GCTC sets stage for podcasts of theatrical productions

A theatre producer in Toronto is turning stage plays into podcasts to attract a younger audience. And Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company is among the first companies to participate.

Podcasts could appear on playlists for the theatre's 2018 season, with details to be announced

The PlayME series of podcasts kicked off with a recording of Agamemnon by Governor General's Award Winner Nicolas Billon. Project co-creator Chris Tolley hopes to attract a younger audience to Canadian theatre with the podcasts. (Aviva Armour-Ostroff)

Do you have trouble making it out to live theatre? Well, thanks to a Toronto company, some productions by Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company could soon find their way on to your tablet or smartphone, in podcast form.

Expect Theatre, founded by Chris Tolley and Laura Mullin, launched PlayME podcasts in 2016. Episodes feature works by playwrights living in Canada, with a cast of many Canadian actors, and have already reached an audience of nearly half a million, according to the company.

Expect Theatre recently teamed up with the GCTC, and it expects at least one play could appear on the podcast playlist for the theatre's 2018 season, with details to be announced later.

"Unlike theatre, where you have to work two years in advance at the very least, podcasts can be turned around within about four weeks," Tolley said. 

The idea was borne from frustration with the ephemeral nature of stage productions, Tolley said. 

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

"If you are not in that particular town or city when it's happening for the week or two when it's running, it's gone," said Tolley, speaking on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "And that's a bit of magic, but also at the same time it's a drawback."

Podcasts break down generational, geographical barriers

Podcasts can reach a young, tech-savvy audience, and can break down geographical barriers as well.

"We wanted to create something so it gave people an opportunity in Toronto, or let's say Edmonton, to hear some of the amazing things that are happening in Ottawa," Tolley said. "And it also makes it truly accessible, so it doesn't matter whether you're in Smiths Falls or Ottawa … you have the same equal access to the artwork."

The podcasts are also drawing a surprising amount of interest internationally, Tolley said, with nine of 10 audience members outside Canada.

"So people are listening to Canadian theatre all across the world, and that's something we didn't expect but we're just thrilled about." 

Old sound techniques for a new medium

The co-creators bring a love of podcasts as well as experience producing radio drama to the new venture.

Sound effects are recorded in a sound studio without an audience, using "Foley" techniques — an art form named after sound effects artist Jack Foley and which involves using physical props to make the sounds.

"We're really making some of the sound effects the same way that they would have done in the forties, in some cases," Tolley said. "So we're really sort of merging this old art form with the digital world."

Maev Beaty does a recording for PlayME of the play Bunny by Hannah Moscovitch. (Jeremy Sales)

It also makes for a lot of fun during production.

"We were working on a piece where there was a very intimate moment between two people in a classroom, and I had to set up my desk with pencils and pens to get knocked over," Tolley said. "I must have looked completely like a madman while I was doing it, but that was an awful lot of fun."

Taking cues from the music industry

Part of the thinking with the podcasts is that people could hear plays for free even before they open onstage, connect with the characters, and be motivated to buy tickets later for a live show.

"We're looking at it almost like the music model, where music now is either free or almost free, but what it does is it gets you hooked, and then you pay the money to go to the concert for the live experience," Tolley said.