Sounds Like Theatre to Me

by Kitty Felde

I spent my entire summer doing theatre. None of it was in a black box. It was a summer of theatre for the ears, running around with a microphone, taping the sound of footsteps and cell phones and veterinarian offices. We spent a 102 degree day at the zoo, snuck into the only public library open on a Sunday to record a scene, and lingered for many hours in a spooky clubhouse that echoed like the U.S. Capitol Crypt. It was a summer of making a theatrical podcast come to life.

But it all started with the script.

Back in May, I wrote a blog post about the art of adapting a book for children into an episodic podcast for girls … and political junkies. The book was “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.” After the first blush of publication, I kept asking myself what else I could do to spend more time with these characters. I have a few skills. After years in public radio, I can write for the ear. I also know my way around a flash recorder and editing software. So I decided to try transforming the book into a radio drama. It became The Fina Mendoza Mysteries.

The experience was an absolute joy – the most fun I’ve had doing theatre since the old 99 seat “let’s put on a show” days. I reached out to actors from college, looked up a guy I knew from improv class, and dragged radio colleagues out of retirement. I saw a terrific college production of “In the Heights” and found my lead actress. I even convinced a few kids from the neighborhood to play a few roles.

Perhaps you’ve considered adapting one of your plays to radio drama format. I thought it might be helpful to hear from other podcast story producers about their best tips on writing for the ear.

Paul Cheall produces the World War II British podcast Fighting Through. Even though it’s more memoir than fiction, Paul still has to adapt prose to audio. He says he starts with language: avoiding passive expressions in favor of active ones, “so the listener doesn’t get distracted by unnecessary verbiage.”

Graz Richards from the Audio Drama Hub on Facebook says sound effects are the key. He remembers an “old” Superman audio drama that had “far too much exposition.” Something like, “Hmm, I think I’ll just…have a shave and…hmm, it’s not easy, the bristles are…oh, I’ve broken the shaver!” Graz says we all knew Superman, so all you really needed was the sound of running water in a sink, the buzz of a shaver, the sound of snagging, and …”Oh, okay, not that then.” Graz says, “We get the same visual scene without everything being signposted.”

But Angela Ferrari, creator of the Story Spectacular podcast, says her younger audience needs more context. Contrary to what you’d think, Angela says she needs to include more exposition rather than less. Dialogue must also be extra descriptive. Angela says she also uses sound effects and songs to help “illustrate” her stories.

If you’re writing a script, but not producing it yourself, sound designer Gilly Moon says more the more detail the better. “I love when writers or visual artists provide a ton of details, and not necessarily sound ones,” she says. “If I know what kind of shoes someone is wearing and what floor they are walking on, I can make a sound for that particular character’s footsteps.”

On the other hand, not every detail is helpful. Russell Gold, who produces web comics, says writers will often include comments about what characters are doing or seeing. “It might help performances a bit,” he says, “but mostly it leads the writer to forget that the audience won’t see those notes.”

My own advice: listen to as many shows or recordings as possible. LA Theatre Works has over 500 recordings of more traditional plays. And there are hundreds of dramatic podcasts out there as well – everything from Young Ben Franklin to Welcome to Night Vale.

And if you’re a girl or a political junkie or both, please subscribe to The Fina Mendoza Mysteries on your favorite podcast player.

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