“Writing and performance quality are crucial. Listeners can put up with some sound quality flaws, but if the story doesn’t suck them in, they won’t stick around.”
We’re big fans of audio drama and fiction podcasts here at The Podcast Host. As listeners we’re always looking for new shows to subscribe to, and as podcasters we’re always looking to help fellow creators grow their audience.
Each week we’ll pick the brains of someone who runs an audio drama or fiction podcast. We’re going to ask them what their show is about, how they go about making it, and what other fiction podcasts they’re currently enjoying.
This week we’re talking to Kat O’Connor and Michael Coorlim, creators of the audio drama series Synesthesia Theatre.
Give us a written trailer for your show. Why should we listen?
Synesthesia Theatre is conceived as ‘cinema of the mind’, dedicated to telling engaging stories through well-crafted writing, performances, and sound effects to evoke a cinematic experience in the mind’s eye.
It is a serial anthology podcast featuring self-contained 8–12 episode seasons performed by full casts of professional actors from the Chicago independent film and theater community.
Each episode runs ‘commute length’: between 20 and 30 minutes long. Storylines and genre will vary from season to season, but our production company’s focus on fostering representation and the normalization of diverse casts in entertainment media will be a consistent feature.
The first season, ‘Iron Horses Can’t Be Broken’, is an 11-episode steampunk western which delves into themes of family, personal identity, and confronting the sins of the past.
The second season, ‘Cold Reboot’, is a 9-part cyberpunk thriller, currently on episode 4: Erica Crawford awakens from a coma with no memory of the past ten years and must rebuild a life with no money, no job history, and no friends – while being stalked by assassins from a past she can’t remember.
At the most basic level we wanted to tell compelling stories, so we used the tools available to us.
Michael was already a fan of audio drama, and he saw that it was just on the cusp of something of a renaissance, particularly with the popularity of Serial drawing in audiences and converting many of them to fans of a medium they hadn’t explored before.
We felt there was an opportunity to tell the kinds of stories we wanted to tell, stories that were otherwise fairly sparse in the entertainment landscape.
A lot of audio drama has a certain similarity to it in terms of scope and subject matter, and we wanted to bring something different to the table in terms of presentation and production.
Docu-dramas are everywhere now, and we decided to move away from ‘lone investigator recording his or her investigations into the unnatural’ found-footage-style stories.
Kat comes from a film and theatre background and we both have a very visual approach to story, so we naturally gravitated toward a more cinematic style, to evoke something visual with sound. Hence Synesthesia Theatre – the activation of one sense (hearing) inducing a response in another (vision).
That’s not to say that nobody else is doing what we’re doing, but it remains fairly niche, and we wanted to go in this slightly different direction.
How did you come up with the idea?
Kat grew into the idea of creating Burning Brigid Media over a couple of years. As an actor she was frustrated at the lack of substantive roles available to her in the usual casting calls and was tired of seeing the same kinds of stories done over and over again on TV and film.
Michael has been a fan of audio-drama podcasts for some time so, when we were looking for new project ideas to produce, he came up with the idea of doing an ongoing seasonal series.
The overhead would be much lower when compared to short films or video web series, and we knew a lot of people who would be interested in performing.
Can you give an insight into your process for writing, recording, and producing the show?
Our first two seasons have been adaptations of Michael’s novels, which is a matter of both convenience and opportunity.
It takes a lot less work to adapt a 250-page novel into ten episodes of scripts than it is to come up with something from nothing.
That’s not to say you can just copy and paste – adaptation from prose to audio requires some serious conversion work in terms of how information is presented to your audience. A failure to understand this will lead to an unsatisfying listening experience. However, in adaptation the bulk of the creative work in terms of story development and structure has already been done for you.
We have a 30-minute one-off episode exclusive to the members of our mailing list: ‘Simple Harmonic Motion’. This was done the other way around – I wrote it as an audio drama script and later adapted it into a short story.
I may do this with our next season, which will be written audio first, but the key here is to use the intellectual properties we create as efficiently as possible. If we write it, we have the licensing rights for use in other media, so why not?
We also accept season pitches from other writers. Pitch us and, if we like what we hear, we’ll ask you to write the season for us, which we will then produce. In this case, of course, the writer retains all rights to their own story, save the performance we record.
Our production process is taken from our experience with film-making.
We hold an open casting for local Chicago actors and give them about a month to self-tape and submit an audition. Then we sift through the auditions and spend a few days choosing who we want.
We then construct a recording schedule based on availability – with around a dozen actors per season this can be a bit complex, as everybody has day jobs and other projects that they’re working on.
During production we record scenes based on which actors are in which scenes – just as in film-making, we record scenes out of chronological order – in order to get everybody in and out as efficiently as possible. In ‘Cold Reboot’, for example, many of our actors were able to wrap their part in a single 2–3 hour session; only the producers were there all three days.
We prefer recording actors locally rather than remote, simply because this gives them the opportunity to build chemistry and respond to each other’s tone, energy, and character and scene choices.
We work collaboratively, and often our actors make choices that were not obvious from the script, but better than what we had imagined. Some of our best moments have been ad-libbed, or emotion that arose spontaneously between two people talking and responding to each other in the moment.
It would lose something if in these spontaneous moments the reactions were not genuine, or worse, if there was no reaction at all.
It also allows exploration of the material – for the same scene, one take might be enraged, another might be frustrated tears. We live in a city full of talented actors who develop their craft constantly – we’d be fools not to take advantage. The veracity of their interaction can be felt in the finished product.
Depending on the number of characters, and the number and complexity of scenes, this process takes two to four 6-hour recording days for the season.
Post-production takes a few passes. First we edit the raw audio scene by scene, removing flubs and outtakes, choosing the best take, and roughly getting timing and flow right.
Next we do basic audio clean-up: EQ, noise removal, and then we design and engineer environmental soundscapes and sound effects, which can be quite complex, especially for fight scenes.
There’s a final round of tweaking and polishing before individual scenes are mixed down and assembled into an episode. Opening/closing credits and transition music are added, and we’re good to go.
Could you tell us three other audio drama or fiction podcasts that you like?
What advice do you have for someone who wants to create a podcast like yours?
Take your time. Do your research. Listen to a lot of shows and get a feeling for what they’re doing right, and what you’d do differently. Listen to the ADPP, read books on the topic, and have a clear idea of what it is you want to do before you get started.
Writing and performance quality are crucial. Listeners can put up with some sound quality flaws, but if the story doesn’t suck them in, they won’t stick around.
Also, get involved in your arts community. Make friends. Create stuff together. We’ve gotten some indispensable help and advice simply because we’re friends with sound designers, actors, and especially folks who self-produce (anything, not just audio drama) and have been professionally hustling for their art and making friends along the way, just as we have.
Finally, where can we find you on the web?
Burning Brigid Media: www.burningbrigid.com
Synesthesia Theatre: www.burningbrigid.com/synesthesia-theatre
Submission Guidelines: www.burningbrigid.com/submit-to-synesthesia-theatre
On iTunes: www.itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/synesthesia-theatre/id1080687314
Mailing list: www.burningbrigid.com/join-our-mailing-list
To find more great shows like this, check out our other Fiction Podcast of the Week features.