What’s so Interesting About Audio Drama?

wpid-wpid-dscf3235-2013-01-20-14-29-206x300-2013-09-5-12-48.jpgOn what basis would I propose the development of an audio drama module at DMU? How would I explain to colleagues the potential benefits and the opportunities that audio drama represents? How would I explain this to academic colleagues, to potential students, to potential co-producers and to potential collaborators?

Normally in academic circumstances it would be necessary to note and account for the history and the general background of audio drama, to give something of an overview of the historical role and trends that have shaped what is now generally regarded as plays produced in sound. Simply calling this audio drama is in it self challenging, as this description is only a recent development. For the best part of eighty years, what is now known as electronically distributed dramatic sound work, using sound alone, was known as the radio play. So, the first thing that I might ask my colleagues to note, is that cultural production modes change, and audio drama would be a good demonstration of how an established cultural form is able to be re-situated within a different context as technology and social expectations change.

Perhaps the most effective starting point that I could approach this explanation from would be to describe the personal pleasure that I get from listening to audio drama, and to outline the psychological, intellectual and emotional satisfaction that can be gained more generally from using one’s imagination in a similar way. Using sound alone to build mental pictures of characters, their actions and the settings in which they operate, as it is relayed simply through sound, is a definite challenge. I would probably only be re-treading the well-worn notion that a radio play is best understood as the theatre-of-the-mind, and would therefore also only be expressing a popular truism by adding that radio plays are an engaging form of drama because the ‘pictures are better’.

If a contextual history of audio drama, or a semiotic and psychological examination of the listening process, are deemed academically adequate as a mode of study by my academic colleagues, I would probably then describe how the process of producing audio dramas has an intense and satisfying problem-solving component to it – both technically and dramatically (if the two can be separated?).

How would we depict and represent stories and ideas using sound alone? How would we integrate and make meaningful the assembled diverse collection of sound-elements so that they express a coherent narrative and tell a story? How would these sound-elements depict characters or situations? How would these sound elements demonstrate actions in which a story is carried? What would be the most basic constituent elements that we would use to structure our sound narrative? Can we subdivide the individual elements of sound? What role does the voice play, for instance, as a constituent element in sound drama? What are the markers that situate place and time in this dramatic form? The cliché of the ticking clock or the ringing bell is an analogue of time passing. We use stereotypes of this kind because we are familiar with them. The question that I might now be asking my colleagues, therefore, is how do we become unfamiliar with sound again? To what extent we can start to perceive the world afresh by decontextualizing or manipulating sound narratives?

At this point an analogy might be useful in assisting my colleagues in their perception of my argument. It is said that every time we look at a photograph we see the world anew. A photograph is a single moment that has been seen and perceived by the photographer, and arrested using film or digital imaging technology. It is a fresh and unique perspective. What, then, if we were able to do the same through the media of audio drama? What if we were able to re-present the world and the part we play in the world through a process of sound-design and aural performance alone?

Fundamentally, I would suggest to my colleagues, it is possible to establish that the dramaturgical phenomenon of audio drama is based on a focussed calculation and arrangement. That is, we can achieve dramatic meaning by the structuring and use of independent communicative elements – in this case sound alone – that allows us to think about the world in a distinct and provocative way. I would explain to my colleagues, at this point, that there is a concomitant process of technical development to be explored in the capture and reproduction of sound. A technical and creative process that is unique in the way that it is used to tell stories. Should we pursue the technical development of the recordings simply on the basis of expediency, I would ask? Or, would our aim be that of capturing the highest fidelity possible? To what extent would the technical process drive the outcomes of any audio drama production?

I would then ask my colleagues to spare some time to think about the technical process themselves and ask if they are too rigid? Would my colleagues be ready to push and experiment with the technical process in the same way that we might push and experiment with other parts of the creative process? To what extent would our mastery of the technical processes involved in producing audio drive the outcomes of any drama? Are we ready to challenge our expectations about drama that uses sound? Likewise, would we be able to build a convincing dramatic audio production without a comprehensive understanding of the technology we are working with? In sort, what can be achieved in using recording technology effectively for the purpose of producing audio drama? Ought the magic of hi-fi aural reproduction remain tightly sealed as a ‘black-box’? And, if this technology is limited, I would ask my colleagues, what are these limits determined by?

Moving beyond the technical my next question would relate to the performative. Can the same question of technical limits be asked of performance? How can an audio drama exceed and test the boundaries and capabilities of the performers involved? Would the actor and the director be able to extend themselves sufficiently to identify the appropriate mode of working (groove?) in which their performance has resonance? Is there sufficient scope for experimentation and extemporisation through the deployment of the voice alone? What happens to the rest of the body? Does audio drama offer the performer enough space for expression in the way that they are able to depict a response to situations, marshal character and respond to events and challenges? Is the dramatic process able to offer sufficient expression of reflection and internal comprehension in the sound-world depicted? After all, there is no look or gesture that can be resorted to as a shortcut.

The advantage of audio drama, I would explain to my colleagues, is that it can be produced using very limited resources. Audio dramas can be developed in circumstances that are entirely unrelated to the world being depicted. All that is needed is an ‘intimation’, or a ‘hint’. An evocation. Extensive staging is not required. So much can be left to the imagination of the listener that there is no need to exaggerate or to over-claim. True, spectacle is harder to perform, but then the opposite is also true – spectacle is easy to intimate because the staging requirements in an audio drama are so much more theatrical and improvisational (compared to film and television certainly).

For a writer, I would explain to my colleagues, there would be many advantages to be gained from learning to tell stories with sound alone. Learning the craft of telling stories that are deployed with only minimal and simple techniques – dialogue and narration, soliloquy and effects. These are often as far as the technique of audio drama can go in it’s present mainstream generic form. Avoiding excessive extemporisation and linking narrative progression with character interplay is a vital capability when producers seek to give audio dramas their shape. These requirements are free from the visual image, the subtitle, the flash-card, the gesture or the look. For dramatic convenience there has been a wholesale adoption of various shorthand motifs and theatrical devices, however, in the scripting of many audio dramas, I would explain to my colleagues, these motifs are simply conventions that once understood can be tested, subverted and undermined, if one so wishes.

I would then explain that the new techniques of distribution via the internet offer an increased opportunity to reshape the mediasphere and to experiment with the potential to take audio drama beyond the rigid expectations of broadcast radio, and into new forms of dramatic development. Because the distribution of these dramas would not be dependent on cultural conventions associated with demography-based broadcasting, for example the largely stylistically conservative output of BBC Radio 4, then new voices could be encouraged to develop their own formulations and experimentations of audio drama. The freedom that small groups of dramatists and producers could achieve, working independently, if encouraged and supported wisely, offers the possibility of new modes of expression opening a space that new voices can occupy and test new ideas.

This would bring me to my final point, and at this stage my colleagues may think that there is enough to be developed and thought through already. The key difference, I would hope that they have grasped, is that in thinking about audio drama in this way we would be opening-up and unfolding the otherwise restricted and closed world of audio drama production. Audio drama is too precious and important a cultural form for it to be limited and restricted within the cultural echelons of certain professional elites, or otherwise forgotten about as a mainstream cultural medium. Audio drama desperately needs new talent and new entrants who are excited and engaged participants in the production process, and who can leave behind the closed-circles of the establishment by inventing new dramatic contributions.

This new way of producing audio drama will be accessible to people who would never otherwise dream of getting involved in the making of a radio play. People who are otherwise on the margins of social and cultural life, and who do not otherwise have the esteem or the confidence to be able to participate in this process.  In getting involved in the production of audio dramas in this way, any participant does not have to reveal anything more than their voice, and thus they are free from the tyranny of visual representation that dominates and narrows our social idea of social and cultural success. The disembodied voice from beyond the screen or outside the mouth of the cave is a great leveller. This is not to say that the process of producing, writing and performing an audio drama is free from challenge, far from it. There is an inherent challenge and creative risk merely in asking people to think aurally in a visually dominant world.

Asking people with no prior experience to make or performing an audio drama depends on their willingness to engage with the stripping-down sense of cultural expectation that I believe goes along with audio drama. Put simply, audio drama gives us an opportunity to make new sense of what we have known all along. Which is another way of saying that we must strive continually for a reordering of meaning in our lives. In it’s most basic for we would examine how stories are expressed and made to be meaningful. Audio dramas, it could be said, are lacking in the expansive scope of the novel or of movies, they do, however, resonate equally as widely, in my view, with any other dramatic and creative cultural form, and as such should be given our full attention.

Audio drama has great potential for insight, drama and heartfelt emotions. The point, however, is to democratise the process of producing them. To encourage new voices who are passionate about making, sharing and discussing stories made in sound. This is what I would explain to my colleagues in the first instance. There is more to discuss, debate and elaborate, and the mapping process would be far from easy, but this would be the start of a fulfilling conversation and the expression of preliminary thinking. I would hope my colleagues would see the potential as well.

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