Andrew G. Cooper
Theatre in the Age of Audio Fiction
Storytelling is a fundamental part of being human. It may, in fact, be one of the things that sets us apart as a species. Telling stories has existed as an oral tradition for thousands of years. We often think of stories now as written words, as theatrical dramas, or big-screen motion pictures. Humans are such visual beings. Vision is our dominant sense; an overwhelming majority of the information our bodies gather come from our eyes so it's natural to associate stories with pictures. But when it comes to storytelling in the 21st century, what can we achieve utilizing only the sense of hearing? What kind of stories are told only through music, sounds, and the power of the voice?
A lot of theatre companies turned to audio fiction after the pandemic hit and the art of gathering was restricted by our governments. In the past week, British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta have all enforced new restrictions on gathering because of the rising third wave of the coronavirus. So, unfortunately, it looks like live, in-person theatre isn't returning in the new future. Luckily, theatre companies have adjusted. Ghost River Theatre, who I work as the producer for, relaunched its hit show Tomorrow's Child (based on the Ray Bradbury story) as a binaural online audio experience with Vertigo Theatre in June 2020. Among major theatre companies in Canada right now there's Vertigo Mystery Radio by Vertigo Theatre in Calgary, AB; Listen to This Audio Play Series from Art Club Theatre Company in Vancouver, BC; and Tarragon Acoustic from Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, ON, just to mention a couple. Audio is a wonderful medium for production. It's safe to do without gathering and it's easier on the budget because it doesn't require costumes or set pieces or props, let alone a performance venue.
But it is audio. And today, that's almost always synonymous with digital. So can we call these audio projects theatre? What makes it theatrical? Is there a live audience in the recording? Does listening to a recorded theatre production make that a theatre experience? Are there be other live elements, such as actors, present during the listening? I've been asking a lot of these question recently. I'm fascinated by the medium of sound, especially as someone who typically has a lot of visual and non-verbal elements in their theatre work (I work a lot with masks, puppetry, movement, dance).
For me, theatre must essentially have some "liveness" - it requires a temporal connection to the audience. For (exp)lore with Jupiter Theatre (which I produced, wrote two episodes for and directed two episodes for) the live element of the audio plays became the location. (exp)lore is a site-specific podcast series, meaning that the area the audience is exploring is part of the story and became another character in each piece. To get the full experience from the episodes, it requires a time and a place to be present, just as it does with a play when you're required to be present in a theatre. This combination of being in the moment and using the audio medium in new ways is precisely why the infamous Orsen Well's radio play of The War of the Worlds was so successful, and made history on October 30,1938. Before you laugh at those funny old people who were concerned Martians were invading New Jersey, give it a listen for yourself. It's a damn good radio play adaptation and if you tuned in after the beginning of the broadcast and missed the announcement that it was radio theatre, it could be very convincing.
I think successful audio storytelling does a good job of painting a picture in the mind - of activating the listeners imagination. Audio fiction can be so wondrous and imaginative precisely because it allows each audience member to create imagine (create images) in their own head as they follow along with the words and the soundscapes. This is precisely why radio dramas were so popular in the 1930s and 40s across North America. This is why audio horror can be so chilling - your imagination can be much more frightening than seeing a made-for-movie monster. Radio plays ignited the imagination of families at home. Like good theatre (and especially good puppetry), the story works best when you create space for the audience to exercise their imagination. This is why I love audio theatre and audio fiction so much.
You can find more information about my own audio fiction work on my page. Audio fiction is a different beast from audio theatre and the podcast format has really launched it to a new height in the last few decades. The growing popularity has seen a burst of new fiction podcasts from creators all around the world. I, for one, and thrilled. I've got a long list of audio fiction that I want to take in in the coming months and years. I've also been listening to audio books for years and now I'm wondering...does this count as audio fiction? Does the medium dictate the content or does the intention of the work decide its genre? Whatever the answer is to all these questions, I'm just happy to have so many amazing stories to listen to.
Want a treat for your ears? Here are recommendations I have for audio theatre (or audio by theatre groups, if you prefer).
L. A. Theatre Works (I particularly enjoy their Relativity Series)
Here are recommendations I have for fiction podcast series if you're interested:
So do you listen to fiction? How do you do it? Do you close your eyes and relax? Do you listen in the car while commuting? While doing chores? While out on a run? Leave a comment below and let me know, I'd love to hear from you!