Audio Drama: Dead or Alive?



Has audio/radio drama died? No way. With more people listening to iPods and iPhones than ever while on the move, there is a demand for audio content beyond Top 40 and political talk radio.  L.A. Theatre Works has Hollywood actors from George Clooney and Brad Pitt and Annette Benning to talented amateurs reading both original and Pulitzer Prize winning dramas for download and on CD format. I once met the producer and actress Marsha Mason at the Audie Awards in L.A.. Neil Patrick Harris, Paul Giamatti, and Hilary Swank are also in their fold, with a BBC4 partnership as well. And many audiobook producers are now stepping up to the microphone with multi-cast productions. The association with audiobook narrators like Barbara Rosenblat and Scott Brick is strong, and they contribute their efforts in spreading the word and offering master classes in the areas of creating characters and accents. I asked creative arts icon and technology expert Andrew Glassner recently if he listens to audiobooks, and what he personally enjoys—and is up to—and he responded: “I usually listen while walking my dog, and tend to prefer plot-driven fiction. Then each day I can back up a minute or two and pick up the thread, so I’m re-synchronized with the story.  I had the chance to write and direct a short animated film using computer graphics. That led to writing scripts and directing actors for a live-action internet game, which led to writing novels. Reading fiction is how I discover worlds that I don’t or can’t inhabit. I’ll never see the world personally through the eyes of a rock star, or a 16-year-old blind girl in rural Georgia, or a sailor lost at sea, or a star-eating creature from another planet. But books let me see the world as they do, or might. That’s both inherently rewarding, and a vital step towards deeper empathy.”  (In my own case, I knew radio drama icon Yuri Rasovsky, and Frank Muller, who were involved in two of my early novels, which is how I became interested in audiobooks: which listening on the job or traveling. Yuri and Frank are both gone now, but Yuri was a Grammy winner and  columnist for Audiofile magazine, while Frank was Stephen King’s favorite reader of his own books, and a friend of his.)

For a deeper look at those producers, and the state of radio and audio drama production today, I interviewed Sue Zizza once, and more recently asked about her for a statement, and she said, “I think the state of the audio drama community is very strong. Podcasting and technology are leading to an increased number of high quality productions which more audiences are finding thanks in part to their awareness of audio stories brought about by the growth of audiobooks. The community is so strong we now host an annual Festival celebrating the works of hundreds of artists is called HEAR Now. For example, you can get good listening with an event June 7-10, and come hear the newest audio drama.” She is Executive Director of what has become the National Audio Theatre Festival. It’s of interest to writers, too. Zizza also teaches a course on the subject of audio drama at New York University, and credits success to directors like Charlie Potter, Yuri Rasovsky and Tom Lopez, along with audio artists like Marjorie Van Haltern, David Ossman and others. Here’s my flashback interview with her:

“Back in 1979,” Zizza recalled, “when I was on staff at a community radio station in Missouri, we put feelers out across the country to other dramatists in the field. The intent was to see who was still doing what, and to form a new group of professionals, utilizing funds provided at the time by public radio, the NEA and CPB. Then when the suggestion was made to form a training event, the Midwest Radio Drama Workshop was born. Now, our week long workshops in Missouri introduce people at all skill levels to audio drama production.” As Zizza further explains it, “We believe that if you learn how to produce an audio play, where you’re blending voice and music and sound effects and silence, then you can take those skills and become a better documentary, film or music producer, because what you learn through telling your story as audio drama really hones your storytelling craft.”

In addition to week long workshops, the NATF also sponsors weekend events around the country, focused on one particular skill, and at the end an actual performance is staged so that these learned skills can be practiced. “Take Lindsay Ellison, for example,” Zizza points out, “who added audio production and direction to her stage direction and acting skills. Now she’s working with Tom Lopez on the post production of her play. Others take classes in voice acting, writing, producing, directing and technology. After learning the fundamentals, they mount a live show as an effects artist or technical assistant, and also network with others at meals and social events.”

In describing the unique challenges of audio drama, Zizza cites knowing how to make voices unique “because obviously there are no body types or hair colors as in stage acting,” and also knowing when and how often to utilize sound effects “because too much sound design only confuses the listener, and should only be used to support the action, identify locales, or move characters around a space.” In short, the listener must be clear at all moments about what is going on. And that rule has never changed.

But hasn’t the equipment changed since radio’s Golden Age? “Not really,” claims Zizza. “Many of the props I use today were inherited from my mentor Al Shaffer, who did sound effects for Bob & Ray, among others. He taught me how to do horses, walk down stairs, etc. The only thing that’s really changed is that the microphones are more sensitive now, so you can’t get away with using an old-time prop like cellophane to make fire. Although corn starch is still used for walking through snow.” Indeed, she is adamant that sound effects taken from CDs don’t work for the most part, even in our modern, high-tech era. “The acoustic space is not the same as the space where the actors record, and you can tell. With animals in a zoo, for example, there’s a reverb which can’t be corrected. So getting a sound effects artist to listen and add effects in real time actually saves time. Where the science has advanced is really in post production, with digital recording and editing. But if you don’t understand how the elements of writing and acting and sound design combine in the final product, it won’t matter if you’re producing it digitally, and Pro Tools won’t save you.”

Zizza says that part of her funding today comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, and part from the local arts councils where the festivals are held, and from individual contributors. The audio drama community as it exists today consists of “about two hundred independent companies or individuals producing mostly new material, although maybe half will produce both old time and new scripts.” For her own part, she produced The Radio Works, a sampler series which is heard on 70 public radio stations, and features a different producer each time, with all new work. Other audio drama companies currently active include the Full Cast Audio company, founded by Bruce Coville, a producer/publisher of teen and young adult titles primarily in the fantasy genre; the Atlanta Radio Theater, Great Northern Audio Theatre, ZBS Foundation, Firesign Theatre, Shoestring Radio Theater (an amateur San Francisco company), and the Radio Repertory Company of America. Seeing Ear Theatre, associated with the Scifi channel, produces original plays for publishers like Harper Audio, like the excellent “Two Plays for Voices,” featuring actors Bebe Neuwirth and Brian Dennehy performing Neil Gaiman’s “Snow Glass Apples” and “Murder Mysteries.”

What does the future hold by way of opportunities for actors, writers, directors and technicians in the full cast segment of the audiobook industry? Zizza is cautious, but optimistic. “Full cast audio is costly to produce, as you know, and so there are not as many titles available. This is also true for public radio stations, who find it more economical to produce news or talk shows. But I think the situation is improving over what it was just three years ago. Listeners are becoming more astute, and they enjoy hearing a story, and so after seeing something like Spider Man, which has an incredible sound track, you can’t expect them to listen to a dry audiobook with nothing but a voice. With all the webcasting and iPod downloading going on, and with the variety of Mp3 players that are starting to come standard in new cars, I think people will seek out audio drama, and already a new crop of directors and producers are studying the craft the same way as those who study stage acting. Our challenge is to produce better quality material, and take those interested to the next level of skills so that audio theater looks forward instead of backward.” 

Lorna Raver

Lorna Raver was married to Yuri Rasovsky until his death in 2012. She had a lead role in DRAG ME TO HELL, which also starred Alison Lohman, and Dileep Rao (who was in Avatar.) Lorna has performed on stage in New York, and has narrated many audiobooks, including CUJO. In real life, she’s a sweet lady! (It’s all about makeup…and great acting.) She was also in the films The Caller, and Sinbad: The Fifth Voyage. Interview at this blog HERE. –Jonathan Lowe

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