every line and choice by the characters has a direct and immediate consequence. The pace is right for the emotions at hand.

In audio drama, much of that pace can be set by the sound design. Environmental factors like a whistling tea kettle to enhance tension, or a babbling brook to make the audience feel at ease, all play into the mood of a scene. When much of the traditional directing role is played by the sound designer, they become in charge of one of those key tenets of a scene: blocking.

Where your characters move, how fast they do so, and when they do it, communicates more to the audience than you might think. Part of what can cause confusion in an audio-only format is the lack of ability to follow the story visually, which means that directors/sound designers need to get creative when showing the audience what’s going on. 

Take a scene from episode one of F&S: one of our titular heroes is picking the other up from an overnight stay in Scotland Yard, and are then ushered by an inspector through the station, into the main checkout area, then out the doors. It is essential the audience know when the characters are in which location for the current dialogue to make sense. Thompson and Geers use a clever technique to make things clear: the scene is blocked like it’s onstage, then sound designed to have a relatively accurate number of footsteps to get from one space to another, plus panning to tell us which direction the characters are going in. This helps the listener keep track of where everyone is relative to the setting, other characters, and any necessary set pieces. I use this trick myself; when I start the sound designing stage of any scene, I sketch out the setting and draw a map of where the characters move, then add in degrees of panning based on which point of view I’ve decided to take. Ideally, the POV your panning takes should be consistent across all scenes of an episode, or if multiple characters are in play as scene leads, your microphone should follow the POV of the first character who speaks.

The stage itself also makes a strong argument for realism not being the law when it comes to sound design. As Terry Pratchett noted, “Things that try to look like things often do look more like things than things”. Abstraction in sound design, just like how the stairs and chandeliers of the Imperial Theatre became all of Russia in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, works with the suspension of disbelief that occurs in any kind of theatre to allow the audience to fill in the blanks. In audio drama, your sounds are your set. It’s the same principle that explains why Dear Evan Hansen’s stage show worked (on an extremely technical and objective level not touching on the musical’s fetishization of mental illness, flat and illogical characters, and Genghis Khan levels of dedication to woobifying its “protagonist”) while the movie adaptation placed all of the its flaws into a starker light: when adapting a stage show to the screen, that abstraction and suspended disbelief has to carry over, or else film’s tradition of realism and logic will remind the audience that people don’t just break into song and dance in real life (an issue explained far more thoroughly in Jenny Nicholson’s video on the Dear Evan Hansen movie).

The same can apply to sound design for a fiction podcast. Especially if your genre is more out there, like fantasy or the aforementioned farce, choosing more unconventional ways to represent objects and emotions not only fits better, but helps the audience suspend their disbelief and get into the story. Something unexpected I’ve found as a sound designer is that realistic fiction is much more difficult to work on because we know what a pencil writing sounds like far better than a magical disappearing box; the audience is pulled out of the moment if either seems off, but the pencil is a lot easier to mess up. Even in the realm of realistic fiction, moving towards a more theatrical style gives you some wiggle room.

Of course, sometimes the characters need to step out of the scene for a moment. Breaking the fourth wall, even if your show takes a more theatrical style like TVA and F&S, always means something. Live theatre is about suspending your disbelief– believing for a moment that a ramshackle prop made of plywood and buckskin is really a living, breathing cow named Milky White– and addressing the audience breaks that suspension by reminding them that this is all an illusion. Any instance of a narrator as a framing device breaks the fourth wall somewhat, but the Narrator of TVA is a fourth wall break in-herself; her presence, and how that presence makes the story work, is essential.

In the midst of a cast of characters who are all at least a little morally grey, the Narrator works as our ethical compass. Rudyard sleeps his way through Hollywood’s elite in search of fame and fortune; Conrad’s first instinct in any situation is to lie through his teeth; listing every horrendously out of pocket thing Augie says and does in just season one would run the word count of this article to absurd lengths; even Hirschfelder has to compromise his morals to survive as a Jewish and gay man in Nazi Germany. The Narrator, in contrast, holds fast to her beliefs about right and wrong and frequently comments on the actions of the people who’s stories she’s forced to observe. She’s far from impartial– she’s the voice of reason speaking what the audience is thinking. Take this sequence:

NARRATOR: Since the beginning of time, only a handful of combinations of humans had created so much harmony that time stopped. The stars would shine brighter, the air would blow coolly, and all poverty would cease. Looking at Lilith Von Hitzler all grown up, Augie Eckhardt felt a clarity he’d been waiting for his entire life; a purpose that rang pure and true in his heart:

AUGIE (to himself, stunned): I have to fuck her

NARRATOR: My god. It’s like he can’t hear my setup at all.

What allows us to connect with this story, despite how unlikeable its characters can be, is that someone is at least there in the narrative telling it like it is. We as the audience feel like we are being validated and listened to through her narration, even if the characters usually can’t hear it. It brings to mind a rule I always have when playwriting: When can you break the fourth wall? It depends. When should you be speaking to the audience? Always.

That audience still needs to engage with the characters, even through the lens of pointing and laughing at them (see: the intended viewing experience for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). A good story doesn’t just raise questions about the things contained within its story, like where the plot will go next or if one character will betray the other, but invites the listener to ask questions of themself. Talking about the intimacy of audio drama is often a fluff statement, but only because it’s so obvious: this story and its characters and themes are right in your ear, being visually recreated by your own mind with all its biases and preferences. Live theatre does much the same; the best works single out the audience as an active participant in the story by their non-action of simply witnessing what is happening onstage, or looks to directly engage them and physically draw them in (i.e. Sleep No More). In part two of this piece, I’ll examine the importance of that audience connection, how TVA especially does it well, and how both mediums allow us to connect with each other as well, even in extenuating circumstances. See you after intermission.

Proceed to Part Two!