Podcast Plays

Radio plays are back, baby!

Well…kind of.

Back in the day, when radio was the masses’ go-to for mass entertainment, it piped world-class theatre into living rooms around the world, opening up this geographically-restricted art form to more than just those who live near top theaters.

At first, new short plays and pre-existing feature lengths were recorded for public consumption. After a while, dramaturgical revolutionaries like Samuel Beckett — ever the stickler for ensuring he could control as many facets of his audience’s experience as possible, an approach that his notoriously-strict estate still adheres to when it comes to overseeing any productions of his plays  — started writing plays explicitly for the radio, utilizing the particulars and particularities of the form to impart as much layered meaning as possible.

(Plays eventually found their way to the boob tube once it became the predominant supplier of national art, but, oddly, the tradition hasn’t been revived in recent years, apart from the embarrassing live musicals. Unpacking why that’s the case, given streaming services’ race to generate and accrue as much content as possible, is a piece for another day).

With podcasts now taking over the world — or, at the very least, occupying the eardrums of countless people as they go about their days — theatre has wisely jumped into the fray.

The most developed program so far seems to be Playing on Air, which focuses on attracting big(ish)-name talent, who only need to reserve a few hours, to record pre-existing short plays (they’ve also commissioned a few new ones). My biggest sticking point with their model: there’s no live component.

I know, I know, theatre should be for EVERYONE. But it can be for everyone AND also contribute to New York’s theatre scene (or any other city’s, for that matter).

Ahead of the curve on this front is Audible.

Yes, THAT Audible.

Though popular for providing audio books to its legions of followers, the company has begun offering plays on their platform as well. They’ve been helping to produce, and even commission, new one-person plays off-Broadway, while also finding other solo ventures worth recording for posterity, and for their paying customers, such as last season’s Broadway production of John Leguizamo’s Tony Award-winning Latin History for Morons.

Recently, Audible took its support to the next level; they announced a partnership with the perpetually-misused Minetta Lane Theatre. Such an intimate black box space in the heart of off-Broadway’s booming West Village epicenter should be a coveted venue. And yet, the small stage and nonexistent backstage area prevents full-scale productions of most kinds. As such, no nonprofit theaters stepped up to program it.

Luckily, most one-person shows require little else than words and a thespian. Audible realized this, and committed to mounting productions of plays they want to record, normally starring even bigger names (never underestimate the good that can come from the vanity of actors). Their first two productions — Billy Crudup’s Harry Clarke and Carey Mulligan’s Girls & Boys — transcended the inherent constraints of the Minetta Lane. Not only that, both were staged in such a way that being in the room added resonance communicated through more than just the eyes and ears, which is the essence of the magic of live theatre.  

Here’s to the continued vitality of a new art form: the podcast play!

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