Spin class gets personal.
Everybody SCREAM!!! was produced by Jonathan Mitchell and his colleagues over at The Truth - a podcast of "short films without pictures." Here's radio drama - like you've never heard it before - that examines reality and asks "what if, how come, and why not?"
Jonathan Mitchell shares thoughts about why producing fiction can be harder than documentary, and radio's sensitivity to authenticity, Behind the Scenes.
Jonathan Mitchell is the creator and producer of The Truth. He's contributed a wide range of pieces—documentaries, fictional stories, non-narrated sound collages, and original music— to all sorts of public radio programs: Radiolab, Studio 360, This American Life, The Next Big Thing, and All Things Considered, to name a few. His work has won many awards, including the Peabody, the Golden Reel, and the Gold Mark Time Award for Best Science Fiction Audio. Mitchell studied music composition at University of Illinois and Mills College. He lives in New York City.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Jonathan Mitchell
What's the easiest way to describe The Truth to, you know, that person in a business suit sitting next to you on the airplane?
Our tag line is "movies for your ears," we make short dramatic fiction using only sound. The goal is to be a contemporary re-imagining of what radio drama is and can be. Each story is typically 10-15 minutes long, and we develop our stories collaboratively through a combination of brainstorming, writing, improvisation and the sound editing process. I sometimes say, "if This American Life were fictional, but done more in the style of Radiolab, that's kind of what we sound like." In other words, we make intimate dramatic fiction that's conveyed using a wide sonic vocabulary.
How does your documentary and/or composing background inform your approach to creating fictional drama? Does it ever get in the way?
I don't think it ever gets in the way, it only helps. But what ultimately makes fiction satisfying for me is really very different from what I like in a documentary or piece of music, so having that background isn't enough to actually solve the problem. I had to learn a lot about how fiction works before I could really start making stories that satisfied me, and I've still got plenty to learn.
Sometimes I find myself approaching certain aspects of the fiction writing process a little like a documentary. For instance, in documentaries, I collect interviews and make stories by choosing phrases and sentences from the interviews, and then I string those phrases together in a sequence that tells a story. And I tend to do the same sort of thing with our fiction stories. We generate lots of material through improvisation, and then I go through it and select little bits of dialogue, and find each scene by looking for a way of stringing together just the material that I feel really works for the story. I try not to get hung up on what we'd initially planned, or what the story outline says. I just try to make the best story I can out of the material we've collected. That way, I'm working directly with sound as the story is still being written -- the performances guide the dialogue choices. And as a result, the performances feel more organic and expressive to me.
After many years in documentary media, why have you switched gears and begun exploring this world of fiction / truth through fiction?
I've always wanted to get to a place where I was primarily making audio fiction. In the mid 90's, I was at Mills College studying music composition, and my master's thesis project was a radio drama, and my plan all along was to eventually do a show like this.
I was always interested in exploring documentary, too, and there just happen to be way more opportunities to do that in public radio. And so for a while, I kept getting offered jobs to work on shows or do freelance work, and it was usually documentary or reality-oriented. But I would always be looking for ways of sneaking in fictional stuff. I guess I feel that radio drama offers an opportunity for a purer form of radio -- it doesn't exist to talk about something else or interview someone about their thing. It is the thing. And that always appealed to me.
Eventually, I reached a point where I felt like there was no good reason to put it off any longer. I had gone through a series of jobs which put me in more of a supporting role on other people's shows, and I realized that what I really wanted was a show of my own, that expressed my own sensibilities as a producer. And I feel like radio drama is a good combination of all my interests and strengths, and an area where I might have something to offer.
Is this kind of production work easier or harder than straight documentary? Am guessing: a little of both...
I think it's harder. I mean, some parts of it are probably easier, but that's canceled out by other parts of it that I find much more challenging. It's difficult to write good fiction. You need to create a believable reality from nothing, make it feel surprising without feeling arbitrary, and give it a sense of purpose without feeling didactic. There are so many moving parts, so many places where it can go wrong, and it takes a lot of focus and coordination. And I think what people perceive as the content of fiction has a very different nature than the content of a documentary. It's more metaphorical, more poetic, more subjective. It's about choosing to represent the world in a particular way, and the meaning that we glean from experiencing those choices in action. It's a bit ephemeral to say why a particular piece of fiction works, and I think that's one of the reasons why it feels so magical when it does.
Were you inspired by particular old radio dramas, in creating The Truth?
No. I've tried but, the truth is, I find most old radio drama corny and off-putting. It's difficult for me to engage with it, because the dominant styles of performance tend to be so self-consciously "performed." Joe Frank is one of the only radio dramatists whose work I really connected with as an audience member, because his work along these lines is based in improvisation, which can lead to a more authentic-feeling performance style.
I was far more inspired by filmmakers, and the idea of doing something that feels like a film, but has no visuals. I'm really interested in exploring the kinds of storytelling options that are only available when you have no visuals. It's closer to music -- I've always been fascinated with the idea of making music that sounds like a movie. There's a remarkable degree of flexibility with editing audio when it's not attached to a visual, we perceive space much differently. It's fun to think in terms of what works as a purely sonic experience, and the unique ways that our brains process that kind of information.
Though radio drama once loomed large on the airwaves, its popularity has waned over the years. Why doesn't (most) drama appeal to the public radio universe, and why (or how) has The Truth succeeded where others have failed?
I don't really know that The Truth has succeeded yet, and people would have to decide for themselves whether they like it or not. But I do have theories about why most radio drama hasn't really worked on public radio, and very strong opinions about the kind of dramatic fiction I would prefer to hear.
For one thing, I think radio as a medium is particularly sensitive to authenticity, and fiction is inherently inauthentic. And on the radio, the elements that might serve to undermine authenticity are particularly naked, because there are no pretty pictures to distract us. For example, I think one area that is very problematic is in the habits that have formed around how actors perform on the radio. I feel very strongly that in order to achieve a sense of authenticity, the performances need to feel connected to the physical world. I think there's a misconception that the voice is all that matters in radio performance. We live life with our whole bodies moving and bending and jumping and eating, and all of those things affect the sound of one's voice. And so, with The Truth we like to record on location, and capture a sense of physical space and movement in the performances. We're trying to get away from methods that emphasize the inauthenticity of the endeavor.
But even more than that, I think it has to do with the writing. Writing fiction is difficult, and always will be. So much so, that most people will forgive lousy technique if the writing is good. But a lot of modern radio drama seems way more concerned with technique, probably because it's easier to master. They'll have tons of sound effects, and spend all this time getting really great recordings, but there's no story. Or if there is a story, it's told poorly, or just regurgitates familiar cliches. Either that, or they just want to do old-timey stuff that pretends that it's still the 1940's, and they want to play dress up in their fedoras and act like radio drama is some kind of joke. I mean look, I'm not saying our writing is great literature. But we do approach radio drama as a contemporary medium capable of delivering fiction that's as relevant as the fiction found in any other medium, and we try to give people something they haven't heard before.
I also think that a lot of the people who might be talented enough to pull off great radio drama are more often drawn to film and television, because there's more money and support there, and it gets more respect in our culture. I don't believe there's anything inherent in radio drama that should lead to this disrespect, I think it's primarily due to systematic marginalization by the people who have been in control of the programming, combined with a general lack of imagination for how it can exist as a relevant form of expression in our world.
Are you surprised by how receptive the public radio audience has been, given this more recent indifference to the form? Did being featured on This American Life a few months back feel especially validating?
I think, generally speaking, people don't really care if it's documentary or fiction. They just want to enjoy what they're hearing. They don't want to feel as though they are wasting their time. And so, I try not to waste peoples' time. I think people will love radio drama when they hear radio drama that they love -- it's really that simple.
Having been on This American Life was a real honor. It took a great deal of effort and patience to actually make that happen. And I imagine that Ira took a bit of a risk in putting us on his show, because our story was so different from what they normally air. It's genuinely difficult to get noticed as a podcast, and being on their show gave our podcast exposure to a very large audience, and led to a really strong base of regular listeners. But I feel like we're just beginning, and people are still finding us.
Where do story ideas originate for The Truth, and how are they developed? There are a few of you at The Truth HQ, no?
We have a group of regular performer/writers: Ed Herbstman, Melanie Hoopes, Christian Paluck, Chet Siegel, Louis Kornfeld, Matt Evans, and Amy Warren. We meet once a week, along with Kerrie Hillman, who co-produces the podcast with me. Along the way, Peter Clowney also helps us out by offering editorial guidance.
Generally, one person will suggest an idea for a story that they've been thinking about, and the rest of us will start riffing on the idea and see where we can take it. Usually, the person who suggested the idea will then go off and write a draft of an outline, and then at our next meeting we'll all talk about what works in the outline and what could be improved upon. After about 2-3 rounds of this, we'll have a pretty good idea of what the story is, where and how we'll record it, and how to cast it.
We generally don't use scripted dialogue - we almost always work from outlines & improvise, unless there's a specific need for a scene to be scripted, like the technical jargon in Moon Graffiti. We record lots of improv around the outlines, sometimes we'll do a scene as many as 15-20 times. And then I find the story in the improv, using only the dialogue that feels right for the story. So it's very collaborative, and the story is constantly being revised throughout the entire process.
Specifically, where did Everybody SCREAM!!! come from? Jonathan, are you a spinner?!
Everybody SCREAM!!! was Chet Siegel's idea. She prepared the outline, and we all threw in ideas about what shape the story should take. Chet is the spinner in the group, and she takes classes with a very charismatic spin instructor, a real character. And so we based the story around her experience taking that class. At one point, she actually recorded a class, and we used that recording to get a feel for the kinds of things the instructor might say, and to get musical ideas. I think that helped it feel more authentic.
The casting of the story made a big difference (as it always does). Emily Tarver plays the bakery-owner character, she's got a really distinctive voice, one that feels very different from Chet's, who plays the nurse. The instructor was played by Ed Herbstman, and all three of them are excellent improvisors, very experienced and full of ideas. The inner thoughts were all improvised, they had certain beats we knew we wanted to hit, and we just recorded tons and tons of material around those beats. We tried all kinds of things that didn't end up in the story. We took it in several different directions, and then I sorted though it all at the editing stage and found the final version of the story there. The writing of this story was a highly collaborative effort, everybody contributed ideas, and they all got sifted and funneled through the editing process.
How is Everybody SCREAM!!! emblematic of The Truth's sound, overall?
Well, we try to stay flexible about what defines our sound, we're always trying new things with different combinations of elements. But the idea that we're generating dialogue and ideas through improv, and then finding the story in the collected material, leads to a particular sound that I think is emblematic of our style. Also, there's probably something about the way I tend to use music and sound design that can be heard very clearly in this piece, but I try not to think about that. Really, we're not consciously trying to do any one thing consistently, other than make good stories. If there is a consistent sound to all of them, it's a byproduct of our instincts as individuals, and not a calculated effect.
Would The Truth work just on the radio? Or is the podcast key to its success as a show?
I don't feel like the fact that it's a podcast affects my creative choices as a producer very much, in terms of the shaping and presentation of the content. I feel as though I approach it pretty much the same way I've been producing radio for the past 15 years.
What the podcast offers us is an opportunity to prove that there's an audience for this kind of work, and to demonstrate what we're capable of doing. It's also a laboratory to experiment with different methods of producing stories, to see how quickly and efficiently we can make them, so that we can make this a cost-effective option for potential funders.
But right now, we do the podcast entirely for free -- no one is getting paid. And frankly, I'm not sure how long we can sustain that. We all need to supplement the podcast with paying work, which takes time away from making the podcast, which makes it difficult to keep a regular schedule, which makes it difficult to maintain an audience, which makes it difficult to attract funding... It's a catch-22, and we're still trying to find a way to make it work.
We need money in order to do this the way it should really be done, on a regular production schedule in which everyone is getting paid, so that we can commission writers and have more stories in production. We're exploring the idea of putting ads on the podcast, but that doesn't come close to covering the time we put into it yet. So we're hoping that we can do strong enough work that we can prove our case, so that a station or distributor or someone with access to money for this type of thing will decide that they believe in what we're doing, and will help us do it for real. Podcasting is great for access to an audience, but there's very little opportunity to earn money in it right now.