'PlayME' podcast brings Canadian theatre to your earbuds

Podcasters and theatre directors Chris Tolley and Laura Mullin say podcasts are reviving the art of radio drama and giving Canadian theatre a global boost.
Maev Beaty does a recording for PlayME of the play 'Bunny' by Hannah Moscovitch. (Jeremy Sales)
Listen8:41

The phone line rings and a 911 responder picks up the call. He requests an address while assuring an unheard caller that help is on the way. A dog barks in the background as a young woman begins to speak.

This is howVitals, a play chronicling the experiences of a busy Toronto paramedic, begins. But the call and subsequent hour-long monologue don't take place on a stage. They're happening in your earbuds.

It's part of PlayME, a series of Canadian plays mounted as a podcast.

"We got frustrated with writing our own work and seeing other work that just didn't have a life," Laura Mullin, co-artistic director of Expect Theatre in Toronto, tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

The podcast was developed by Mullin and Chris Tolley, writers and directors themselves, to offer homegrown theatre a greater shelf life.

Plays in Canada are ephemeral and they don't see huge audiences, says Mullin. Still, playwrights spend months — if not years — workshopping their stories.

"We thought ... why not put them into a podcast form so that the world can hear them?" says Mullin.

Chris Tolley, left, and Laura Mullin, right, are co-artistic directors of PlayME podcasts, which are audio-only versions of Canadian stage productions. (David Leyes)

   

International response

Though international audiences weren't the duo's initial goal — the project is billed as "Canada's national digital theatre" — the series' first season has found success around the world.

I think this shows that there's a tremendous hunger for Canadian stories and Canadian artists outside of our border.- Chris Tolley, co-creator of PlayME podcast

"Nine out of ten of the people who listen are from outside Canada," says Tolley. The numbers were a surprise for him, not because of the content, but instead because of his nature.

"I think we, as artists, tend to be maybe a little modest. Sometimes we downplay the talent that's here in our country, but I think this shows that there's a tremendous hunger for Canadian stories and Canadian artists outside of our border."

Among the most popular episodes is a story exploring the topic of domestic slavery. That play,Better Angels, is about a woman who moves from Ghana to Canada to work as a nanny for a Toronto couple. It was hugely popular in the Philippines.

"Even though that particular nanny wasn't from the Philippines," says Mullin, "we assume that there were a lot of people who are thinking of coming to Canada to work and were interested in that particular story."

This archive photo, dated November 2, 1961, shows actors performing for CBC's 25th anniversary show in the radio drama studio. (CBC/Alvin Armstrong)
   

Old-school radio

While the universality of PlayME's episodes is a big draw, another is the podcast's approach to sound design.

Most episodes are recorded like a rehearsal. There is no audience to react and no stage upon which actors can move about. Actors, for the most part, stand behind a stationary microphone.

As former producers at the CBC's own radio drama studio, which closed in 2012, Mullin and Tolley illustrate the plays with soundscapes and music.

Actors perform in the PlayME's first production, 'Agamemnon' by Nicolas Billon. (Aviva Armour-Ostroff)

The sound effects are subtle, yet crucial. They fill the gap that is left when on-stage props or an actor's motions are missing.

"It's very easy to fall into cliché and I think that that's something that you're always having to fight against," says Tolley.

The team uses a blend of digital sound effects and their own creations. Rice on tinfoil becomes rain. Shaking a piece of sheet metal becomes thunder. They're not new tricks, but they're making their way to a more modern platform.

"When you listen with your earbuds, and that's I think something else that's kind of new … it's going right into your brain," says Mullin.

"It's as intimate of a relationship between an actor and a listener that you could possibly get. And you just get incredible connections to the stories through that."

Chris Tolley, co-creator of PlayMe podcast, often makes his own sound effects for the show. He tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury about an awkward moment he encountered during recording. 0:27

   

Pushing boundaries

Mullin and Tolley don't play safe when it comes to the stories they tell. They've covered inappropriate relationships with minors, free expression and in the first episode of season two, police brutality.

Radio drama, according to Tolley, is a powerful medium, but it can feel outdated in the 21st century.

"I think the more edgy the work is, [the more] you start to bring the old art form and a contemporary audience together."

"Theatre tends to be, traditionally, an older age bracket," Mullin interjects. "[The podcast's] demographic is between 18 and 34 largely."

Actor Maev Beaty photographed while recording a scene for PlayME. (Jeremy Sale)

PlayME doesn't want to replace theatre or push people away from taking in live productions. When their second season is released next week, featuring Bang Bang by Kat Sandler and produced at The Factory Theatre in Toronto, the show will be part way through its run.

They hope is that introducing the play to potential audiences will encourage ticket sales.

"People live in an on demand world and they want to know, you know? They want to know what they're getting into," says Mullin.

Until then, the producers hope PlayME will be a place for new and unheard Canadian theatre to grow and thrive.

"We're spreading the artistry and we're spreading the culture of Canada around the world."


To hear our full interview with Laura Mullin and Chris Tolley, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.