The Obstacle of Technique

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Stop trying to teach or correct artists. This is an altogether fruitless task. If they are artists, they will rightfully ignore their critics and go their way. If they eventually adopt our view or take our advice, the act probably will not be flattering to the critic. — Henry Holmes Smith, “Improving My Criticism”

Two great obstacles to a wider appreciation of audio drama face new listeners at every turn. The first is the lack of a real critical history. A comprehensive, comparative history of radio drama remains yet to be written. Without such a history, new listeners remain adrift without a navigator.

The greater obstacle, however, is not what has not been written but rather what has. To take a leading example, visit Audio Drama Review. A full twenty of Mr. Snowe’s fifty-seven posts are not reviews at all but strictly technical advice. Most of his “reviews” spend half or more of their word count discussing the same subject. Mr. Snowe, a critic and not a practitioner, uses these posts to discuss how he believes audio drama producers should use silences, how and when to use accents, how to employ correct word usage, and a score of other such topics. Here are some samples of the critic’s wisdom:

Discover the Peak Emotion of the scene/play. Each major character has an emotional peak. This doesn’t mean that every scene has a “yelling” or “angry” moment. But there is a point in the play where a character reaches a crossroads, a choice (forced or otherwise) and a catharsis. Find the spots where your character needs to draw especially meaningful lines and pick them careful. Make notes of any questions you might have about those moments.

Here’s a suggestion. Go out to a local coffee shop with your personal recording device and sit near people. Record their conversations. If you find that too conspicuous, then go with a notebook and write down what they say verbatim. Don’t be over clever in your choice of words.

Many audio drama producers suffer from being in love with their words. Dialogue slows plot. Action speeds it up. Use dialogue to set up your next scenes of action.

Employ techniques such as fading out of a lovemaking scene before it gets too robust. Use music in your fades to help paint the picture. Cut to the “after glow” of the moment and let your actors express their post-coital ease with each other.

I could cite several other examples. Mr. Snowe evidently presumes that his role as a critic is to dispense technical advice on how to write, how to act, how to edit audio and the like. This is not the critic’s bailiwick. The purpose of criticism is to illuminate and invite attention to a work. Contrary to popular belief, the audience for criticism is not an audience of artists but rather a general audience with a general interest in the subject. Even when such advice as Mr. Snowe seems determined to foist comes from practitioners it is largely unhelpful for that reason. General audiences do not share an interest in the technical production of audio drama any more than they care whether or not a film uses HMI or quartz-halide lighting to effect or what type of nib artists use with their pens. It simply is not relevant.

The problem is not limited to critics. Julie Hoverson’s 19 Nocturne Boulevard regularly treads this ground not only in her blog but also her “Tone Didactic” podcasts. Other podcasters also regularly indulge in the habit of giving technical advice. Regularly one can read about what types of microphones to use, how to write for radio, and the like.

But why? Technique is overrated. Anything a beginner needs to know about producing audio drama can be learned in a week. A week of studying production technique will produce an average hack artist. But in the absence of ideas, technique means nothing. To discuss technique before aesthetics is complete foolishness, even more so for the average listener who has little interest in either. The average listener is unlikely to care about the differences between cardioid, hypercardioid and omnidirectional microphones. One is much more likely to be interested in a discussion about Wally K. Daly or experimental uses of photographs in video podcasts of audio drama or in new recordings of classic audio dramas.

Unfortunately there are not nearly enough such discussions. When an art is truly healthy, it reaches many people across all social and political lines. It interests these lay members of society enough to read about and to discuss. A good measure of the health of an art is to measure how and how often it is discussed by the laity. I often do this through a casual survey of the magazines and books devoted to the arts. Film, obviously, is a healthy art. Books about film and film history outnumber books about filmmaking in an extraordinary ratio, especially in books published after 1980. Painting, too, shares a similar ratio and remains similarly popular. The number of general writings on the subject should be much higher than the number of writings on technique. When the ratio of articles favors the technical side, the art is in danger of obscurity.

In audio drama, the ratio of technical advice to general history probably is the reverse of what it should be for a true health. This is partly due to the current obscurity of audio drama but it is also a cause of such obscurity. Writing about audio drama as though only current and future practitioners are the audience will go a long way in ensuring that is exactly what happens. Quoting Martha Graham, “Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.” Great audio drama, too, is not great because of its technique but because it strives to delight, instruct, probe, reconsider, provoke.

If the critics are ever to engage their proper duties fully, they must first have a good dose of humility about the ones they have improperly wrested. Audio drama does not need more babble about how to help people make their first Star Trek audio drama parody. The field needs interested historians, writers, archivists whose interest is not in collecting material for self-aggrandizement or fulfilling the collecting addict’s urge to “completion” but rather in the spread of knowledge and interest to the casual layman. And it needs listeners who are similarly adventurous. It is the critic’s role to provide these voices: voices not which teach and correct artists but which share the truest passion for art and creativity with as many people as will listen.

Filed under Drama, Radio

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net