How Audio Plays Have Changed the Face of Pandemic Theater

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At the top of 2020, so much about the months to come couldn’t have been predicted. On the list is the fact that one of the year’s most stirring theatrical performances would not occur on a Broadway stage but rather, inside of the actor Audra McDonald’s closet. Mandy Greenfield, who’s most responsible for making that happen, certainly didn’t predict it either. 

Last March, the Williamstown Theatre Festival artistic director was well underway with preparation for the announced season, which included McDonald-starring “A Streetcar Named Desire.” But when theater cancellations began pouring in and the summer performances seemed less likely by the day, she and the WTF team took action. By April 7, they’d announced a reconfigued season of sorts—made entirely of audio plays. 

“In the earliest days of the pandemic, I found no escape from the horror until I put my AirPods in,” Greenfield says of the thinking behind an audio season. “There’s something so intimate about the way that you hear with these devices, and I felt like I could hear a play this way. And it wouldn’t be the same and we’re not trying to replicate it, but it would be authentic and it would be beautiful and it would have a kind of exceptional artistic merit to it.” 

In the nearly year-long absence of in-person performance, ingenuity has emerged in order to keep the theatrical form alive, including virtual and recorded productions of plays and musicals. But there is nothing “new” about audio theater. In fact, the first radio plays became popular in the 1920s, which means the form is nearly as old as both film and television. And audio productions have a rich contemporary basis as well, with giants such as Audible—which came onboard to co-produce Williamstown’s audio season—leading the charge.

Still, a pandemic that rendered in-the-flesh shows impossible suddenly gave the medium an invigorated and urgent relevance. 

“The whole company snapped to it immediately,” says Kate Navin, Audible’s head of scripted content and artistic producer for Audible Theater. “Audible has always prided itself on being a great resource for and employer of artists in the industry. Very quickly we all put our heads together and said, ‘What are we going to do in response to this, for those actors and writers and producers and sound designers and all of the above who we love so much?’ ”

READ: How Theater Actors Are Surviving During the Pandemic

The answer to that question came down to a bit of a “pivot” for Audible’s theater initiatives specifically. Having invested heavily the last few years in capturing existing stage productions, including a number of one-person shows at the Off-Broadway Minetta Lane Theatre, Navin and her peers’ mission has shifted to commissioning as much new work as possible, maximizing artist employment during this arid pandemic period. 

“The rest of the company worked very quickly to light up home studios and figure out how to make that process seamless,” Navin adds, “which they did incredibly quickly, figuring those logistics out.”

Whether on the performance, creative, or technical side, “logistics” is and has been the operative word for audio productions throughout this year. Some of that can be worked out in the developmental or pre-production phases, while other aspects can only be navigated through on-the-day “troubleshooting.” Among the latter, according to the director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, is more often than not the actor’s performance itself. (This is of course where those illustrious closets come into play.) 

“Since the actors generally work from home, at least during COVID, the sound engineer typically helps them set up a mini recording studio,” says von Stuelpnagel, who is one of many theater artists collaborating with Playing on Air, another leader in audio drama throughout the pandemic. “It always starts in their most comfortable room, but because background noise is problematic, they are invariably moved to one of the deepest reaches away from windows and common areas—usually their closet. So I’ll be on Zoom watching these gracious actors reach dramatic heights from the clutter of their cramped wardrobes.”

What these performances lack in spatial freedom, however, they make up for in performative freedom, which is what von Stuelpnagel considers the greatest benefit of the audio artform: “They still have the ability to experiment, and even fail, since in the end we’ll splice together their best takes.” 

Casting the right actor for the gig is always among if not the most crucial component for any performance-based piece of art. But it’s arguably even more so for an audio production, in which there are no visual cues to land a moment. Someone who understands the prospect intimately—and dually—is Shakina Nayfack, the actor and writer whose play, “Chonburi International Hotel & Butterfly Club,” was among those in the original Williamstown lineup and was subsequently rejiggered for the ear. 

As playwright and star of the world premiere production, Nayfack had to reconceive her piece from both a writing and performance perspective. “The biggest thing for me was that it’s a large ensemble, there are 11 characters, so it was like figuring out how to make everyone’s journey really clear, so you know who you’re listening to at all times,” she explains. “And of course, that’s also the actors’ jobs and the director’s job.”

Further, because Nayfack’s play has a dramaturgically physical element—its characters are all trans women recovering from gender confirmation surgeries—there was an added pressure on the actors to relay bodily struggle using only their voices. 

“They’re working against physical pain, and so I was really excited about the idea of this fast-paced, quippy dialogue with these bodies that were all sort of hunched over and moving slowly,” she adds. “And you don’t get that in the [audio] play. So the physical pain of the life of so many of the characters has to come through in our acting, in our voice acting. Because we don’t get to show people what our bodies are going through.”

That objective to tell without showing—which goes against the “show don’t tell” advice most artists have spent their careers internalizing—is at the core of the audio theater mission. It is in most instances the biggest challenge but, when achieved, the medium’s most exhilarating reward. 

In audio theater, the listener’s imagination becomes the stage,” von Stuelpnagel says. “They’re the ultimate collaborator in the experience and there’s a lot of fun things we can do to tease out what they’re seeing in their mind’s eye. A certain kind of reverb effect added to the actors’ voices can make it sound like they’re in a cathedral. A soundscape can place us in a battlefield… Because the story exists in their imagination, we aren’t limited by scenic or special effects budgets and can transition from one location to another.” 

Helping to color the audience’s imagination without visual aid requires many conversations and readings early on, which, according to Navin, allow the creative team to “turn their eyes off” and figure out where the narrative gaps may be for the listener. But more importantly than that, she adds, is understanding that listeners are smart, and will intuit what’s necessary if  given the space to do so. “People can figure out more than I think we sometimes give them credit for,” she says. “You have to learn to trust your audience.” 

In a similar regard, Greenfield believes this last year working in the audio space has made her a better all-around theater-maker in that it’s pushed her to engage differently with the audience. And while she, like so many of us, can’t wait until theater can again exist three-dimensionally, she’ll take forth this experience. 

“Many of the lessons learned from refining and honing for this format will be imported back to our stage development, and I think really further our process there,” she says. “In my role as artistic director, when I’m working on a new play, I’m in some ways an editor, right? I’m looking at the work, putting myself in the position of a first-time audience member, asking questions of the piece that ensure the audience has a good experience.

“We always talk about wanting to reach an audience and not only are we reaching it,” she adds, “now they’re reaching back.” 

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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