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Step aside, Shakespeare: PlayME adapts modern plays for the podcast crowd

CBC Podcasts has partnered with PlayME, a popular podcast that turns contemporary Canadian plays into bingeable audio dramas.

Popular podcast turns contemporary Canadian plays into bingeable audio dramas

Actors Isabel Kanaan, left, and Belinda Corpuz pause during the recording of Prairie Nurse, which leads the new season of PlayME on November 6. (Evan Aagaard/CBC)
Listen to the full episode1:26

Quick — who's the first playwright you can name off the top of your head?

We'll forgive you if your mind went straight to William Shakespeare. But there's no reason our appreciation of great theatre should be confined to the 16th century, especially as a new generation of playwrights capture the nuances of our time.

Enter PlayME, a popular podcast that turns contemporary Canadian plays into bingeable audio dramas, which recently partnered with CBC Podcasts.​

PlayME's new season, starting Nov. 6, explores "meaty subjects of the moment,"  including a woman's right to choose, coming of age in a small town, a comedic take on culture shock, protecting ocean life and the complexities of life on a reserve.

In the lead up to launch day, co-creators Chris Tolley and Laura Mullin, who also run Expect Theatre in Toronto, reflect on their exciting new lineup and the power of audio drama in 2018.

Chris Tolley and Laura Mullin are writers, directors, producers, and the Co-Artistic Directors of Expect Theatre and PlayME. Together they have created award-winning plays, installations, films and podcasts that have engaged international audiences. (CBC)

So, why showcase newer plays instead of sticking to the classics?

Mullin: We love to tap into the zeitgeist of the moment. We gravitate towards plays that are timely, thought provoking and contemporary.

Tolley: Exactly. This coming season we've chosen five plays that are set in different regions across the country. They tell a wide range of captivating stories that highlight a variety of compelling perspectives. Some are funny. Some are heartbreaking. All are deeply engaging.

And are they adapted from scripts or have they all been performed for live theatre audiences?

Tolley: All the plays that make up our first season with CBC have been performed in front of numerous live audiences and have garnered rave reviews and awards.

What's coming up this season?

Prairie Nurse by Marie Beath Badian is an irreverent comedy about two Filipino nurses who come to work at a small-town Saskatchewan hospital in the late 1960s.

Fish Eyes Trilogy by Anita Majumdar is an audacious trio of interwoven stories about three young South Asian women — Naz, Candice and Meena — set in a B.C. high school.

What A Young Wife Ought To Know by Hannah Moscovitch follows a young working-class wife who has a lot to learn about love, sex and birth control. It explores the destructive power of secrets and shame.

Huff by Cliff Cardinal is the wrenching, yet darkly comic tale of Wind and his brothers, caught in a torrent of solvent abuse and high risk of suicides. Wind's fantastic dream world bleeds into his haunting reality, as he's preyed on by the Trickster.

And finally, Between Breaths by Robert Chafe follows Dr. Jon Lien, well known in Newfoundland as the Whale Man, as he pioneers techniques for rescuing whales trapped in fishing nets while dementia threatens to swallow him up.

Audio fiction is showing strong signs of life in 2018. Why do you think that is?

Mullin: I think the comeback is due in large part to the tremendous popularity of podcasts and audiobooks. Hit fictional podcasts like Limetown and Welcome to Night Vale demonstrate the emerging hunger for audio fiction among a growing number of podcast listeners.

Tolley: We are living in an on-demand world, and people are looking for engaging and diverse content that they can experience while they drive to work, go to the gym, or relax at home. And nothing is more powerful than listening to a plot unfold directly in your earbuds.

Mullin: Yes. If you tell a compelling story with interesting characters that have something to say, audiences will find you and listen.

Speaking of listeners finding you, we understand that a lot of your audience is international?

Tolley: When we began PlayME, we expected our audience to be made up of mostly Canadians listeners. We were surprised to learn that the vast majority live outside of the country. I think we as Canadians sometimes underestimate the wealth of talent we have in our country, but people in places such as the U.S, the U.K., India, China, Iran, etc., are tuning in. In fact, listeners in 90 countries listen to Canadian plays on PlayME.

At the end of the day, even though we feature Canadian playwrights telling Canadian stories, the themes they explore are universal. PlayME is now the largest audio platform for Canadian theatre in the world.

What do you say to those who are nostalgic for either the classic radio drama or the classic theatre experience. What can the podcast experience offer them that's new or improved?

Mullin: We offer free tickets to your own personal theatre where you can experience the best of Canadian theatre any time or place you wish. It's radio drama for a digital world!

And we don't want to take away from the live experience of theatre, but rather hope to enrich it by cultivating new audiences who will hopefully be inspired to attend even more excellent stages across our country. It is our goal to make Canadian playwrights household names by introducing them to listeners from coast to coast.

While we love Shakespeare, we think audiences are ready to hear playwrights writing about what Canadians are thinking and talking about right now.

Find "PlayME CBC on your favourite podcast app.

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