Goldsmiths Audio Drama Festival

Ian Johns

Goldsmiths Audio Drama Festival 2019
A mixture of writers, producers, podcasters, bloggers, students, academics and enthusiasts gathered for the second Goldsmiths Audio Drama Festival, held on May 11 and 12 at the University of London’s Goldsmiths campus.

Festival founders Philip Palmer and Richard Shannon, both playwrights and Goldsmiths lecturers, want to celebrate the art and craft of audio drama and give it the profile and serious attention it deserves. This year’s event, sponsored by Audible, was also an opportunity to get a sense of the shape of audio drama to come.

So here’s a flavour of the weekend and, in a separate section, a selection of dramas highlighted by speakers, panel discussions and Q&As. – Ian Johns (May 2019)

Inner and outer space
The first day’s theme was science fiction and fantasy. The opening keynote speech by writer, broadcaster and poet Professor Sean Street reflected on audio drama’s ability not only to explore fantastical worlds, but also to enter the minds of characters like no other medium can. He offered fascinating insights into dramas as varied as Orson Welles’ adaptation of War of the Worlds (1938), Peter Strickland’s version of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (2015) and Anita Sullivan’s unsettling Ropewalk House (2019) (see separate drama list). The ghostly, fleeting quality of sound combined with audio’s intimacy enables us, said Street, to “listen for what’s beyond us and what’s inside us”.

Worlds of possibility
Street’s talk was followed by a writer’s panel made up of Judith Adams, Marty Ross, Julian Simpson and Sarah Woods. All agreed that a fantastical story needs to be rooted in reality and human plausibility. Adams’s Radio 4 Extra adaptation of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is built around the female characters’ awareness of their growing powers. Simpson updated HP Lovecraft’s 1927 novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in the form of a true-crime podcast to be heard as downloadable BBC episodes. Woods researched current issues of migration, health care and social inequality to inform her award-winning dystopian drama Borderland on Radio 4. Ross imagined a noir gangster thriller when telling the story of Ali Baba for his Audible adaptation of the Arabian Nights.

Choosing the right actors is also vital. “You can’t survive miscasting,” said Ross. “When you cast actors wrong, it’s the worst experience,” added Simpson. “They can elevate you or make you sound terrible.” Equally important is the sound design. Ross observed that where sound effects used to be more functional, now they are used to create a more cinematic experience for the imagination. For Adams, the unsung heroes of audio drama are the sound technicians. “They never get mentioned in credits, but are the conduit to the audience.”

The way podcasts can offer episodes of varying lengths is also opening up different narrative possibilities. Ross welcomes long-form storytelling over many hours while Simpson enjoys the flexibility that allows each episode to be as long as it needs to be. Woods likes the way this allows you to imaginatively play with time, so not every episode needs to drive the narrative, but build texture “like adding a bead to a necklace”. Yet she also enjoys the discipline of writing for a specific time slot while Adams finds the need for “cutting, condensing and focusing can make things more powerful”.

All agreed that we’re living in a world in which dystopian themes, whether social, environmental or political, are coming true, so perhaps future visions now need to offer solutions and hope. As Woods said: “We need to think in terms of sci-fi and fantasy commenting on society and how we can be better.”   

A different future
After lunch, the audience heard Woods’ Borderland (2017), winner of the 2018 Tinniswood Award for Best Original Audio Drama Script, followed by a Q&A with the playwright and the production’s director, James Robinson. This moving and beautifully realised play is narrated by a mother trying to flee the stifling nationalism and collapsed health care system of a fragmented, near-future Britain with her daughter for a better life across the Irish Sea. For Robinson, audio drama has “the ability to immerse yourself in somebody else’s perspective, it’s very empathetic.” This BBC Cymru Wales production proved that wholeheartedly.

Robinson later joined a panel of podcast drama producers, hosted by audio fiction consultant Ella Watts, who reiterated earlier views that science fiction and fantasy need to offer more stories of hope. They also agreed that fiction podcasts were a rising global trend with exciting opportunities.

Mariele Runacre-Temple, casting and production manager for Audible Studios UK and founder of Wireless Theatre Company, which creates downloadable dramas, sees such companies as “rewriting the rules” for audio drama production. For Rob Valentine, whose Red Moon won the 2019 BBC Audio Drama Award for Best Online Drama, the podcast world is a grassroots movement with a punk attitude, but one whose audience expects high production values. “It’s a very malleable medium and there are still new languages to be worked out,” he believes.

Comparing the podcast world with the BBC, Zachary Fortais-Gomm (creator of The Orphans sci-fi podcast) observed that “there are two very different groups of people doing vaguely similar things” with podcasters “not worried what the institutions are doing”. Still, as the BBC draws on podcasting talent to feed its BBC Sounds app, Fortais-Gomm envisages the future challenge of “how to keep the cool exciting stuff while working with the BBC”.

James Robinson observed that drama podcasting pays real attention to sound design, an area discussed in a sound technology panel that ended the first day. For Charlotte Melen of Almost Tangible, binaural recording on location with a cast able to move freely around Glamis Castle was the best way to make Shakespeare’s Macbeth more immersive and dynamic. Elizabeth Moffatt, an audio engineer for Rusty Quill’s horror fiction podcast The Magnus Archives, highlighted the importance of respecting their subscribers and having dialogue with them; when they discovered some of their listeners were hearing impaired, they started to provide transcripts.

David Darlington, lead audio engineer at Audible, made the point that the challenge for sound design is that it has to work on everything from old AM radios and good speakers to earbuds. Rob Freeman, who works with the BBC’s R&D, also demonstrated how they’re experimenting with ways to send sound to various devices in your home – mobile phones, tablets and laptops – to create your own surround sound system.

Retuning Radio 4
The second day focused on where radio drama is now and what’s to come. It began with a keynote address by Jeremy Howe, current editor of The Archers, and before that a commissioning editor at Radio 4 for more than a decade. He explained how he felt the station’s drama offering had been in a diffuse limbo when he arrived with too many single plays of varying quality.

For Howe, Radio 4 had been “more Radio Ibsen and I wanted to make it Radio Sopranos”. He wanted drama to have more impact and focus by making series and serials that reflected the way we live now, and values journalists-turned writers such as Hugh Costello and Mark Lawson for their ability to respond quickly to current events. Howe’s commissioning has also led to such epic series as GF Newman’s The Corrupted, The Complete George Smiley, Emile Zola’s Blood, Sex and Money and Matthew Broughton’s Tracks. He sees series and serials as the ideal form in the era of streaming and binge listening.

Howe still regards the single play as the place to nurture new talent and is proud that writers such as Katie Hims, Mike Bartlett and James Graham have come to the fore. Some audience members wondered whether series and serials were squeezing out opportunities for new dramatists. Howe said some 30 to 35 slots per year were ring-faced for first- and second-time writers.

Today, he sees the BBC as being in a superb position to redefine audio drama for an on-demand audience. (It will be interesting to see how BBC Sounds’ drama output develops.) For now, he believes podcast drama will only make a major impact if big-name writers such as Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty) and Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing) are writing them to attract more high-calibre writers.  

Audible ambitions
The world of on-demand audio drama was further explored in a presentation by Steve Carsey, Senior Director for Original Programming at Audible. Primarily known for producing audiobooks (and now owned by Amazon), the company will produce around 20 dramas this year with 30 to 40 scheduled for 2020.

In trying to appeal to its core customer base of book-loving subscribers, their choice of genres tends to follow what’s popular in the publishing industry. These include thrillers, fantasy and sci-fi (Dirk Maggs’ dramatisation of Alien novelisations), as well as public domain classics starring a big name (Emma Thompson narrating Jane Austen). Perhaps more intriguing are translations of foreign language drama scripts by authors popular in their own countries, such as German author Sebastian Fitzek, while completely original dramas only make up about 20%-30% of Audible’s schedule.

Audible customers aren’t interested in single, two-hour dramas, but stories that are at least five hours-long, meaning the serial possibilities of a story are always in Audible’s mind. This was apparent when four Goldsmiths students each pitched a story to a producer panel made up of Carsey, BBC drama producer Jessica Dromgoole, playwright, presenter and producer Jacqueline Malcolm of Colourful Radio and Nicholas Briggs, a writer, director and executive producer at Big Finish (best known for their Doctor Who audio dramas). Carsey pinpointed certain aspects of some pitches that might make a series while all questioned the structure, tone and location of each story and highlighted the need for engaging characters, plausible motivation and light and shade in the story.

Question time
Such qualities were evident in the second “listening” of the festival: an airing of Roy Williams’s Simon, a 2013 episode from the second series of Radio 4’s The Interrogation. Each episode is mainly set in a police interview room with two policemen questioning a perpetrator whose story reflects an aspect of society today.

As Williams revealed in a Q&A with the episode’s director, Jessica Dromgoole, he had originally been inspired by the TV series In Treatment, a two-hander which each week featured a psychologist and a patient. “It’s a signature of The Interrogation that they aren’t hardened criminals, but ordinary people who commit a terrible act,” said Dromgoole. “The series allows me to probe the complicated reasons why they did what they did,” added Williams.

Yet the series is also about the developing camaraderie of the two coppers, played by Kenneth Cranham and Alex Lanipekun. During his research at a police station in west London, Williams had been struck by the banter and humanity of the officers and he wanted to honour both.

There’s a wonderfully rhythmic quality to Williams’s writing that is at turns sharp, funny and menacing and which is most powerful in the interrogation scenes. “I like to find a beat when I write and I now pick up Ken and Alex’s rhythms,” admitted Williams. A sixth series is due later this year.

Live and kicking
The festival concluded with a selection of short student plays performed live. It was a shame I had to miss this, Yet the festival still left the impression that the passion to produce audio drama has never been greater from an audio community that has evolved out of the rich heritage of radio drama.

For an idea of the current landscape of the UK and US podcast drama market, read Ella Watts’ report for BBC Sounds (http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/radio/commissioning/Drama-Podcast-Research-Dec2018.pdf). It seems we’re still some way off from drama practitioners earning a decent living from podcasting, but crowd-funded series and investment by organisations such as the BBC and Audible are certainly fuelling the growth in audio drama production.

How that translates into more innovative storytelling, and how audiences can find those fresh approaches and new voices amongst the bewildering explosion of drama online, is perhaps the next big challenge.

Many thanks to everyone who made this year’s festival possible.

Ian Johns

Further reading about the festival:

2019 Goldsmith Audio Drama Festival: drama mentions

Various productions and observations about individual dramas emerged during talks, discussions and Q&As at this year’s festival. Here’s a selection. – Ian Johns (May 2019)

Alien (2016-present) and Arabian Nights (2018-present)
The “cinema for the ears” approach that Dirk Maggs adopted for such Neil Gaiman adaptations as Neverwhere (2013) and Stardust (2016) is applied to four Audible adaptations of stories and screenplays inspired by the Alien movie franchise. Such a well-known brand means the productions have also been produced in eight other languages. Marty Ross (Catch My Breath, Ghost Zone), who has already completed two volumes of the Arabian Nights and is working on The Three Musketeers, likens modern audio drama to “films in people’s imaginations”.

Borderland (2017)
Listen to Sarah Woods’ dystopian drama evoking the refugee experience and you’d be convinced that at least some of it was recorded on location. Director James Robinson revealed that most BBC Cymru Wales dramas are recorded in the studio with up to three days of post-production allowed for a 45-minute drama to layer the sound. For Borderland he originally wanted a silent protagonist, so the listener became the refugee fleeing a near-future broken Britain, but Radio 4 wasn’t keen. The script can be downloaded from the Society of Authors (http://www.societyofauthors.org/SOA/MediaLibrary/SOAWebsite/Prizes/Audio%20Drama/SCR-Borderland-Final-Studio-Script-as-broadcast.pdf)

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (2018)
Writer-director Julian Simpson (Mythos, Fugue State) reworks and updates HP Lovecraft’s 1927 novella as a BBC podcast serial, which sounds like a true-crime podcast in the early episodes, but morphs into supernatural horror. Simpson says some listeners (and a few people at the BBC) thought it was a genuine true-crime series at first. He tends to record on location and used tunnels under Brighton’s Old Ship hotel for some spooky subterranean terror in Episode 6 that was recorded in more or less a single take. The serial is available for download here. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06spb8w/episodes/downloads

Earthsea (2015 & 2018)
While adapting Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy novels, Judith Adams was able to work with Le Guin, who encouraged Adams’ feminist interpretation of the books and to go further than she originally could in blurring the boundaries of gender. However, when it came to Adams’ adaptation of Lord of the Flies (2013), the William Goldman estate disapproved of Adams making the island a female narrator.

The Interrogation (2012-present)
Over five series, Roy Williams has increasingly focused his police drama in the interview room where his sharp, rhythmic dialogue is at its most powerful. For Philip Palmer, The Interrogation is a state-of-the-nation drama worthy of the same critical attention as David Hare’s work, but which happens to be couched in a gripping police procedural. A sixth series is due later this year.

Macbeth (2018)
Almost Tangible aims to create immersive soundscapes that place the listener at the heart of the action. For its debut production, directed by Carl Prekopp. it spent seven days rehearsing and recording Shakespeare’s play on location. The Scottish cast had learned 90% of the script, freeing them to roam the echoey environment of Glamis Castle rather than stand at microphones, scripts in hand. Don headphones and stream the production here. https://www.almost-tangible.com/listen/macbeth

The Magnus Archives (2012-present)
This is a weekly horror fiction anthology podcast from Rusty Quill in which eyewitness statements of esoteric and supernatural events are investigated by an institute. What began as essentially short-story readings has developed into more fleshed-out drama. Its very engaged fanbase funds 40 shows a year. Sound engineer Elizabeth Moffatt revealed when one audience member remarked that gunshot sounds were too upsetting, they edited them out for that subscriber’s download. The series is available here. http://rustyquill.com/the-magnus-archives/

The Orphans
This sci-fi audio drama podcast, created and produced by Zachary Fortais-Gomm, follows the fortunes and backstories of starship castaways stranded on a hostile planet. In Ella Watts’ 2018 report on the UK and US drama podcast market for BBC Sounds, science-fiction is the most popular genre for drama podcasts with 44% of the 181 podcasts surveyed falling into that category. Find out more about The Orphans here. (https://www.orphanspod.com/)

Radio 4 series and serials
For Jeremy Howe, it takes time and money to produce good quality epics, but recurring series allow you to ”take the safety catch off and commission into the future to give people certainty”, allowing them space to find their feet. He initially thought John Dryden and Mike Walker’s Tumanbay was an “intriguing mess”, but recognised it was “ambitious and different” (and a fourth series has been commissioned). Like David Ashton’s Victorian detective series McLevy before them, Howe has made sure on-going series such as Lucy Catherine’s Icelandic saga Gudrun and BBC Wales’ Curious Under the Stars have an agreed end-point so they will reach a proper conclusion.

Red Moon (2018)
Rob Valentine’s six-part Cold War thriller offers an alternative history in which the Soviets landed on the moon before the Americans. It won the prize for Best Online Drama at the 2019 BBC Audio Drama Awards. Available from the Wireless Theatre Company. (https://www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk/)

Ropewalk House (2019)
In Anita Sullivan’s semi-improvised drama for Radio 3, in which we hear actors’ individual recordings as they prepare a site-specific theatre piece set in a derelict rope factory, something unsettling emerges. As Sean Street observes: “Active listening focuses the mind, so listening to someone else listening intensifies that.”

The Stone Tape (2015)
Sean Street admires the way Peter Strickland and Matthew Graham’s Radio 4 take on Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV play made it unique for radio. Here, audio researchers in a haunted mansion use different frequencies to capture and replay the sound of ghosts caught in the building’s walls.

The Vostok-K Incident (2018)
Ed Sellek’s drama about a Cold war pilot encountering a mysterious rocket was made by Naked Productions. It was recorded by BBC R&D and various partners to explore how different layers of sound can be transmitted to various devices – mobiles, tablets and laptops – to create a surround-sound experience in your home. Find out more here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/taster/pilots/vostok

War of the Worlds (1938)
Orson Welles’ production for CBS retold HG Wells’s story as if it were a present-day live radio report played out in real time. Sean Street noted that Welles was probably influenced by the famous live eyewitness account of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, during which the reporter was clearly shaken and horrified. Radio, usually a reassuring presence, now sounded out of control. Welles even cut to dead air followed by an announcement of martial law to coincide with a variety show’s commercial break on rival station NBC, suspecting that bored NBC listeners would have retuned to CBS at that very moment.

© Ian Johns, Diversity website  


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