From Stage to Mic

9 min read

Audio drama is often called theater of the mind, and that's no coincidence. Radio play adaptations of plays such as It's a Wonderful Life and works of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw were commonplace in the early days of AM radio. Before the advent of writing purely for a sound-only medium, stage plays were often adapted for an on-air presentation, and the styles of stage and microphone mixed in ways that are still recognizable today, not just through how those works are written, but in how they are acted. When podcasting killed the radio star (or so it's told), many playwrights continued a years-long tradition of trying their new works out on the radio before taking them to the stage. 

The craft of acting spans many mediums, such as fiction podcasting, and has grown and codified over the years. The voice acting skills for audio drama have taken shape not in stark contrast but rather parallel to stage acting.

In this piece, I looked to examine the craft of acting through two individuals who made the leap from performing onstage to also performing behind the microphone and what differences arise between those two mediums (as well as, often surprisingly frequently, what stays the same). Both interviews in this piece have been edited and condensed for clarity.

First, I spoke to my dear friend and Where the Stars Fell castmate, Max Fleischhacker. We have worked g together both in the booth and onstage. Fleischhacker made his Nashville Repertory Theater debut last year in A Christmas Carol and is the voice of B.B. on Where the Stars Fell

Newton Schottelkotte: What would you say is the biggest stylistic difference between voice acting for specifically a fiction podcast and acting for stage?

Max Fleischhacker: People like to ask about what's different between acting for stage or acting for screen or acting with your voice, and the more that I think about it, the more I'm like, it's not all that different. Acting is acting. Yeah, there are different technical challenges to how you approach the space you're in, but it's really minimal compared to actually doing the acting. On film, the area of play is so much smaller than the space you physically are in. Because you just have this little box [the area the film camera captures which the audience will see]. Whereas, especially just in audio, the space you are in, physically, is just this little box [recording studio], but the space you are playing is so much larger than that.

And the same thing for theater, where you're not necessarily just playing in a little box, but you're often portraying these big set pieces and these grand locations that in reality are just, you know, flat pieces of wood on a stage. You play it much bigger than it is.

NS: Do you find that certain tools for one medium are particularly useful to have in the other?

MF: I think all acting skills you ever learn are usable in every form of acting. It does not matter the medium. They were all tools for the actor's kit.  There were several people [at Neighborhood Playhouse] who, at the time, weren't famous, but now they are, and they're famous as screen actors despite Meisner being a technique mostly used on the stage. But it was, you know, people like– I'm gonna say a name, and I feel like you're not gonna know who this is, but like Mary Steenburgen.

NS: So, how does doing a scene with a partner feel in the booth versus doing it on stage?

MF: It always feels like a rehearsal because it's not a high-stakes environment in the way that performing for an audience is, and I feel I don't feel quite the same way about acting on film. Acting on film doesn't always feel like a rehearsal for the first few takes. You're probably not gonna use these first few takes. But the more you get it in your bones, the more real it starts to feel real. You have 30 people in a room waiting for you. I'm not necessarily performing for the camera. I could just perform for these 30 people as long as I keep myself within this camera. So, it still feels like a performance when I'm on camera. But, in the booth, not so much. It's just a low-stakes environment. And we're very much at our own pace.

MF: I don't tend to focus on specific parts of a performance. Regardless of what the medium is, I am very in the moment because, in any form of production, there has to be room. Everyone has to be prepared for something new to happen. When you're improving, it's good to think about what you're doing but not to think about it beforehand. I think it's better to think about what you did, what you liked, and what worked well. So when we're recording something, I'm not thinking ahead of time about how I'm going to deliver this, what small little mannerisms am I gonna have? I just do.

NS: I think that kind of spontaneity can be really, really useful because when you have the script in front of you, and you're able to read the lines off the page, and you don't have to have it memorized, you can kind of feel like, "I need to be doing what's on there," but some of my favorite moments in [Where the Stars Fell] have been moments of improv. That moment in [episode] 25 where you read the line in a very out-of-breath voice, and you had a specific reason for doing that is my favorite moment in the entire episode.

MS: And see, the thing is that also wasn't something that I thought about beforehand. I just was speaking so fast that I forgot to breathe, but I thought that it played very well because I thought there's also no reason for that character to have remembered to breathe, and I, and in that, I think that, like, paying attention to how you deliver something is great, especially in rehearsal, because then you can make sure to keep including the things that you liked. Then you can think about them, then you can keep doing them because you already know you like it. You don't need to try and plan these things out ahead of time. Just see what comes naturally, which will help make your performance feel more natural. 

NS: It's about finding that balance between naturalistic performance and not getting too far above your raisin'.

MF: Sure. As an actor, when I do stuff in the booth when we're recording, I still err to the side of naturalism over trying to show every little thing. Because I personally, in a medium like this, don't want to paint such a specific picture personally. It's that theater of the mind thing, and I like having such an open theater of the mind. But theater is live, and that breeds spontaneity, and you have to be open to failing and looking silly to do that. It's a very human thing, and you're basically building a human in your head with your voice. So you open yourself up to it. They'll never feel like a person unless you let them be a person.

Dave Hearn is the Dungeon Master of Hell or High Rollers and is perhaps best known for his role as Max in The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society's other misadventures. Hearn was on tour last year for a revival of The 39 Steps and is no stranger to audio fiction, having voiced Toby Entwhistle in the Doctor Who radio drama The Blooming Menace. We chatted about stepping into the world of actual play podcasts and what acting muscles he and the cast are still flexing. 

Newton Schottelkotte: What made you and the team interested in starting a fiction podcast? And then, why did you choose to make an actual play show over a traditional audio drama?

Dave Hearn: Initially, I'd put the idea to Mischief as a kind of big new way of kind of doing stuff; like a kind of new form art form for us, and the timing wasn't quite right, and it just sort of didn't gain a lot of traction. With a little bit of my own frustration about things taking so long, I decided to go and do it by myself. We played some D&D when we did, The Play That Goes Wrong on Broadway, and it was just a fun thing. We didn't know what we were doing or how to play it, and we just kind of got into it. Actually, it was slightly awkward when we started because, obviously, we're all actors, but the idea of going into a room and doing some acting with no audience is quite awkward. But for people who aren't actors, that's obviously a really free and creative space without the pressure of a performance, right? And then I started listening to D&D podcasts, and I wasn't a huge fan of some of them, to be honest. And I found the episodes that I was drawn to were the ones that were more narrative-based and rules-heavy. So I think coming from a comedic background with the improv stuff, it felt like something that would be fun to try and do.

NS: When you were making that transition, what would you say was the biggest stylistic difference between voice acting for creating an actual play podcast and then acting on stage?

DH: There are a few bits of description or bits of story that I might write or add, but the difference is the rehearsal. So on stage, you can build and develop characters; find the voices in the rehearsal, and refine them. But the challenge with improvising an actual play podcast is as the DM, you can dictate the context to a certain degree, and then the context changes. And also the character develops as you develop it live in the moment, so coming in with a really strong character is really helpful. And then it's about me trusting myself to come up with something and trusting the guys to go with it.

NS: So speaking of that, physicality is a really, really important tool in differentiating different characters. As the DM who has to portray many different NPCs in a nonvisual medium, how do you use just your voice to do that? And does physicality still play a role that the audience can't see?

DH: The voices that land the best are the ones where I can see the character. But it's very tricky for me personally. Brennan Lee Mulligan? [Dungeon Master of Dimension 20] He's an absolute acrobat, vocally. Every character of his feels so 3D and grounded, like they could be a part of the story. When I've watched some of the Dimension 20 stuff, I see he does a lot of it standing up, so he does have that physicality where he really gets into it. I've found particularly with [the character] Scarifax, I get quite hunched physically and everything gets fast and sharp, and you do kind of adopt that physicality. 

NS: You kind of go down the [Laban efforts] chart of physicality, like expansive and contracted and all of these different things, but in a smaller way.

DH: Exactly. And if you're going to ring your voice, or it glides, or flows, or it's light, it's heavy, it's sudden, it's smooth. You can just pick four or five different Laban efforts, and then you will have a voice.

NS: You guys are extremely accomplished and experienced in improv, and so much of that is reading your scene partner and gauging where to take the scene next based on so many little cues that can be difficult to pick up on when you're not in the same room. How do you find that rhythm and connection with cast members who are recording remotely?

DH: My job is to create the playground and then leave them to play in it. I come in every now and again or just go, "Guys, I'm just going to talk for a bit and just read this bit of description that I've read," and so the timing does get slightly awkward. I have to keep tabs and just remember to keep bringing him back into the story 'cause it can be quite hard to interject when you're remote. 

In terms of the timing, you can sort of fudge it in the edit. As actors, we know that if we're building a rhythm and it kind of gets f*'d up because of the delay or whatever, then we can recognize that was a good bit and just be like, "Do it again, but do it clean," and it's just having that kind of eye on the storytelling. Because I respect the shows that don't do any editing, but for us, particularly with the remote record, we want to keep those slightly clunkier moments out of the story.

But being in the room all together is extremely helpful. There is something happening for you as an actor, and you are listening to each other.

NS: And following the number one rule of improv, which is, of course, "Yes, and…".

DH: Exactly. And I mean, when you're improvising a story, it's totally open, right? You're not really bound by anything. And you actually ask the audience to kind of find [it for] you. You ask for parameters in which to perform. Because if somebody says, "Go and invent a story," the first thing you're going to do is go, "What do you want it to be about?" Because it is really hard just to go, just to start speaking your story. And when you think about stuff in audio dramas that span for many, many seasons, I just have so much respect for those writers who can create an environment that is exciting to watch but has a huge overarching story over the top. The thing I loved about Dungeons and Daddies; in the first season, where they have to go and rescue their kids, every episode, whatever situation they get into, the dads are just like, "I need to go and save my kid," and as a listener, you're like, "Oh, it doesn't matter what shenanigans they get up to. We just always keep coming back to that."

For me, of everything I've learned about storytelling, that is just the key thing that I always come back to. What are the players trying to do? How can I stop them from doing it? And make that interesting.