Recently, I had a discussion with a long time audio drama producer of literally hundreds of shows. Our conversation turned to various topics around our favourite medium. At one point, we focused on how many new audio dramaphiles seem to be coming from the Dirk Maggs school of radio drama production. Mr. Maggs is the phenomenal writer/director/editor/producer of many hits including Batman: Knightfall, The Gemini Apes, and most recently Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. In a Sonic Speaks interview, Mr. Maggs spoke of his love of cinema and his desire to make movies, but found audio drama more flexible and creative. It got me wondering, if he is one of the few exceptions that “proves the rule”.
So many people see radio drama as movies “without the images” or “movies of the mind” but it really is a different medium. If anything, after the last decade of listening to audio drama, I find more in common with stage theatre and audio drama than I do with moving pictures.
1. Limited Stage
While movies can have three or more plots happening concurrently, that’s much more difficult to achieve in audio drama. Certainly, your imagination is unleashed in the audio play, but the story still must remain carefully focused in one “set” at a time. Move too much around on a stage too quickly, and you lose the momentum of the play. The same goes with audio drama. A story has to have a clear setting and audioscape or you risk losing your listeners.
2. Limited Cast
Background crowds and wallas are more of an aspect of the atmosphere of an audio drama in the same way as music provides mood. The most challenging audio dramas to listen to have more than six speaking characters. One of the hot button topics is “How many women characters do you have in your play?” when the more pertinent question might be, “How many unique voices/characters are being represented?” I’m not speaking about race or ethnicity which (unless provided as a stereotype) goes virtually unnoticed in an audio show, but rather simply truly unique sounding actors? One of the big difficulties for actors is having variation in vocal tones and notes between people in a scene. Have two women that have similar vocal inflections, accents and pitches, and you will confuse people even more. Movies can have massive casts because the visual cues will certainly help differentiate who is performing.
3. Limited Pacing
Movies can have a ten minute car chase with next to no dialogue. Or a fight scene of the deck of a pirate ship with vast technocolor explosions. Fight scenes and high-paced action sequences always threaten to leave you audience behind without either narration or dialogue that helps clue in the listener as to what is happening. Long chunks of fight scenes without clear direction for the audience becomes tiring to listen to, and can leave people shrugging the shoulders saying, “I guess they won?” Action movies have a whole lot less dialogue for a reason. They fill the story with images. Trying to do exactly the same thing in audio will befuddle more than thrill. Stage fighting has a long history of clearly detailing what is going on for the audience and still maintaining a level of excitement and daring.
When I listen to audio dramas that were made by producers who wish they were making movies, I know. They are either narrative heavy, which throws the audience out of the action, or they are so confusing as to leave the audience turning off hoping they can find a quieter time to better try to decode what exactly was going on.
I suspect that Dirk Maggs’ brilliance in the arena of audio movies, is because of his deep understanding of the limitations of radio drama, and where he can dynamically express the story. As much as he loves movies, I’m certain he recognizes that he’s not making them. When you’re making your audio drama, it might do well to think of the magic of the theatre, and consider how you can use sound effects to expand that story, than to tell a film in mp3.