Saturday, March 19, 2011

On Selecting Shows

One question I'm asked fairly frequently is: "How do you pick which shows Chatterbox records?" Which often translates as: "You just did a Jack London story and now you're doing a Greek myth. What's the thought process here?" With lots of ideas and very limited resources, it's definitely a balancing act, though often an enjoyable one. Here's an attempt to explain the philosophy behind our show selection.

First, and probably most obviously, it's subjective. There's no science behind it. There are hundreds of scripts out there that might make for a great recording -- scripts that another audio group might jump on in a heartbeat. But if, for whatever reason, the story doesn't grab any of us, we pass. Adapting, casting, scheduling, rehearsing, recording, editing, and posting a show takes a tremendous amount of work, and if we're not excited about it on the front end, chances are we'll never make it through. So any show we pick has to be particularly enticing to us from the outset for one reason or another, whether it's the content, the technical challenges involved, the casting opportunities it presents, or something else entirely.

Who is the "us" in the previous paragraph? Well, even though as Executive Director I give the ultimate thumbs-up or thumbs-down, I also like to decentralize the selection process as much as possible. I've never wanted Chatterbox to reflect only my tastes and my sensibilities. To that end, I work closely with Artistic Director Kyle Hatley to brainstorm ideas for shows. (Kyle also writes and directs his own shows, mostly independently of my involvement, which is not something I'd trust just anybody to do.) Marques and Dave are also usually involved to some extent. And we've got an excellent group of independent readers who look over all submissions we receive and make recommendations as to which ones may fit with our priorities and preferences.

Did you catch that? Yes, Chatterbox accepts script submissions. You can pitch us your idea (or your existing script) by using the Contact page on the Chatterbox website. But what are the Inner Sanctum, the Readers' Circle, and I looking for in a script? Here are a few important qualities:

1. Free. We don't have a lot of money, so we steer clear of any stories that involve copyright or licensing fees. It's complicated, expensive, and time-consuming. Plus most lawyers' heads would probably explode trying to figure out a fair price. ("It's online? And free? Forever?" [SFX: LOUD BANG]) So, we stick to original works (where we have express permission from the author) or works that have fallen into the public domain and are no longer under copyright. Since that latter category includes most stories written before the 1920s, we've still got centuries of material to choose from.

2. Meaty. Chatterbox's mission statement says that our work is intended to "enlighten, entertain, and inspire." Sure, some of our shows lean more toward pure entertainment (I'm looking at you, Sight Gag). But in general, we like to take on works that offer some kind of artistic or intellectual nourishment. Something with some meat to it. Heck, look at some of the heavyweight authors we've taken on: Melville, Kafka, Joyce, Verne, Stevenson, Hawthorne, Sophocles. (Those last three are upcoming shows, by the way, so you won't find them on the site just yet.) There's nothing wrong with lighter shows, but to paraphrase Edward Albee, we think that if you're going to spend hours of your time listening to a story, there should be some danger that you'll end up transformed by it.

3. Fresh. On a similar note, check out the Chatterbox show listings. You won't find a single noir piece, campy soap opera, or sci-fi comedy a la The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Why not? Well, there's nothing wrong with any of these genres, but practically every audio theater troupe out there (and there aren't many of us) already does them. Some do them extremely well, but with all respect to our colleagues, we feel that there are just too many other genres to explore. And personally, I don't like the implication that audio is inherently tied to mid-20th-century America, and that we can no longer do anything new with it. While the stories we record aren't always new (in fact, some are hundreds of years old), we certainly hope they bring something new to the table.

4. Reasonable. Your 500-page audio script tracing the lives and loves of six generations of the Galloway family was beautiful. It really was. But there's just no way we can take on something of that scope, not with the limited resources I mentioned earlier. While we don't shy away from richly imagined, ambitious shows (see Dead and Gone, Pinocchio, or our annual Halloween Shows, to name a few), there's a logistical line we simply can't cross. So if the script calls for 150 characters and enormously complicated effects, we probably won't be able to do it justice.

5. Exciting. And that brings us back to the X factor that I was talking about above. Each script we select has some quality that speaks to one of us. We can't always explain what it is. I can't always tell you why we adapted this story rather than that when both are from the same author or both address the same basic themes. Some shows just speak to you, that's all. And when a show speaks to one of us, it has a much better chance of speaking to one of you.

So, there you have it: a subjective and entirely unscientific explanation of why we produce what we produce. Together, it adds up to a very particular -- and, I hope, unique -- voice.

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