Listen up, playwrights – this is how you write for radio and podcast.
Experience the theater for a song – and a pair of headphones.
Movie and Broadway ticket prices are soaring, but radio dramas and podcasts can let audiences immerse themselves in a story for just a few bucks. And it’s a sound market, as two seasons of “Serial” drawing 230 million downloads has shown. There are 57 million Americans listening to podcasts, according to Edison Research, with 21% of us tuning in monthly and averaging five podcasts a week.
Now audiobook giant Audible is offering $5 million in grants to encourage emerging playwrights to create one- and two-person audio plays. The fund will support the writers and cover live and in-studio production of the new shows for the Audible platform, with a talented board including British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard, actress Annette Bening and this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage choosing the grant recipients. The board plans to fund about 25 storytellers in 2017, Audible told Moneyish, followed by an undetermined number of recipients over the three years that the fund will be active. The company hasn’t specified yet how much each playwright will get, but each will be paid the market rate for his or her production.
But just because you’ve got the write stuff for stage doesn’t mean your script will be music to audiences’ ears. So Moneyish tapped theater pros, including audio writer/director Frederick Greenhalgh from FinalRune Productions, New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel and New York Daily News theater critic Joe Dziemianowicz, to share tips on writing a 5-star audio play.
IT ALL DEPENDS ON DIALOGUE: “There’s no visuals. We don’t see costumes, we don’t see the set. The dialogue has to be the driving force,” said Riedel, who suggests injecting tension and mystery to draw the listener in. Instead of one person saying, “Hi Mary,” open with, “Have I seen you before?”
“You could just listen to ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,’ and it crackles,” Riedel added.
WRITE STRONG CHARACTERS: Actions don’t speak louder than words here. “A playwright often gets by creating a quirky character with lots of tics, like the fidgeting hands in ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’” noted Dziemianowicz. “Coating characters with visual cues as to who they are – all of that goes away. Now it’s the writer’s responsibility to be very focused, clear and descriptive. Or you could use a narrator as a device.”
SHOW WITH SOUND: You’ve got to “show” the action by using sound effects or describing the scene through dialogue. Greenhalgh shares this example from his “Field Recording for Audio Drama: A Filmmaker’s Guide” ebook:
Joe: Sally, watch out for that gunshot!
Special Effects: BANG!
Sally: Oh tarnation!
Joe: Sally, down!
Special Effects: BANG! [We hear Joe and Sally hit the ground.]
Sally: Thank God, you saved me. Who the hell is shooting at us?
PAUSE FOR EFFECT: Moments of silence create tension and keep listeners hooked, rather than getting lulled by two voices babbling back and forth. In that same vein, Dziemianowicz suggests playing with the length and rhythm of scenes. “You could create one scene that’s quite staccato and short, and another that’s quite leisurely, and the ear will tune into that kind of change,” he said.
READ YOUR DRAFT ALOUD: You’re not writing words to be read; you’re writing words to be said. So doing a table read with your friends and family at home can reveal which parts need punching up. “There’s no better way to pinpoint what feels like it’s flowing well, and what feels clunky, than to actually listen to it yourself,” said Greenhalgh.
CASTING IS KEY: Your lines are only going to be as good as the people speaking them. Dziemianowicz recalls a recent production of Samuel Beckett’s radio play “All That Fall” where, “it was compelling, but the whole time, I wished the actors had better voices.” Riedel agreed. “Some people have the talent – that’s why we listen to Howard Stern and Don Imus – and some don’t. The voices create the atmosphere and draw you in.”
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