The Art of the Possible – the podcast as dramatic ruse for dramatic storytelling

One evening year’s ago, I was performing in a well-known club in Hollywood. The weather was prohibitive, especially by Los Angeles standards where a little rain stops the city. But this evening was extreme with road closures, car accidents, etc. I called the Club thinking it would be closed, but sure enough, it was open. The Club had booked seventy people, but I arrived to an audience of one.

My pianist asked, “What do we do?” I replied, “Well, we have an audience.”

We performed to one person that night. I didn’t cut the show short, but I did slightly modify to allow that one audience-member to feel at liberty, to enjoy the performance without elevating the obvious awkwardness of an empty Club, to enjoy the direct communication between myself and him. I invited him to sit right in front, to drift and imagine, to laugh, cry, dip into the creative temperament and space of Brecht and Weill.

That performance was not only memorable, but it taught me something about my own craft and my deep respect for the precious connection between audience and performer. Having studied with one of the foremost Weill interpreters in my early twenties, I was weaned on the dramatic dialectic of Brecht and Weill where the audience is both student and teacher, and more importantly, where we speak out against the overwhelming contradictions and thereby redefine ourselves.

The world has had a number of trying years and Covid was only the tip of a diseased iceberg. I speak primarily for America because up until the last four years, America has been my homeland.

As I watched the nightly news from my new home in Edinburgh, the America I thought I knew had become a crass and cruel stranger where the truth was divided into versions of the truth, where the personal truth became a valued oxymoron for political extremists attempting to sport the pretence of rational thought and normality.

Meanwhile, artful expression went silent in Lockdown, overtaken by the angry volley of rhetoric on social media, and for as much as I’d like to perceive social media dialogue as conversation, it isn’t. We don’t find answers, explore problems. Instead, we judge, sometimes hit back against propaganda, lie, widen the crevasse of tribalism, and indulge in everything but conflict resolution. Social media threads are the dead ends of self-congratulatory slogans.

Arguably, artists say what is recklessly expressed on social media with tools that are far more succinct, thought-provoking, and impactful – craft, the benefit of mentors, and the understanding of dramatic structure, of poetic metaphor and simile. Artists are empaths and teachers. This is why artists should be thought-leaders, and as such, we must endeavour ways to make sure our voices are heard.

But if you’re not a pop singer at the top of your heap with the mighty engine of big bucks management behind you, how do you continue to bring value when theatres are dark, galleries are closed, and online interface is only as good as your social media presence?

Moreover, we’re a visual world. Our children have drifted away from reading thought-p rovoking novels for the quick language of image. They reject listening to meaningful music jammed with content. Listen to Miles or Mozart? Are you kidding? The truth is, all of us manage so much information on a daily basis that we have forg0tten how to listen. Is it any wonder that we speak at cross-purposes?

For as much as I appreciate video and YouTube as archival devices, as a stage director, I have never seen a staged work rendered in film that captures the magic of theater, of live experience – to reach in, reach out, to break the fourth wall.

But the podcast (what I prefer to call the Spoken Word) does. It’s an intimate space where the actor speaks directly to us in the same room – our heads. Meanwhile, our minds have permission to drift onto the private stage of our unique imaginations. In some ways, the interface between the storyteller on the podcast and the listener is an active and artful collaboration. Remember the dialectic of Brecht and Weill? Of student and teacher? Of breaking the fourth wall and speaking out against the contradictions?

The American (in)Tent is inspired in part by my own life as an artist, all those metaphorical airline tickets to new modes of expression. It is a place for me to mentor, encourage, and lead artists (from seasoned to eager) into the confidence of other technological platforms for their unique voices – a place for them to persist in what they do best despite the worst of times, a place for artists motiva ted to speak on tough life subjects with eloquence.

But, it’s not a place; it’s a stage, a different stage, albeit, but a stage.

of the artists performing in this year’s podcast Tent were baffled by the concept of doing their kind of theatre without the visual component. Some are musicians who must look at slightly readjusting a live musical performance by telling stories, not simply through music, but through their innate, lyrical understanding of what drives music. Always a story. Essentially, I’ve asked the musicians to see themselves as lyricists.

One unique artist whom I approached about the craft of curation asked, “Can I tell a story about being an impresario?” Of course, you can. To be an impresario is an art within itself, vital and current, and the process of curation, highly interesting. The question is, how do you tell that story? How do you create theatre out of what might seem too familiar to be theatrical, ask any playwright. I might argue that you could write a hard-hitting theatrical scene around washing the dishes.

I’ve spent hours reinforcing the idea that what we create for stage, even what the visual artist might create for a gallery, is forever invested in telling a story.

And here’s the bonus, we stop reaching only for the product and start celebrating the process. The process of how we start with pen, ink, musical note, watercolour, idea and then, the journey from there to the final work. It is a wonderful story, one that audiences often take for granted, and yet, for the artist, it is the better part of glory.

We want to bear out that process in a manner that engages audiences and speaks to them as much as the final work, to explore how we get from point A to point B with rich descriptions, honest intention, and passion.

What is the process for creating a podcast as opposed to a piece of theatre for stage? Learning to speak to one person with as much desire toward positive impact as we speak to many.