BNTC’s first production since moving to Texas will be an eight episode comedic radio serial style podcast called, Radio City Austin. We moved into the BNTC Studio in November and spent our first several months reaching out to the local community by offering acting classes and workshops. Here’s a little background on how the project came about:
The Origin of the Radio Serial Podcast Concept
I am an ideas person. I have new ideas for projects, classes, workshops and a variety of other BNTC oriented activities every day. I am also a practical person. Pretty much every time I have a new idea, my knee jerk reaction is to pull out a calculator and start doing cost benefit analysis. This is a terrible habit in the life of a creative person but a very healthy habit in the life of a business person. Since I am both a creative artist and a business owner simultaneously, I struggle to find the balance and often err on the side of over analysis in an idea’s early stages.
As BNTC’s Artistic Director, I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was time yet to begin development on our first Austin production but when this project presented itself I felt connected to it right away. The more I started thinking about the logistics of it, the more I began to perceive it as the perfect next step in our efforts to establish a meaningful connection to the city and its artists.
The idea came about by accident when I happened to overhear a conversation between two actors who were involved with work at the BNTC Studio. They were having a conversation about radio serial dramas. The second I heard the words “radio serial” my mind started racing. I got swept up in the idea of creating a radio serial style podcast and was so excited about the concept that I arranged a meeting to discuss my thoughts about it with the actor who’s conversation I had overheard. I told him all of my ideas and we exchanged thoughts on how we might approach a production. About thirty minutes into the conversation I paused to say that I wanted to make sure I wasn’t stepping on any toes. “I overheard you talking about this to another actor,” I said. “Was this a project you were already planning with someone else?” He laughed and said, “No I was talking about a completely different project that I did a while ago,” and he went on to explain the project that he had done. I realized, as I listened to him explain the actual conversation he had been having, that I had come up with this entire production idea based on a misinterpretation of a conversation I had overheard in passing. Then I had walked away and filled in all the blanks in my understanding with the ideas that excite me most about BNTC’s potential as a source of new works. Having ordered my thoughts around what I thought I had overheard, I then took the all-important next step of moving from idea to action. I broke through the “over analysis barrier” not because I had enormous personal confidence in my plan but because I believed that it was someone else’s plan all along. Then, because of my willingness to invest in the idea, I had convinced someone else to support it without even realizing that I was “giving him a pitch.” I believed he was already invested in the idea because I thought it was his idea. Then he, in turn, was inspired by my enthusiasm for the idea and began to encourage it’s further development. Up to that point, the entire project was just a bunch of misunderstandings that shaped up into an exciting framework for a new project. Once that the framework was in place and the energy was behind it, the hardest step in my creative process, that of moving from idea to action, had been taken without me even realizing I was doing it.
The basic idea of a radio serial podcast was easily agreed upon but finding the right structure, setting and organization of the rehearsal process was a challenge that required a lot more consideration. I wanted to go into the process as open to new ideas as possible and that meant limiting the amount of planning that took place before the writers were hired and the core cast members were selected. I am dedicated to the idea of creating new work with both actors and writers. New work is what the Brand New Theatre Co. is about. If we aren’t creating things that are new, we either have to come up with a new name for the company or move to a new city every two years. In comparison with those options, creating new work seems both easier and more enjoyable. On the other hand, creating a series from scratch with literally no idea of what the structure, plot or characters will look like isn’t exactly a low-risk situation.
I was convinced that the value of this project for BNTC was it’s contrast with the prospect of devising a full length play at this stage in the company’s development. Doing an audio serial that didn’t require sets and costumes and for which episodes only needed to be about fifteen minutes in length, gave me the opportunity to make connections with a number of writers simultaneously while also enabling me to cast and get to know up to a dozen actors in the span of three months. This was a stark contrast to the option of producing a devised play, which, with BNTC’s current production budget, would only give me the opportunity to work with one writer and with no more than four actors on a project that would take up to four months to carry out.
The tricky aspect of any project that BNTC undertakes at this stage is that none of the writers and actors who will be involved in the project will have had any previous experience devising new work together. There isn’t a standard structure for devising that is shared among various theatres. Most writers and actors have little or no training or background in devising and in any devising situation the company has to develop its own individual process.
Starting to develop a new devising process is difficult and intimidating but the fast and furious nature of trying to produce eight new scripts in three weeks actually felt more liberating than intimidating. It gave me the opportunity to turn up the heat from the very beginning and keep everyone focused on getting any idea that came through their head right out onto the table. It can be very difficult building openness and trust with a new group because no one wants to suggest a concept or improvise a scene that makes them appear to be less “creative” or “talented” than the other members of the group. Fortunately, one thing that is more scary than the prospect of having a “dumb” idea is the prospect of having no script at all when the audience arrives. The serial will be presented as a reading, not a play, which means rehearsal time is short. There is no time for worrying about what might go wrong. There is only plunging ahead, staying open to new ideas and being honest as quickly as possible about what isn’t working in order to have time to make adjustments.
The writers began working with the actors from the get-go. In fact, I auditioned the actors first and invited some of them to come along to the writer’s audition. This gave me the opportunity to see how each actor dealt with the challenge of experimenting with prompts provided by writers. It also showed me how the writers dealt with the challenge of allowing an actors’ interpretation of the writer’s ideas to open up new directions for plot/character development.
The wonderful thing about a devising audition, is that you don’t have to reject talented people just because they don’t fit a specific part. Instead you write the role for the actor. On the other hand, neither writers nor actors can be cast based on only their writing or acting ability. The main challenge in the audition process is to try to weigh out, in a very short amount of time, who will be open to collaboration and who will struggle with give and take once they get attached to their ideas. There will always be some struggle in the devising process but there is nothing that puts the breaks on collaborative creation more quickly than a collaborator who has a tendency to foreclose on their own ideas rather than allowing their creativity to be influenced by other people’s contributions.
As soon as the series was cast, the first challenge I was faced with as the coordinator of the overall creative process, was to sort out everyone’s schedules. On the up side, I was blessed with a talented cast of in-demand actors, improvisors and writers. On the down side, being in demand meant that most of my performers had very limited schedules. The first real challenge for the writers was to come up with a plot-line that was flexible enough to allow actors to miss episodes while maintaining each character’s role in the overall plot development of the series. We started with a full-cast and writers workshop to brainstorm possible scenarios that would engage our own interest and the interest of an Austin audience while also allowing us to introduce new characters from one episode to the next without disrupting the plot. After the initial workshop, I met with a couple of the writers to map out the overall plot structure.
We then moved on to the workshopping phase during which I directed two weeks of interactive meetings between actors and writers. The structure of each meeting varied depending on the particular writer’s approach and ideas. Some meetings took the form of round table character discussions. Some meetings looked more like improv rehearsals; and one meeting even involved exercises influenced by Suzuki Technique which involves a lot of stomping around with your legs contorted into strange positions. At the end of every meeting the writer was tasked with the challenge of combining their portion of the overall plot structure with their workshop experience in order to produce a draft of an episode.
Ideally, I would like to develop a devising process that involves a lot more give and take between writers and actors throughout the development process but this project, for BNTC, is a lot more about laying a groundwork for exchange and getting to know a number of different artist’s processes. Later, I hope that some of the ideas and approaches that came out of these workshops will resurface in more extended devising projects but for now the idea is just to push past the initial psychological resistance that occurs when trying to create something new, with new people, in a new environment. I believe that the result will be something that we can all be proud of but that we also have great ideas for improving on as the podcast develops.
We are quickly coming to the end of phase two, the “solo” writing phase. For the most part the writers are working on their own to complete their drafts but, of course, the fact that each person’s episode has a major effect on every other person’s episodes means that the writers are in constant contact throughout the writing process.
When the drafts are complete we will have rehearsals that are open to writers and later run-through rehearsals with the final drafts of the scripts. The rehearsals for early episodes will begin next week and episodes that occur later in the season will be rehearsed while we are already in the process of recording the first several episodes.
Production and Distribution
Each episode will be recorded in the BNTC Studio in front of a live audience on Friday nights starting April 6th and running through May 25th. Tickets to attend a live recording can be purchased from our online ticket office. We are currently only selling tickets for one show at a time so you’ll only be able to buy tickets for the next available performance. If you would like to reserve tickets to a specific production, however, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to request your seats.
The recordings will be distributed as a podcast. More information about the release date will be posted here on the website as it gets closer. If you would like to be on a mailing list to receive information about podcast distribution you can let us know by emailing email@example.com.