I place no stock whatsoever in awards as such. They are, however, useful for divining what is on listeners’ minds (or at least judges’). Judging from the Audio Verse Awards of 2014, what’s on listeners’ minds is sentimentality.
The Audio Verse Awards are proud of the fact that, with their voting system being open to fans, that fans and judges tend to choose the same pieces. I do not consider this necessarily a good thing, especially when it reveals that the judges are just as susceptible to toxic nostalgia and saccharine indulgence. There is so much sentimentality and cliché in the year’s winners that I thought I would need to up my insulin dosage to get through them all.
The winner for Best Self-Contained Drama of the Year is a production of Sorry Wrong Number by Vocal Loco. This raises the question: “Why?” In the world of the stage, conscientious practitioners learn to ask themselves “Why this play? Why now?”
Listening to the Vocal Loco production, I really can’t answer either of those questions. The only answer that seems to make sense is “Because I remember hearing this and liking it and I wanted to do it someday.” In the abstract there is nothing wrong with that answer. Lots of things are done for pleasure. But then the onus is upon the producer to make the show extremely high quality, so that its beauty or sublimity can argue for the play on its own. When that doesn’t happen, the play is left without a raison d’etre, and quite frankly there are more than enough productions that exist without any reason other than someone wanted to do them.
Sorry, Wrong Number is not, to my ears, a sufficient argument for the play. The acting seems confused about whether or not it will actually be a period piece or an update, though of course to update it would require rewriting much of the play. But, really, the biggest problem is that director Jaycee hasn’t decided on a fundamental question: What, exactly, is Sorry, Wrong Number about? It’s easy to say, “Oh, it’s just an old thriller.” But that’s not good enough–not for a play of which we already have more than enough versions.
Sentimentality is also the downfall of Goldilocks and the 3 Ninja Bears. Sure, it’s “cute” — if you’re sentimental and think that everything kids do is uproarious. Having raised a child myself, I am not. Kids are perfectly capable of mistaking the inane for the profound because, after all, they’ve no reason to do otherwise. If you’re at the right age, fart jokes are the pinnacle of wit. Suffice to say, I am not that age, no matter how much I wish otherwise, so productions like Goldilocks and the Three Ninja Bears leave me wishing I’d dedicated my afternoon to chinese checkers.
Then there is More Than Words, which is also sentimental in the extreme. On the other hand, it’s honest. It has an actual narrative line, about a father who makes a promise always to protect his son and plays out predictably but precisely as it should. I have some misgivings about the acting, which is rather flat to match the pacing of the claustrophobic story, and lacks real emotional pitch except at a couple of moments. But it strikes me as genuine and at least an attempt to deal with emotion without acting embarrassed by such a thing. It’s just not my kind of story.
By now you can probably sense a pattern. And if it’s not sentimentality it’s nostalgia, as in The Once and Future Nerd, about which I truly have nothing to say. Clearly I am not its target audience, and it does nothing to invite me into its world, so on to the next thing I went.
It’s not all bad. Of the new productions Forsythia: The Chronos Paragon strikes me as promising, despite a roughness to the acting that, I suppose, is to be expected from American audio drama these days and its commitment to amateurism. The writing is lucid and there are at least some stakes to the action. It will hardly break any new ground in the field of fantasy, but then that isn’t really the point. The point is, I think, to provide a straightforward story of redemption without sentiment, and in this field that is welcome enough.
I continue to appreciate Earbud Theater‘s commitment to their anthology format. The rotation of stories helps in preventing it from being completely predictable week after week. Again, it is hardly groundbreaking material but there are stories within it that shine when Casey Wolfe and the rest of the writers do not simply phone it in, and it is coherent. Those two qualities alone elevate it far above the rest. The rest feel largely incomplete efforts, hampered by genre constraints when they’d do better to throw them out the window and simply tell a story.
Pendant Productions’ Tabula Rasa particularly suffers from this approach. It’s obvious the writer Jack Calk has watched way too many cop shows on television–or, perhaps, not nearly enough. In the first season, scenes between Nathan the clichéd cynical cop who trusts no one and the protagonist are borderline painful. It’s when Liza and Jayne/Erin begin to talk to each other that one can sense the story contains a real human interest being held down by the anchor of generic conceit. This same pattern recurs throughout the season and into the next. Liza’s human story is, to me, far more interesting than the plots to which it is tied. More’s the pity. Though the acting remains mixed (a hallmark of Pendant productions, it seems) and the series improves as it goes on, it still often hits a wall when it should open a door.
The Brits complain ad nauseam about how bad Radio 4 drama is. Fiona Sturges’s fairly smug introduction to her piece on Eugenie Grandie offers a typical insight:
For the sake of my sanity, I find Radio 4 dramas are best given the swerve. Many is the morning when, 45 minutes into Woman’s Hour, I can be found lunging at the radio, sending cats and children flying in my wake, in order to avoid the excruciating artifice and exposition of the 15 Minute Drama.
This decidedly un-balletic leaping ritual is repeated at approximately 2.14pm just before the Afternoon Drama, which is invariably set in a zoo, or a doctor’s waiting room, or an allotment, and contains a surfeit of daft accents and ostentatiously creaking doors.
The 15 Minute Drama of which she complains so profoundly has, in the last year alone given us: The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer, the brilliant Lunch series by Marcy Kahan, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, Stephen Wakelam’s Journal of a Joskin, and Tina Pepler’s tragicomic Syria: Bread and Bombs, among others. The Afternoon Drama which ostensibly contains waiting room drama, daft accents and creaking doors has brought: Ayeesha Menon’s Undercover Mumbai done on location, Glyn Maxwell’s hilarious Shakespeare’s Fire, Winsome Pinnock’s gripping Clean Trade, Diane Samuels’ offbeat Psyche, the outstanding Our Sea by Ronan Bennett, and Ian Kershaw’s excellent adaptation of Closely Observed Trains with Jon Bradley.
Put any one of those allegedly swervable plays beside More Than Words and behold the difference. Now it’s easy to say that this is unfair: the BBC is professional, and American audio drama is amateur. But the same comparison holds for independent radio drama in the UK as well. I could lay Vocal Loco’s Sorry Wrong Number alongside an independent production from the UK–let’s pick Dream On from Wireless Theatre Company–and the comparison would still hold. One may still argue that the comparison is still unfair as independent radio producers in the UK have access to professionals etc, but that argument is tenuous and getting coy. Let’s go one level farther anyway.
In the category of Best Student Drama at the New York Festival are two winners, The Time Keeper and SeaBurn. The weakest of the two to my ears is The Time Keeper. I dislike Mitch Albom’s book, so any adaptation of it is unlikely to impress me much. The story is just a bit too twee for me and reeks of what my best friend likes to call “wholesome entertainment.” True to form, the adaptation is equally wholesome. Its reliance upon narration dulls the story even more for me, and on the level of content–the one that matters–it is something I could barely care less about if I tried.
And yet, I’d much rather listen to The Time Keeper than almost any of the Audio Verse Award winners because it at least tries. The student actors in it are a little stiff, probably scared a bit by the material and the narrator is often bland. But the dramatic scenes between the characters have a veracity to them completely lacking in the Audio Verse Awards winners. What’s more, it’s clear that the actors are actually listening to each other. In many of the Audio Verse winners–The Blackburn Gaslight Adventures and Tabula Rasa especially–it sounds like the actors are so distant from each other in conversation that they may as well have phoned in their parts via Skype (and probably did).
But don’t take my word for it: listen for yourself.
The Time Keeper
The second student drama, SeaBurn is even better than The Time Keeper. It too has moments that are strained, where the emotional subject matter threatens to break apart from the script and simply drag the listener from emotional peak to emotional peak. A lot of it places the actors at the limits of their strength and skill. But I’d rather have that to complain about than the converse, where instead the listener is at the limits of her endurance.
Some of it is downright inspired. The handling of the protagonist’s PTSD flashbacks comes out particularly well. The use of layered sound to probe inside her mind is effective, creating a disorienting feeling that also makes sense out of the heavy reliance on first-person narration. Writer Jake Sykes also conceals his source material–the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe–very well, so much that I doubt most people would know, even when it becomes quite explicit. For a student drama, it’s impressive. Putting it alongside American amateur productions makes it seem an obvious blue ribbon choice by comparison. It contains great sentiment, but its sentiment is aimed at the thinking heart rather than the secreting pancreas.
So what does it say that even the weakest of the two student productions can go easily toe to toe with award-winning American audio drama? Above all it means that Fiona Sturges has no idea how good she has it. We here in the states are buried in mediocre genre pieces and the endless attempts to resuscitate dead forms as though they are gee-whiz newfangled creations when they are actually patients marked DNR. We should be so lucky to have Radio 4. While there is much to complain about with BBC radio drama–its ridiculous and enervating system of commissions, its bathetic attempts to be “relevant” and its relentlessly middle-class ethos, for instance–what’s virtually never at issue is that the Islanders take their work seriously on a level scarcely matched by American producers who, instead of discussing ensemble work or the technical craft of acting for the microphone or theoretical issues of place and society in audio drama instead prefer to concentrate on dispensing endless advice about how to record sound properly so that actors across the country can be in your totally cool series.
But that, of course, is another column.