TOOLKIT SERIES 2- WEEK 2 Chinonyerem Odimba on Not Writing
Writing a play takes huge dedication. It takes time, head-space, leaps of imagination plus vision, bravery, commitment, compassionate enquiry beyond your immediate experience and perhaps…
Writing a play takes huge dedication. It takes time, head-space, leaps of imagination plus vision, bravery, commitment, compassionate enquiry beyond your immediate experience and perhaps most of all creativity. It is important that we bring compassion and understanding to the situation we find ourselves in. This continues to be a tremendously difficult time for theatre and the artists who make it.
Whether you have been able to be creative or not, we want to try and find ways to support you to continue to be engaged with the craft of writing for performance, engaging with an audience, telling stories and taking people on journeys. We truly hope that this series of on-line workshops – the Dramatists Toolkit #2 – will inspire and support you to be creative and to find new possibilities for your work to be realised. Coming up soon- Sonia Jalaly, Testament and Nickie Miles Wildin on writing for an with community.
This week, the Bruntwood Prize winning James Fritz talks you through the process of writing plays to be listened to. in 2017 James became the first person to win both the Imison and Tinniswood Awards for his audio drama COMMENT IS FREE.
How are you?
I’m a playwright and I write for stage and radio/audio. I write for both these mediums, and I love them both equally.
I thought, for this workshop, I might explain some of the reasons why I love to write plays that people listen to through headphones and speakers, as well as some of the things I’ve learnt about the similarities and differences with theatre.
I’ll include a couple of exercises along the way, and some recommendations of my favourite recent dramas at the end.
These are all, obviously, personal to my experience – I’m firmly of the belief that there’s no one right way to write for any media. So take from my ramblings whatever feels useful and ignore the rest.
On we go.
What is an audio play? Who is it for?
So what is an audio play? How do I define it?
I’ve been thinking about this a bit. The easiest definition would be to say that it’s:
‘A play that is designed to be listened to’.
But that’s not quite right, I don’t think.
You could technically say the same about a staged reading, or about a performance that takes place entirely in the dark. Every night (in non-pandemic times) blind and partially sighted people go to the theatre: you wouldn’t say that they are experiencing ‘audio plays’.
For me, the thing that defines a stage performance (again, in non pandemic times) is not the visuals, it’s not the design, not the appearance and gestures of the actors. It’s the very act of being there, of being sat next to somebody real while somebody else real says and does stuff on stage, in the same room as you.
An audio play, on the other hand, is recorded, rarely live anymore, and primarily designed to be listened to by someone in the context of their own life.
This is challenging obstacle, and a wonderful gift all at once.
So how do you know when an idea is right for stage and when it’s right for radio?
In everyone’s music collection or favourite playlist, there are songs that serve different purposes.
There are songs that don’t feel right when you listen to them on your own. They were written to be danced to, sung together, screamed together, boozed up sweaty arms round the shoulders yelling in each others ear together. They don’t make sense without friends and strangers – they don’t make sense without bodies in the room. When I have an idea that feels that way, like it should bring people together, I write a stage play.
Then there are the songs that are just for you. Where you put your favourite pair of headphones on and walk/run/ride the bus/curl up in bed. Where it feels like it was written and recorded just to get into your brain and make you feel something. Those ideas, the ones that are about bringing a listener close to something, about immersing them in an thought or feeling completely: those are when I write an audio play.
The tools are the same. The instincts are the same. But the audience is different.
With writing for theatre I instinctively imagine a lot of people.
I think about the reader in the literary department, the director, the cast, the design team and, of course, the audience. I think about all these people, and I think about all their potential successors in potential future productions of the play.
When I’m writing for radio I imagine one person. Someone on a long car journey, maybe, driving home.
(I don’t know why audio dramas work so well in cars, but they do. Maybe it’s because you can’t go anywhere while you’re going somewhere – a contradiction that feels like it’s also at the heart of how we experience a play.)
Audio plays aren’t usually broadcast in cinemas or theatres. They don’t have premieres. Gone, bar a few die-hard homes (that I know still exist), are the days of whole families gathered round the radio together.
They’re built for distribution, dissemination, podcasts, they’re made for journeys, for runs, for doing the washing up, for sitting on the couch closing your eyes after a long day and being transported somewhere else, for accidentally tuning in at quarter past two in the afternoon and being swept up in a story you didn’t know existed five minutes ago.
This lends you something as a writer that is so, so precious: intimacy with your listener/audience.
Your play feels like it was made for them, and only them, when they want to listen. And I love that.
The idea that a drama can be part of the soundtrack to everyday life is magical to me.
Think of a memory you have.
Think of a person related to that memory that isn’t you.
Now think of a memorable sound that they might have heard that day. What was it?
Take that sound. Think about someone else who heard it too. A second person. Maybe on that same day, maybe on another day.
What did they think when they heard the sound? What was going through their mind?
Take that second person. Write down the ten most important sounds that they have heard in their life to date.
What have you learnt about them?
Before we continue
We should address the elephant in the room, which is the reason a lot of people are thinking about writing audio drama, right now. I’m writing this in the middle of a pandemic, and that pandemic is keeping us from seeing each other in great numbers, and that in turn is keeping many (most) venues from staging any live performance or welcoming any audiences.
But while this feels like a great time to be writing for audio – no need for an audience! Actors can record from home! – I’d urge you not retool your stage idea just because you can’t imagine a time when it will ever get made.
I know how hard it is, believe me, but ideas that need an audience will always need an audience – it’s worth waiting for, I promise. Hold on, if you can. The bodies will come back, and the theatres will need your play.
Instead, take the time to find an idea that you want to be an audio play. If that happens to be the same as your stage play, then crack on. If not, keep digging, you’ll find something.
Most of the best audio plays I’ve heard were always meant to be audio plays, I think.
It’s not a temporary substitute for live theatre. It’s it’s own, wonderful format, with its own challenges and rewards, and if you embrace it as such, it’ll reward you.
PART TWO: How I write for audio.
I love writing for audio. I love it so much. I love being in the recording and watching the actors do amazing things in the space of a few hours. I love listening to the first version, before it’s aired, too nervous to sit down. I love it when other people get to listen to it, in their own time, in their own lives.
What I love most about writing for audio is that there is no one way to do it well. I’ve written on this website before about how I approach the relationship between form, structure and content (WEEK SEVEN- Form, Content and Structure: It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it-by James Fritz – The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting (writeaplay.co.uk)).
I think one of the things that audio writing shares with writing for stage – and why so many theatre writers also make a lot of work for audio platforms – is that it embraces (and actually, demands) formal variation. You really can write about anything in any way you choose.
To demonstrate, I’ll try and explain each of my audio dramas to date, where the ideas came from, and how we went about executing them.
I’ve been lucky enough to have three radio plays made so far, all of which have been produced, edited and directed by a genius called Becky Ripley. (Becky is one of those collaborators that elevates everything she touches: the only reason I’m writing this right now, is because of her. She understands sound and storytelling unlike anyone I’ve ever met. If you can find someone not just to record your play, but to build a whole sonic world out of it, you’re onto a winner.)
Comment Is Free (2016) was my first radio play. It was written in 2015 and is a play about the assassination of a Katie Hopkins/Nigel Farage-esque right-wing political commentator, and about the public fallout from that event. Specifically, it was my attempt to try and dramatise how a news story feels when put through the public opinion grinder. It features a chorus of voices, all talking and arguing over the top of each both on the internet and in real life, swirling around the listener as the news story plays out. To achieve this we used a mixture of written text and improvised comments, all crowd sourced by a mixture of actors and non-actors. Becky then created a collage of voices, which was then contrasted by more intimate, conventional moments with Alistair’s family. It’s a play where feeling and form takes precedence over plot, I think.
Here’s an extract. It’s best listened to with headphones:
My second radio play, Death Of A Cosmonaut is from 2017, and dramatises the true life story of Vladimir Komarov, the Russian Cosmonaut who was sent into space in a faulty spacecraft knowing he would never come back. The play is mostly written from the perspective of Komarov’s inner monologue as he argues with himself, trapped above the Earth in space, with occasional interruptions from Mission Control and his wife, Valentina.
The story felt perfect for radio in a completely different way to Comment Is Free. While Comment was about a multiplicity of voices making noise, Cosmonaut was about a singular voice, all alone amidst endless silence. Komarov’s isolation in the face of disaster was fascinating to me – what if we could get not only inside his Soyuz capsule, but inside his head as he came to terms with his fate? Could I capture linguistically and sonically how it feels to await and then experience death? To do this I wrote a sort of warring inner voice, arguing with itself, and in the edit Becky layered and repeated several versions of each line over the top of each other to try and replicate the feeling of a slowly fracturing mind,
My third play, Eight Point Nine Nine (2020), was very different again. A fictional documentary about a genetic experiment that would allow a man to run the 100m sprint in under nine seconds, it told the story after the fact, allowing the characters to explain what happened from their very different perspectives. We decided to ape the documentary format to make use of the authority and, particularly, the intimacy that radio is so good at. The same quality that has made people listen to Desert Island Discs for eighty years helped us sell a near-future sci-fi story as a very real feeling human drama.
You can still listen to the whole thing over on BBC sounds here: BBC Radio 4 – Drama, Eight Point Nine Nine
If Comment was an exercise at putting the listener at the centre of a storm, and Cosmonaut was an exercise in putting them inside someone’s head, Eight Point Nine Nine was about putting them inside the room with the characters.
In all three instances, however, I wrote – and Becky directed – with the listener at the heart of everything.
Each of these plays was written and made using totally different processes, each of them allowed me to experiment with completely different forms and explore completely different worlds, and each of them wouldn’t have worked as well if they weren’t audio plays.
Think about a favourite scene you have from a play or a film that takes its power from its visuals. An action scene maybe, or a beautiful moment of physicality.
Now I want you to do an act of translation. Think about how you would rewrite that scene for audio.
How would you use sound/noise/dialogue/monologue/description/silence/ every technique at your disposal.
How do you write something that will put the listener at the heart of the moment, that will let them recreate that moment for themselves, in their head?
There are people who have been listening to The Archers, the BBC’s long running radio soap opera, for fifty years and still don’t know what any of the actors look like.
Why would they need to? They know what their voices sound like, and they sure as hell know what the characters look like in their minds. What’s lovely is, that their head-version of Eddie or Helen looks totally different to the version playing in the mind of the listener who lives down the street.
I feel like there is something in the act of listening to a good audio drama that feels a little like daydreaming, or reading a good book. Information goes to your brain via your ears and suddenly, out of nowhere you are creating costumes, sets, histories, whole worlds. The mind’s eye of your listener is a brilliant instinctive designer – you have to learn to trust it.
The first time I ever really learnt about radio drama was in a class led by a writer called Sue Teddern. One of the first things she played to us was an old radio comedy written by Timothy West. I’ve always remembered it.
It’s called This Gun In My Right Hand Is Loaded and is a spoof of a bad radio play:
BRING UP MUSIC THEN CROSSFADE TO TRAFFIC NOISES.
WIND BACKED BY SHIP’S SIRENS, DOG BARKING, HANSOM CAB, ECHOING FOOTSTEPS, KEY CHAIN, DOOR OPENING, SHUTTING)
(off) Who’s that?
Who do you think, Laura, my dear? Your husband.
(approaching) Why, Clive!
My, what a big boy you’re getting.
Let’s see, how old are you now?
I’m six, Daddy.
Now Daddy’s tired, Richard, run along upstairs and I’ll call you when it’s supper time.
All right, Mummy.
(RICHARD RUNS HEAVILY UP WOODEN STAIRS)
What’s that you’ve got under your arm, Clive?
It’s an evening paper, Laura.
I’ve just been reading about the Oppenheimer smuggling case, (effort noise) Good gracious, it’s nice to sit down after that long train journey from the insurance office in the City.
Let me get you a drink, Clive darling.
(LENGTHY POURING, CLINK)
Thank you, Laura, my dear.
(CLINK, SIP, GULP)
Aah! Amontillado, eh? Good stuff.
What are you having?
I think I’ll have a whisky, if it’s all the same to you.
(CLINK, POURING, SYPHON)
Whisky, eh? That’s a strange drink for an attractive auburn-haired girl of twenty nine.
You get the gist.
The play is a brilliant take down of how bad audio drama often overdoes the exposition. (The whole thing can be found here if you want more: This Gun That I Have in My Right Hand is Loaded – Clyp).
Just because there are no visual clues, doesn’t mean you have to overload your text. The slightest word, tone of voice, intonation will tell us all we need to know about a character, a room, a world. Who cares if every listener imagines a slightly different version of your main character? That ambiguity is one of audio drama’s greatest strengths – it lets the listener take ownership of a story, helps them immerse themselves completely in a world, on their terms.
When Becky and I were rewriting Death of A Cosmonaut, we decided that everything that made up Vladimir Komarov’s inner monologue could be written in English, but everything he said out loud should be in Russian, as it would have been at the time. It was our instinct that this would add massively to the atmosphere and texture of the play.
This meant, however, that the play’s emotional climax – where Komarov talks to his wife for the last time – would be performed in a language that most of the audience wouldn’t understand.
Below, you can listen to the relevant extract. For context, Komarov knows that he is going to die in space, and he has been told that Mission Control has his wife Valentina on the line. Valentina, however, doesn’t know his fate.
Helped by Julian Rhind-Tutt and Karina Weidmann’s incredible performances (and me doing a bit of cheating using Komarov’s inner monologue) we hopefully get a feel for the conversation without having to know the specifics. See what you think:
If you can speak Russian, you know what they’re saying. If you can’t, well, the idea is that the tone of their voices and the rhythm of the language means that you kinda know what they’re saying anyway.
Give your listener’s ears just enough and they’ll come up with the rest, and that will make for a much richer experience.
Trust them, basically.
Next time you are around strangers, try and eavesdrop on a conversation. Don’t be rude, don’t get too close, but try and listen.
Importantly: don’t look at the people you are listening to! Try and separate their voices from their physical selves.
What do you learn about them from their conversation?
What do you learn about them – and their relationship – from the way they talk?
The language they use? The sound and rhythm of their voice? Their use of idioms and phrasing, their use of silence.
Now pick one.
Think about their inner monologue. Would it sound different? If so, how? If not, why not?
So what are you waiting for?
There has never been a better time to be writing audio dramas, and not just because of social distancing. There are new platforms and podcasts springing up every day all over the world. Theatres are producing more and more audio work, in unique and fascinating forms.
There is room for work that is five minutes long and there is room for a 40 hour series. For the experimental and the traditional, the personal and the epic. For every genre you can think of.
And there is an audience for it. In normal times, more people will listen to the Radio 4 afternoon drama every day than will visit the Olivier Theatre at The National in a year. What’s even better is that audience is growing and diversifying with every new platform that springs up.
It’s also so fun to write for.
It’s a medium that is in love with language, in love with the very sound of the words that you write. A medium that allows you to wrap your writing around your audience entirely. Just chuck them in a big word lake and let them swim in your story.
You can let them eavesdrop on the private conversations of people they will never meet. You can make them hear every breath, every stutter, every intonation, every laugh. You can creep up behind them and whisper in their ear, or shout at them from every direction.
You can repeat yourself again and again. You can use silence. You can scare them or you can sing them a lullaby and if you do your job right they can be transported across time and space without going anywhere.
You can use the magic of sound to briefly turn their attention to something powerful and unique in a world that feels more demanding than ever.
I want you to picture that person driving the car, listening to your drama on the way home.
Now watch them as they carefully pull over to the side of the road, put the handbrake on, and turn off the engine, so captivated by what they are hearing that they don’t want to miss a syllable.
That’s what you should be aiming for. That moment. Go write it.
Listen listen listen to as much as you can. Listen to the good stuff, Listen to the stuff you hate. Listen with headphones. Learn from all of it. Steal from all of it. Then get in contact with the people who make the stuff you like.
Some things I’ve been listening to recently:
The afternoon drama is played every weekday on BBC Radio 4 at 2.15pm. Subscribe to the BBC’s Drama of The Week Podcast on BBC Sounds.
Season seven of Roy Williams’ masterful The Interrogation can be found here: BBC Radio 4 – The Interrogation – Available now.
Becky Ripley (who I was lucky enough to have produce my plays) and Bruntwood prize winner Timothy X. Atack stretched what was possible with their epic series Forest 404. BBC Radio 4 – Forest 404 . Each episode comes with an accompanying soundscape and original music from Bonobo.
Al Smith is a writer of immense heart and formal craft, and Lifelines, his series set in an ambulance control room is brilliant. The whole thing is online: BBC Radio 4 – Life Lines – Available now.
Margaret Perry’s ‘A Passion Play’ A Passion Play – The North Wall, Oxford is a really lovely example of how intimate an audio drama can feel. It’s like you’re on the bench there with them.
Check out Fizzy Sherbet, (https://www.fizzysherbetplays.com/podcast) a new podcast that started this year, designed to showcase womxn writers. Every episode features a short play followed by an interview with the writer and a discussion. I really enjoyed Eve Leigh’s super tense White Tuesday. It’s got a great, jumpy sound design.
And that’s literally off the top of my head – there is so, so much stuff out there, seriously. Get it in your ears.
Have a lovely rest of your day, thanks for reading.
James Fritz is a multi-award-winning writer from South London, whose plays for stage and radio include Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, Parliament Square, Ross & Rachel, Start Swimming, The Fall, Comment Is Free, Death of A Cosmonaut and Lava. He has won the Critics Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright, a Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and the Imison and Tinniswood BBC Audio Drama Awards, the first time a writer has won both in the same year. He has also been nominated for an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre, a BBC Radio Award for Best Single Drama, and was named runner-up in the 2013 Verity Bargate Award. He is a graduate of both the Channel Four Screenwriting Program and the BBC TV Drama Writers Program and has a number of original television series in development.