Live and crafted, recorded and raw

I’ve been thinking about podcasts and theatre a lot, and how they interrelate. I have a theory about their paradoxical relationship.

I started listening to podcasts in high school. Most of them weren’t very slick, just a couple people talking into microphones. The form has grown and evolved since then, with many successful shows having a slick finish. But it also strikes me that many of the most successful podcasts (like Joe Rogan or Marc Maron) are still just people having conversations into a microphone.

And I think this notable, because it’s something podcasts are great for.

Sure, I do like podcasts like Serial, or This American Life, or Reply All. Narrative podcasts with a bit more “oomph”. There will always be a place for them.

But recently I was listening to Comedy Bang Bang, one of my original favorite podcasts. And I realized that what they do on that podcast — great comedic actors doing great character work, playing wildly on the imagination — only works because of the form. I like the TV show, but it is a qualitatively different type of experience. In a podcast, your brain fills in the rest. You imagine these ridiculous characters having these ridiculous conversations, and you go with it. On TV, a medium that can struggle with being too literal, you don’t get that. You don’t get that when you know it’s crafted and you can see everything.

And via podcast, you feel a type of intimacy. The relationship is warm. I feel like I know all these people on CBB, despite not having seen any one of them live. But I know their comedy, and I know their laugh, and I laugh with them. When I listen, I feel like I’m having a secret conversation with them, even though I’m obviously not. (And I think this is different from the radio of old — podcasts feel more intimate)

This is also why I don’t really like live episodes of podcasts. I don’t want to hear other people responding. I want to own this experience myself, I want to be the sole arbiter. So it can be frustrating, and somewhat dissociating, listening to a group of other people respond to what have, up to this point, jus been voices in your head.

It also speaks to this idea of the “ritual economy”. CBB has put out at least one new episode every week for as long as I can remember. I know they are going to be there for me. I don’t listen to every episode. That’s not the point. The point is that I know it’s there, and I know I can trust them. That, coupled with podcasts’ intimacy, is very powerful.

So recorded podcasts, I think, are best left raw. I don’t want to hear prepared comedy on a podcast. I want to hear something raw that is improvised, making it all the more wonderful to drop in on. Because, like most people, I listen to podcasts while doing other things, like commuting or doing laundry. So I actually don’t want to have the laboriousness of preparation weighing me down. I don’t want to feel like I need to listen to every word or I have missed something. (This is part of why audiobooks frustrate me.) Instead, I want the podcast to play fast and loose, allowing me to zone out for a minute and drop back in.

On the other hand, the inverse is true with theatre.

Theatre is live. It wants to feel improvised, but it actually wants to be totally crafted.

That is, theatre needs to impress me. My favorite theatre often starts with what seems like a raw, empty space, seeming to show that a production doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeves. But then it pulls out tricks anyway. For me, this is what THE THIN PLACE and HOW TO DEFEND YOURSELF did at Humana. As Simon Stone puts it: “show the audience how impossible an idea is, then do it right in front of their eyes”. I want to be swept away and have a guttural, emotional experience. Theatre is its own, completely unique experience.

So while theatre is live, it should be rigorously prepared. And while podcasts are recorded and prepared, they should feel live and raw. Recorded and raw, live and crafted. It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about.

But this is why I believe podcasts and theatre are perfect corollaries. Together, they form a great barbell — two extremes (quick and dirty digital podcasts on one side, slow and labor-intensive analog theatre) — for a young theatre company.