Spurred by the pandemic, theatre pivots to audio

Blame screen fatigue? The old-fashioned art form is finding new relevance.

Blame screen fatigue? The old-fashioned art form is finding new relevance

Now hear this! Audio drama is having a moment. (Getty Images)

People's listening habits have changed, says Chris Tolley, one half of the artistic team behind PlayME, the CBC podcast he co-created and co-hosts with Laura Mullin. Since 2016, they've been adapting Canadian plays into audio dramas, bringing shows including Butcher and Crawlspace to listeners. "It used to be all about the drive in and drive home," says Tolley, talking about the Before Times, and the way folks used to tune in. "Now, they're not commuting," he chuckles. But they are still listening. And when he imagines PlayME's current fans, he likes to picture them chilling out at home. "It's almost hearkening back to the olden days when a family would sit around the radio and listen to a radio drama," he says. 

Radio drama, audio fiction, audio drama: what you call it doesn't really matter, says Tolley, but the form, as old-fashioned as it might seem, is feeling newly relevant. With performance venues off-limits, theatre companies have been experimenting with different solutions for months. Among the more popular options? A pivot to audio.

In June, for example, a few months into the world's collective Zoom fatigue, Toronto's Tarragon Theatre announced an all-audio season: 18 "plays for the ear" they've dubbed Tarragon Acoustic. 

They're not alone, of course. South of the border, Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre opened their own all-audio program in late October, and more notably, the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts launched an audio season in the summer, partnering with Audible Theatre to bring their star-studded productions (featuring Audra McDonald, Blair Underwood, Carla Gugino) to Amazon's streaming platform. 

A recording session for What a Young Wife Ought to Know for the CBC Podcast PlayME. Chris Tolley (left) with playwright Hannah Moscovitch (middle) and Laura Mullin (right). (CBC/Evan Mitsui)

Launched in September, Tarragon's pandemic-proof season will run through May next year, with a focus on scripts from the company's 50-year archive. Mullin and Tolley were brought in to produce all the shows. The performances are captured remotely, and then the PlayME folks take those recordings, incorporate sound design, and over a few weeks of post-production, crank out a polished piece of theatre. 

"If we're not going to do live theatre, [audio] is a pretty good option," says Richard Rose, artistic director at Tarragon Theatre. There are the practical benefits to consider: It's cheaper than a splashy film recording (as if anyone could compete with The National Theatre's library, anyway). It's possible to produce from home. And unlike that other pandemic innovation, the Zoom play, there's no risk of glitchy video. 

But according to Rose, Tarragon chose an all-audio season for more artistic reasons. "To my mind, theatre is an audio experience," says Rose. "Your eye follows where the sound goes on stage."

"I like a good radio play, and there used to be more radio plays. I've always enjoyed that experience," he says. "And we brought in people who have done this work, PlayME, to help us make that move."

'Everybody is so Zoomed out'

The pandemic's been busy for Mullin and Tolley. Beyond Tarragon Acoustic, they've produced two special series of PlayME for CBC. The first was a sort of theatrical rescue mission; The Show Must Go On adapted plays that were cancelled due to COVID. And this summer, they debuted The Quarantine Chronicles, seven topical new scripts from some of Canada's best-known playwrights. 

"I think our audience has definitely expanded. We certainly had a lot more opportunities," says Mullin. "People have become very creative and inventive in finding ways to disseminate plays online with visuals, but I think for us, the thing that works well about audio is that you don't have to stare at a screen. I think everybody is so Zoomed out."

Brendan Healy, the artistic director at Canadian Stage, can sympathize. "I became exhausted by screens," he says, thinking back to the springtime. "But I still love dramatic texts. So to be able to listen to something and close my eyes and have my imagination fill in the blanks is such a welcome gift that audio work provides." 

As part of Canadian Stage's socially distant summer season, the Toronto-based company experimented with audio formats, hosting a three-part podcast by André Alexis (Metamorphosis, produced by Volcano Theatre and co-presented with SummerWorks and TO Live) and a piece of "participatory storytelling" from Susanna Fournier: What Happens to You, Happens to Me

The evolution of audio drama?

"There's a long tradition of radio plays. It's a format that's quite familiar to dramatists," he says. "But I think now, sound work is starting to go into really interesting places." When Healey talks about the evolution of audio drama, he points to examples like the latter show. An interactive performance, listeners were asked to answer a series of pandemic-y prompts — questions about isolation, for example. (The answers, he explains, might feature in a follow-up project from the playwright.) 

There's a similar schematic at work in A Thousand Ways, on now to Nov. 29 at Canadian Stage. Created by New York duo 600 Highwaymen, the show is ultimately a three-part experience, one designed to elapse over several months. But for this first chapter, the show is delivered by phone. 

Two strangers (read: Canadian Stage ticket holders) connect via conference call with a friendly femme chat-bot. For most of the show's hour, the automated narrator calmly peppers the humans with questions. (What year were you born? Do you know how to train a dog?) With callers A and B taking turns, the structure prevents any organic conversation. Instead, it's a sort of shared interrogation guided by that quintessential COVID theme: how do we come together when we're physically apart? The same production has already been presented this year by companies in the U.S., Germany, Ireland, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. (Several of those iterations are playing at the same time as the Toronto show.) 

Says Healy: "We're moving away from a uni-directional kind of experience, where you're just kind of listening to sound, to something much more interactive where the sound is an invitation to respond and interact."

Interactive audio fiction doesn't necessarily require so much, er, activity. Exp(lore) is a free podcast from Calgary's Jupiter Theatre, and as such, you can technically relax and enjoy these stories anywhere. But the shows have been designed with specific settings in mind. When a new episode is released, so is its designated location. Audiences are encouraged to get their butts to the site before pressing play.

Andrew G. Cooper is the creator/producer on the project, which is effectively subbing for the company's 2020 season. "The big thing that we were trying to figure out was what we could do that was still live in a sense," says Cooper. "If we couldn't have live performers, what we would do is have a location, or the site, be the live aspect." 

"So people download the podcast, they go to the location, they put on their headphones and then the story comes to life at this location. The location is really a character in this podcast series." 

Healy says Canadian Stage is chasing that same elusive thing: the feeling of live theatre. So he's interested in any format that can replicate it. It just happens that an audio-only project like A Thousand Ways strives to tick that box. Says Healy: "It's an experience that can only happen in that moment and then it's gone." And the audience has responded. "People have been snatching up tickets," he says, and as of writing, the Canadian Stage run is sold out.

Lend me your ears!

But is that audience the same crowd that was buying tickets in the Before Times? At PlayME, Mullin thinks audio drama reaches a different bunch. "Podcast listeners tend to be young, tech-savvy people. Theatre goers are not always in that same category," she says. "And so I think it's really broadened the people that are listening."

Looking over exp(lore)'s analytics, Cooper's been delighted to learn the series has been discovered by international listeners, though the majority, he says, are local. At Tarragon Acoustic, they've partnered with three other Canadian companies to build demand for their audio dramas. The Neptune Theatre in Halifax, Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa and the Centaur Theatre in Montreal are presenting plays from the series. "They're like direct marketers to their audience," says Rose.

"I realized sort of midway through the fall, we're not just building something for the Tarragon. We're actually asking the audience to join in a new art form," he says. Or, rather, an art form that is potentially new to them. "We just need to maybe educate them more on the art of listening, and that it could be a vital dramatic experience."

At Centaur Theatre, which is presenting a small curated selection of the Tarragon Acoustic shows, artistic and executive director Eda Holmes is looking at the partnership as a learning opportunity. Experimentation is key to survival right now, and Holmes expects audio drama will be sticking around for the foreseeable future. "If we're clever, we will continue it," she says. "I don't think we're going to be back to full operations theatrically until, well — it's going to take awhile. And so we're trying to learn from each thing we do."

Cooper also sees a future for audio drama at Jupiter. Even when they return to in-person performance, he'd like to continue producing exp(lore). "I wasn't sure at the beginning. And now I would keep pursuing this regardless," he says. "We're engaging with a very different audience base, and I think that's great for any company."

"I think for us, we've always felt that Canada is such a big country," says Mullin. It's hard to know what's happening in every centre, she explains. "And I think now, in some strange way, we feel a lot more connected to each other."

"I think that people will — theatre companies will — keep it going."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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