Live theatre, by its very nature, is a practical art form.
Though playwrights are of course free to write whatever they want, at some point in their work’s gestation, someone has to figure out how to literally stage their words. For film and television, on the other hand, basically anything is do-able; for theatre, free from the inherent limitations imposed by theatrical presentation on the stage.
Though television has been poaching theatre’s most promising up-and-comers for years now, the recent resurgence of radio plays — which I dub podcast plays — theoretically frees these dramatists from such restrictions. Since sound can be manipulated more easily than space, these writers can transport their listeners to any world that can be communicated through noise alone.
And yet, podcast plays will run up against another, perhaps unexpected practical constraint: who listens to podcasts for long enough to make it through a complete short-play, uninterrupted (the problem is compounded for full-length work, which Audible already offers)?
This question occurred to me during John Patrick Shanley’s Last Night in the Garden, a 20-minute two-hander (two-voicer?) courtesy of Playing On Air, a podcast series that releases similarly-lengthed plays starring starry casts every week. A world premiere by the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe of Doubt, featuring the voices of Tony and Academy Award-nominated Michelle Williams and Emmy Award-nominated Rupert Friend? Though I’ve dabbled in a few previous episodes, these names and accolades proved enticing enough for me to finally sit down and listen to one straight-through.
And that’s the issue: podcast listeners rarely set aside time to give their undivided attention to what’s being amplified down their ear canals. I’m sure there are people who tune-in on their commutes or at their jobs, but what are the odds nothing disturbs them as they’re taking in the totality of Shanley’s new play? When it comes to interviews or even more narrative fare like Serial, stopping and starting is basically expected, and doesn’t detract from the overall effect; they’re naturally episodic, thus breaking up the episodes into even smaller chunks does not forsake the creators’ intentions.
But plays, both of the full and short variety, are meant to be consumed all in one go. And I’m not even referring to following a plot, which is A) usually pretty easy because B) plot is often not the primary focus of dramatic texts, no matter their form. WHAT’S happening always pales in comparison to WHY and HOW it’s happening; plays live in their subtext and meta-text. And yet, tracking these more abstract ideas requires complete immersion for their duration.
Making matters worse, this romantic drama isn’t particularly good. My mind kept wandering, and not only because Shanley once again digs up his periodic crutch of relying on dialogue that can best be described as profound soup opera. Instead of devising an experience that somehow utilizes the particularities of an aural medium, this one feels like just an ordinary stage play recorded for our benefit. Form and content should always be related, yet here the content in no way changes to fit the form of the podcast play, with its obvious differences from staged plays. And without the complementary visual component that we’re all conditioned to being used to when engaging with a play, it falls on deaf ears.
Making matters even worse, Playing On Air‘s approach is more of a glorified stage reading. There’s a reason I rarely attend them in New York, even those that boast such famous casts: at the end of the day, even the best of the best, without sufficient rehearsal, sound like they’re reading. They’re obviously capable of bringing the words to life much more than us layman, but their performances after getting their hands on the script just a few hours before recording will never match the end result after weeks or even days of preparation. This quick turnaround is probably integral in attracting the sorts of luminaries Playing On Air has lured so far, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a satisfying listen.
Back in the heyday of the radio play, the likes of Samuel Beckett insisted on adapting his writing specifically to be heard and not seen; it helped that he knew listeners would be sitting around their living rooms, waiting on baited breath for the actors’ next breaths. Podcast plays need to figure out their own formulas for this new medium, for the old ones simply won’t cut it, nipping in the bud the potential of this new movement that can spread intrinsically geographically-bound theatre far and wide.