Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Theater – 6

writer

In an earlier post I talked about the need for a Trusted Source for audio theater. In that post I talked mainly about a place to buy good, high-quality audio theater. Under that umbrella also fall the writers, actors and producers, and the easiest way to find a trusted source is to look for the Big Names.

There’s not much of that these days outside of the UK. (The situation in the UK deserves its own post.) Has there been much of that since the Golden Days of Radio?

Well, yes.

The last years of the 20th Century were comparatively lush with Big Name audio theater episodes.

In 1996 Leonard Nimoy and John deLancie founded Alien Voices and convinced Simon and Schuster Audio to carry their output. Between 1996 and 2000 Alien Voices produced seven plays, five of which were based on H.G. Wells books and two that were Q vs. Spock episodes. The supporting cast was stuffed with Star Trek alumni.

From my reading this was basically a playground for deLancie. He wanted to do the Wells books as no one else had done them, at least on film. He wanted to stick to the original stories. He wanted the Alien Voices brand to be a name that people could depend on for high-quality audio theater.

In 2000 deLancie shut down operations due to a philosophical dispute with Simon and Schuster. S&S wanted to churn out more stories and make more money. Each title sold approximately 25,000 copies. S&S said that they needed to sell three to four times more than that to be profitable.

Remember that this was before the podcast boom and before Amazon was the force that it is today. I don’t believe that these were ever available as downloads (all mine were on CD; they were also, I believe, available on cassette tape) so in addition to talent/production costs there were printing costs for the covers and liner notes, costs for jewel cases, costs for CDs and cassette tapes and physical distribution costs as most (if not all) sales were from brick and mortar bookstores.

deLancie felt that S&S were making him into an audiobook salesman, and that wasn’t what he wanted to be.

In the same time period, 1997 to 2001, Seeing Ear Theatre, a subsidiary of The Sci-Fi Channel, was active. They produced 57 episodes of top-quality audio theater by writers like Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman and many, many others, starring Claudia Black, Annabella Sciorra, Paul Giamatti, Brian Denehy, Mark Hamil, etc.

J. Michael Straczynski, during the time he was working on Babylon 5 wrote eight episodes of a series-within-the-series called The City of Dreams. There were also 7 episodes of Tales from the Crypt. They were all available for free download from the Seeing Ear Theatre page of the Sci-Fi Channel website until 2007 when the page disappeared. Luckily most of the episodes are still available on the web.

These were unarguably Big Name productions with Big Name stars and Big Name writers. So why didn’t they become Big Successes and make audio theater a part of everyone’s listening day?

IMHO, it was all a matter of timing. They hit the market about ten years too soon.

Today the technology for success is in place. You can download a series of podcast episodes for time-shifted listening with no more thought than turning on your smart phone in the morning.

We could combine that with a modified House-of-Cards marketing model: each weekly podcast episode could be downloaded for free; in addition, at the time of the release of the first weekly episode the whole season could be purchased as a digital download with extras like blooper out-takes, making-of features, producion journals, and other merchandising opportunities. Stars, both actors and writers, attract attention, the writing, acting and production values seal the deal.

After trying an episode or two, people start buying the full season. Binging on audio is just as easy (perhaps easier) as binging on video.

Ah, dreams! But that’s what show business is about, isn’t it. In fact, that’s what life is about. All it takes to make those dreams come true is blood, sweat, tears and a lotta luck!

I have an iron or two in the fire. It’s a big fire, as big as your imagination. Add your own irons.

Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Dra – We Mean Theater – 5

Suspense

What does it cost to produce a 40-minute episode of audio theater?

That’s right, Virginia. Audio theater episodes don’t just grow on trees the way money does. Wait. That didn’t come out right, somehow.

Anyhoo, episodes of audio drama are the end product of the hard work of a lot of people. And, being people, they like to be paid for what they do. I know, I know. Actors will often act for the sheer fun of it, money or no, but at the very least you need to buy them lunch. If you’ve got a couple of sound techs, three or four actors, a musician or two and miscellaneous other folk, even pizza can get pricey. Truth be told, someone who is being paid will almost always perform better than if she were doing it solely “for the love.”

Fred Greenhalgh, writer/producer/director of his post-apocalyptic (zombie-free) audio theater series, The Cleansed (http://thecleansed.com) (IMHO, one of the best produced audio series available), put together a budget of what it costs to produce an episode of his series. Or, at least, what it would cost if he had the money to pay everyone, his “ideal” budget. Fred told me in an email, “I was never paid and our actor scale was cut to contend with the fact that the real-world budget was much lower than we had hoped. But we DID in fact pay every actor, crew member, and other creative person in our production and paid for appropriate legal contracts, etc. so we have clear rights on our production. This is something we feel is very important.”

Please note, paying for the people and the equipment is not the only outlay of money. If you are a responsible producer, you also have to protect the rights of everyone involved in the production as well as your own. This requires (Eeek!) lawyers. The rest goes without saying.

Paying people for their efforts is, at the least, a sign of respect. Value for value. Someone who is being paid, even a little, is more likely to show up on time, be better prepared and be more interested in the quality of the end product. All this results in better audio theater.

Fred’s budget breaks down like this:

Item                                                                         $/episode                             $/season (10 eps)

Director                                                                          500                                           5,000
Producer                                                                        700                                           7,000
Writer                                                                              200                                           2,000
Production Assistant                                                150                                            1,500
Actors                                                                             600                                            6,000
Music                                                                               150                                            1,500
Mix/Master Engineer                                               150                                            1,500
Sound Recordist                                                         150                                            1,500
Meals                                                                               100                                            1,000
Office Supplies                                                               50                                                500
Production Art                                                             50                                                 500
Equipment Rental                                                     100                                             1,000
Location Rental                                                         100                                              1,000

Total                                                                          3,000                                           30,000

And then there are the season’s ancillary costs:

Administration                                                                                                               2,000
Marketing                                                                                                                          1,000
Creation/Distribution of CDs                                                                                    1,000
Merchandising — Postcards, t-shirts, etc.                                                           1,000

Total Cost for a 10-Episode Season                                                                  $35,000

Compared to a TV series, the cost is miniscule. But if you are toiling in obscurity, outside the mainstream, trying your best to produce professional quality entertainment, that’s a daunting amount of money to come up with every year. And the income stream is, shall we say, variable.

That’s what we need to change, and sitting around preaching to the choir is not going to do it.

Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Drama – 4

Chapter 4
by Bob Tinsley

ShadowLa Cosa Nostra

“This Thing of Ours”, what do we call it?

What we call it affects the public’s perception of it, and perception affects acceptance and popularity.

This HUGE question was mentioned in Fred Greenhalgh and FinalRune Productions’s hangout, The Future of Audio Drama Panel. Everyone interested in audio drama should watch it. In spite of the technical challenges it was very informative and a lot of fun. It should, I hope, be the first in a series. An hour just isn’t enough to cover all the things that an ambitious title like that demands. Thanks, Fred.

But I digress.

Audio Drama. The first thing everyone focuses on when hearing those two words is radio drama. The impression those last two words leaves is: poor production values, awkward writing, bad acting. All that in spite of Suspense, Inner Sanctum, Gunsmoke, Mercury Theatre, etc.

That impression, that PERCEPTION, is helping to keep “This Thing of Ours” in the entertainment ghetto in my humble opinion.

Tell someone you are going to play an audio drama for them. Immediately you see their eyes lose focus; their lips lift in a sneer; they start making excuses (whining!).

But if you can press-gang them into actually listening to an episode of We’re Alive! or The Cleansed or The Leviathan Chronicles or any of the myriad of other quality shows out there, their face lights up, and they say, “Oh. I didn’t know it was like that.”

But if they were out there in the wilds of the interwebs alone and given a choice between “audio drama” or “audiobook” where do you think they would go?

Yeah, me, too.

So, what do we call it?

“Theatre of the Mind” is a good phrase, but does it still carry the same connotation in the mind of Joe Onthestreet that it did in the Golden Age of Radio when it was coined? Not to me. It seems kinda clunky. Too many words.

Theater, though, does have a certain cachet.

One suggestion that came up during the hangout Panel from Claire Eden, producer of Minister of Chance, was “sonic movie”. At first blush, not bad.

What is a movie? Images that move accompanied by meaningful sound, both of which occur outside the spectator (remember that word).

A good audio drama will generate images behind the listener’s eyes while the sound continues outside. The spectator becomes a participant.

“Movie” can work. I think.

But, “sonic movie”? Sounds kinda like a weapon, he said, pulling a sonic blaster out of his pocket.

“Mind movie”? I like that better, even if I did think it up myself (actually it occurred in the Wall Street Journal back in 2010).

But . . .

There’s that “movie” word again with the implication that everything is occurring external to the audience, an audience made up of spectators.

Then there’s “audio theater”. Many actors have said that they love theater because they can hear and/or see the audience reaction, implying that the audience affects their acting. From that I can infer that the theater audience is, in some way, a participant in the performance.

So, maybe, “audio theater” isn’t such a bad choice, audience as participant.

Is that the best name? I don’t know. I do know we need a good, spiffy, sexy name that runs trippingly off the tongue. It could be one of the biggest things we need to pull audio dra. . . erm . . . theater out of the ghetto.

Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Drama – 3

Chapter 3
by Bob Tinsley

WAchapter37-copy-297x300

Is audio drama too hard to listen to?

Define hard. Does that mean that listening to audio drama requires too much attention, too much engagement of the imagination?

I don’t think so. As Fred Greenhalgh from Radio Drama Revival  said in his response to an earlier post, “People DO like audio drama when they get the chance to hear it . . .” I think it requires more attention than music (for most people, musicians and music majors excepted), but certainly no more than is required for audiobooks.

Audiobooks still engage the attention, the imagination. If I’m listening to MacLeod Andrews read Richard Kadrey’s SANDMAN SLIM I can’t say that I don’t see the action in my head. But it doesn’t have the richness, the texture, the immediacy of an audio play. The play doesn’t require more of my attention, just different parts of it. If anything I believe an audiobook requires a greater degree of attention commitment than an audio play does. That may be different for other people, but I don’t think so. I have a pretty simple mind. Just ask my wife.

Is audio drama harder to find than audiobooks and music? Not these days. Anyone with a computer or a smart phone and an internet connection can download a podcatcher (iTunes, Podkicker, DoggCatcher, etc.). Open it and search for audio drama or radio drama or dramatization and you’ll be presented with a list of sites. Pick a couple you like and look at their keywords to use in further searches. You can download all the previous plays they have plus get the new ones downloaded automatically. For free! Audio drama at your fingertips.

And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room, Audible. I searched for “dramatization” this morning and came up with 852 hits. Admittedly some of them are duplicates, but still, 852 hits? A lot of the better known podcasters have their work for sale on Audible: Atlanta Radio Theater Company , Icebox Radio Theater , We’re Alive, and others. You could download all their plays for free if you had the bandwidth and the time, or you could buy them in one easily downloadable package. I bought a collection of horror plays put out by Fangoria that runs 4 hours and 12 minutes for $9.07 (tax included, I guess).

Is the technology available to most people? About half the adults in the United States now carry with them almost constantly the most sophisticated audio player seen to date: a smart phone. As the computer and Netflix have changed the way we consume movies and TV shows, so the smart phone and music player apps have changed the way we consume music. Anything that can play music can play audiobooks. And anything that can play audiobooks can play audio drama.

The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that Joe Onthestreet CAN find audio plays and CAN listen to them where ever he happens to be at whatever time he feels the urge.

The question now becomes: What’s keeping him from doing it?

In two words, perception and ignorance: the perception that audio drama is inferior entertainment and ignorance about where to find it. Changing those views requires some semantic gymnastics and some high-profile exposure.

Stay tuned, boys and girls, there’s more to come!

Bob Tinsley: Adventures in Audio Drama – 2

Chapter 2
by Bob Tinsley

Seeing_Ear_Theater

“Audio drama is just radio drama, old, poorly recorded and badly acted.”

This is just a matter of perception. Modern audio drama can be as slick and professional as a television show.

Check out “Seeing Ear Theater”. From 1997 to 2001 they put out some amazing audio dramas written by people like Neil Gaiman, J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5), Harlan Ellison and others. The actors were big names as well. You can find all their shows here (http://tinyurl.com/lfkepzn) for free download. Check out “Black Canoes”, or, if you are a Gaiman fan, the two-part “Snow Glass Apples”. That one is guaranteed to make you look at Snow White from a different perspective.

Another wonderful place is ZBS.org. One of their new series is the “Dixon and Sparks Mysteries”. The first episode is free here (http://tinyurl.com/kdaqlew). One of their other series, “Ruby: Galactic Gumshoe”, has been running since the late 1960s. Many of their shows have been recorded in 3D binaural sound. Listening with headphones really immerses you in the story. People walk behind you!

Then there is the Wireless Theatre Company in Britain (www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk), Radio Drama Revival (www.radiodramarevival.com), Darker Projects (www.darkerproject.com) and many others. You can actually find shows produced from my own original scripts, for instance, “Heroes” (http://tinyurl.com/l3nxd66). I published the script for that show on Amazon and Nook. Just search for Robert W. Tinsley, if you’re interested.

All these stories, these audio dramas, transport the listener to a different place. The world created in the listener’s mind is boundless, unconscribed by the limits of budget, space or technology. It is a world of limitless possibility.

Don’t books or TV or movies do that just as well or better? No, in those formats you are constrained within the author’s/director’s world. He describes the characters leaving you with his vision of them. He describes a beach or a forest the way he sees them.

Norman Corwin, a famous radio writer/producer said: “Features and dimensions of a place, of a room, of a landscape, are not, in a good radio script, described in so many words. They are perceived by characters and brought out by speech, sound, by allusion. Obliquely.”

In audio you “see” the character based on his voice, his manner of speaking. He becomes “your” character. You hear the sound of waves, the cry of sea birds; you are on “your” beach. The whole experience is more intimate.

Why is this; why this intimacy? Sound; sound is more imagination-centric than sight. Sound stimulates the imagination. How often has a song taken you back to a particular time in your life? Elicited an emotion? That’s called “anamnesis”, an often involuntary recall of memory caused by the evocative power of sound.

Audio drama is a complex experience requiring more listener participation than video.

As far as wide acceptance of audio drama goes, the question then becomes, “Does audio drama require too much participation for the Average Joe to deal with?”

I’ll look into that next.