An estimated 55 percent of American adults listen to podcasts, and most of them are under the age of 50. Over the past year, as theatre artists have researched, revived, and reworked how to reach audiences, some have turned to podcasts as a way to connect with people where they are. The medium also harkens back to the popular radio plays of the 1940s and ’50s, when families and friends would gather for a night in to listen to their favorite stories.
In addition to reaching a wider audience, the podcast form has allowed four very different theatres in different parts of the country to elevate diverse voices, and to collaborate with artists whose work might otherwise go unheard to create audio delight in the midst of an unpredictable year. Here are four narrative podcasts to listen to right now, and how they came to be.
Writer and director Bernadette Armstrong (she/her) was getting ready for opening night of Custody at Secret Rose Theater in North Hollywood when it was canceled due to COVID-19. After months of trying to figure out what to do, Armstrong realized she was far from alone: The pandemic was wreaking havoc on small theatres and other emerging playwrights. That’s why she started the Open-Door Playhouse podcast to share new short plays with theatre enthusiasts.
“I thought of podcasts because while I was doing research for my play about Joan Crawford in 2019, I listened to her Lux Radio Hour Plays,” said Armstrong. “With all our theatres closed, and with the pandemic, audio books and podcasts are on the rise. You can listen anywhere you have a wifi connection and computer to download!”
Since September, Open-Door Playhouse has presented two dozen 10- to 15-minute plays from writers across the country, and they’re constantly taking submissions. The podcast has also highlighted the work of incarcerated playwrights through the PEN America’s Prison Writing Program. So far they’ve produced two plays from incarcerated writers in Hondo, Texas., and Washington, D.C., and they’re currently working with two inmates in Ohio.
On March 24, they’ll cross the pond with a full-length adaptation of The Canterville Ghost, adapted by Gareth Johnson. This production brings together theatre artists from Oxfordshire, U.K., and Glendale, Calif. Armstrong says that they also have another new play in the works set in present day that will hopefully be presented sometime this summer.
Here’s the latest episode of Open-Door Playhouse: A Wake by Brian C. Petti.
Houses on the Moon
Playwright Ian Eaton went back to one of the most devastating experiences of his childhood—the killing of his brother—in order to pen gUN Country. You can hear it in the shaking of protagonist Ian’s voice, in the urgent episode that Eaton recorded for the Houses on the Moon podcast.
The theatre, based in New York, collaborated with the Broadway Podcast Network to continue its mission to amplify the unheard voice. Houses on the Moon specializes in devised and documentary theatre, pairing people without any theatre experience with artists to tell their stories. The company’s co-founder and creative director, Jeffrey Solomon (he/him), said that all of the true stories in this eight-episode season of the podcast have come out of the company’s storytelling and theatre workshops over the past 10 years.
“Emulating radio greats like Ira Glass, over the past year we have been huddled in makeshift home sound studios,” said Solomon. “I never thought I would go back in the closet, but there I was, wedged between my husband’s suits, sweating for art…I have been pleasantly surprised that despite our vast geographic distances and the awkwardness of home recording, in every recording session we have been transformed by the magic of story.”
Every other week on the podcast, listeners hear a different play on a panoply of pertinent issues, including race, gun violence, transgender rights, and immigration. After each episode, Solomon interviews the storytellers and community partners to take listeners behind the scenes. He added that his company has been working with radio producer, Will Coley, on the Riverside platform to make sure the sound quality and editing are top-notch, as well as mailing state-of-the-art microphones to artists.
“While we have been able to add delightful production elements for our sit-down productions, bare-bones presentations in classrooms or community venues have been just as impactful, and that is because people will always hunger and respond to vital stories that are finding expression for the first time,” said Solomon. “The untold story is the thing for us, and [we are] excited by the possibility of sharing these amazing stories with a wider audience.”
The latest episode of the Houses on the Moon Podcast, gUN Country, is here:
The NOLA Project PodPlays
The team at New Orleans’s NOLA Project was also interested in telling untold stories when they launched PodPlays in October. Artistic director A.J. Allegra (he/him) said that his team was drawn to podcasting because they didn’t have the budget to post previously recorded performances. Plus, after months of trying staged readings on Zoom, he found that the artists logged off more satisfied than the audience. This led him to commission the NOLA Project ensemble to pen four original plays to activate people’s imaginations and reach them where they are.
“The PodPlays were an invention mothered by necessity,” said Allegra. “We took what we were allowed to do and paired it with what we could feasibly dream up. I think we are all proud of the results.”
The plays take listeners around New Orleans in unexpected ways. Alien Status by James Bartelle is set in the city’s Bywater neighborhood, where government agents hunt for aliens that are hiding in plain sight. In Hemlock Exchange by Gab Reisman, listeners hear a series of imagined phone calls held across “party lines” in 1917 New Orleans as the flu was beginning to break out.
Though the plays are centered in the Crescent City, ears are perking up all over.
“We have had downloads from all over the country in addition to our New Orleans patrons,” said Allegra. “We are also able to reach anyone that cannot legally or safely go to a public event at this time [as well as people who] might have social anxieties or disabilities that prevent them from otherwise attending live theatre.”
The NOLA Project PodPlays are $10 for one, $35 for the whole four-part series.
Crossroads at Actor’s Express
When a blues guitarist makes a deal with the devil, four friends in a small Southern town find their worlds turned upside down. The audio mystery Crossroads is the first foray into podcasting for Actor’s Express theatre in Atlanta, but artistic director Freddie Ashley (he/him) said it won’t be the last.
He was inspired to give podcasting a try after brainstorming ideas to uplift BIPOC artists with National New Play Network producer-in-residence Amanda Washington. Ashley said it was important to him to keep the creative decision-making totally BIPOC-led.
“As artistic director, I knew that we needed to disrupt power dynamics so that creative control was left to Amanda, and I offered myself as support staff only to the extent that Amanda would be and feel supported in her work,” said Ashley. “All collaborators on the project knew that Amanda’s decisions were final, not mine.”
For Crossroads, Actor’s Express commissioned six Atlanta-based BIPOC writers to pen the original podcast drama. The writing process lasted from late October until February; Ashley called it a riff on an Exquisite Corpse exercise, with each writer taking charge of a single episode without knowing what preceded it until it was their turn in the sequence to write. This created an exciting challenge an opportunity for Washington.
“Perspective is a crucial component of storytelling, and it will change with each writer based on a myriad of things,” said Washington (she/her). “Having multiple writers allows for the project to develop plot and character on a new level. Which, in turn, makes the story more decadent than just one voice trying to cover the viewpoints of many.”
Listeners can hear the Crossroads story unfold over seven episodes—and there may be more stories to come.
“We are exploring podcasts in our future work even after we return to in-person programming,” said Ashley. “We’ll be exploring additional scripted work, as well as podcasts focused on audience engagement that will offer deeper dives into our onstage work.”
The latest episode of Crossroads, a conversation with playwright Kayla Parker, is here:
Kelundra Smith (she/her) is a contributing editor to American Theatre magazine. kelundra.com
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