Outlier Podcast Festival LA: Fiction Storytelling

Written by Lee Schneider

The room was crowded with podcasters who wanted to know how to get more out of fiction podcasting. Some were newbies, others were pros. They all had curiosity in common.

The panelists were Michelle Agresti, a voice actor in the audio drama Wolf 359 and Claudia Dolph, co-creator, writer, director and actor in the upcoming Soldadera, a LatinX superhero drama. I was the moderator.

When I asked Michelle how she landed her gig acting in Wolf 359 she said she knew the producers from college. Claudia, when casting Soldadera, cast actors she had worked with before. For my podcast Privacy Pod I went a different route, using a casting agent to help me because I had about a thousand demo reels to go through.

I asked Claudia and Michelle questions about directing — what it's like to be directed and to direct actors. Michelle referenced her experience working on Wolf359, mentioning that she was grateful to be able to move around when playing a scene. "If we're running in the scene, it's a lot easier to be standing up and actually running." Actors want to move. This is yet another factor that makes a podcast different from a radio play. The classic radio drama, say Orson Welles's War of the Worlds, comes from a theater tradition. He and John Houseman came from the theater. Listen to War of the Worlds, and hear actors who are "stage left" and "stage right" reading lines. There are effects but you feel like you're on a proscenium.

Podcasting isn't like that.

A cinematic sensibility

Audio drama podcasts come from of a cinematic sensibility. They are like movies made for a big screen with surround sound. They don't take place "inside" on a stage — but they do take place in an interior space — the mind. They are like listening to movies, sort of, but with a deeper, even more immersive experience.

As I asked Claudia about her experiences directing Soldadera our audience learned that the best directing decisions are made before the scene begins — with casting. When you get good actors, you can let them do their thing. "You can trust them," she said.

Podcast actors are working in a new world — not quite voice over and not like movies. Michelle and Claudia agreed that there is more freedom to build the character and play the scene — no restrictions or worries on the way they might look. They can go deeper into characters. More fully inhabit the role. Get inside the voice.

Finally, Claudia talked about the creative contributions of her genius sound designer, Eban Schletter. She told the story of sitting with him in the studio for hours building sonic environments for scenes. It was rewarding creatively and the work really paid off for audiences.

I had a similar experience with my sound designer on Privacy Pod. I built the story in the script writing, but Jeremy J. Lee built a world for our listeners. We had a lot of fun doing it.

Writing in 3D

Writing audio dramas takes you into different territories than stage plays. When you write a play, your audience almost always knows exactly where your characters are. (Except when you make the stage completely dark for dramatic effect.) Your podcast listener needs you, as the writer, to signal where your people are. You use sounds — doors opening, the squeak of a hinge, a bubbling fish tanks (yes, a reference to the therapist's office in Homecoming.) Claudia talked about "borrowing from John Williams" and using musical themes to introduce characters. (I'm going to borrow that for my next script.)

Those in the audience who were practiced at producing audio dramas knew that if you put more than three characters in a scene, it can be hard to know who is speaking. If you have two women in a scene, be sure their voices are different. If you have a couple of guys in a scene, they should not sound the same. I could see their heads nodding in agreement.

It was gratifying to do a panel that appealed to all skill levels and approaches in audio drama podcasting.

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