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Giant ants and other tales

Behind the scenes at Action Science Theatre

Action Science Theatre 27 October 2013

Limitless imagination: the power of audio

Like any genre, lab lit is just a way to frame stories about people interacting with each other and the world around them. And scientists go out of their way to interact with the world around them

Editor's note: We are pleased to present an essay by the Action Science Theatre which accompanies their guest podcast – use the navigation links ('previous') above right to listen to it!

Audio drama has had a bit of a revival in the last few years. When television came along (the cathode ray-packing swine), the whole medium got a bit of a knock, but the internet, and podcasting in particular, has given it a new lease on life. In its beginnings (1) in 1954, audio drama was something you needed a recording studio to do, and that wasn't something people just had lying about. But nowadays, well, people do have recording studios just lying about – you're probably reading this in one right now. The technology has come down in price and the internet has given everyone a chance at good distribution. The barrier to entry in this medium is now nice and low.

And ‘low barrier to entry’ is not a gift horse we want to look in the mouth, so that’s where we come in. We're Action Science Theatre – we produce a free monthly audio drama podcast. Every episode is a free-standing science adventure, between 15 and 30 minutes long. What's a science adventure, you ask? Well, it might be a story about the time Einstein, Marie Curie and Irene Curie fought a giant ant a giant ant; or it might be a story where, instead of a universally beloved hero, the International Space Station was staffed by a jerk; or how about a group of thieves and grifters stealing the International Prototype kilogram; or even the story of a certain super-spy meeting a disgraced game theorist.

Action Science Theatre stories use science as a background to tell adventurous tales of derring-do, puns, and outright silliness – and two of those terms are also appropriate to describe how AST (which we call it for the sake of time and typing fingers) came about (2).

AST spun out of a perfectly fun collaboration that didn't lead to a finished product – a group of creative and somewhat sciencey types all went to the pub a few times, and some bits and piece got written. But it never quite landed, which is fine as those sorts of experiences are never a waste of time; sitting in a room full of creative people is always worth it.

However, that did lead to 'Action' Dan and 'Science' Brian writing together for the first time. And when it became obvious that the first thing wasn't going to have a life, Brian and Dan decided to write an audio drama together as Brian had always wanted to write one and Dan was easily led. And still is.

You see, the nice thing about audio drama is that nobody has to learn any lines. You can all stand there with your script in front of you and nobody will ever know – this means that it's much easier to ask your friends to be in it. It only requires one day of their time, and they don't have to commit to months and months of rehearsals.

The other nice thing about audio drama is that most people have access to some form of computer, which means that doing the actual recording and producing doesn't require the full recording studio that Dylan Thomas needed back in 1954. However, what Action Dan and Science Brian neglected to realise was that they were basically useless at this second thing.

In walked Producer Dan.

Well, all right, not 'in walked', so much as 'Science Brian harassed him at a party'. Because you see, Producer Dan Knows Things About Audio (3). Remember earlier, when you read the phrase 'nowadays people do have recording studios lying about' and you thought I just meant laptops and tablets? Well, Producer Dan has an actual home studio just lying about. When he heard about how Science Brian and Action Dan were planning to do their recording, he sighed and said these immortal words: "Why don't you just come to my house and I'll help you do it?"

And so the AST crew was complete. One of the main things that keeps AST going is the useful combination of the main team. Science Brian obviously brings the science and knows a thing or two (but no more than that) about communicating it in a fun way. Action Dan makes things happen on the internet so when he’s not doing AST, he gets the website together and figures out how to get it distributed and promoted. Producer Dan brings the production skills and has a handy recording studio. And makes excellent bread. What a team.

Now that AST has been going for about a year and a half, we've figured out a method of podcast production which works for us. The first step, as you might imagine, is writing the script. Science Brian and Action Dan take turns being the main writer. This means writing the first draft of a script, which then gets passed to the other person where they'll give it another do-over. This might mean adding jokes, shortening bits, or anything else that a fresh pair of eyes might notice. This script is then passed to Producer Dan, who goes through it trying to hear what the listener will hear and ensure that all the pieces fit together properly to tell a clear, correctly punctuated, story (4).

We use science as a framework for our stories as it gives us a starting point when looking for story ideas, and a coherent theme for the podcast. It's a useful background because it allows you to tell whatever kind of story you want – scientists can travel, stay where they are, do tedious and repetitive tasks, work with others, have power structures to rail against, have a rich history, have weird subcultures and do some good petty infighting. Like any genre, lab lit is just a way to frame stories about people interacting with each other and the world around them. And scientists go out of their way to interact with the world around them.

There are four things which audio drama uses to tell stories – dialogue, sound effects, music and silence. Those are essentially the only tools available to you, but they are enormously powerful – the old saying in audio drama circles is 'The pictures are better in radio'. You can do anything, have anything happen, in audio drama – it's the listener's mind that does the rest. But you need to think very clearly about their use. Does the dialogue sound like a real person would actually say that (5)? Does the sound effect help illustrate what's happening? What's the tone I want to for this section? Would it be better to have a beat of silence there? There are no hard and fast rules, and the best way to figure it out is to do it – and keep doing it. Having a monthly deadline for new material does wonders for the quality of your writing.

Usually casting takes place before the script is finalised. We have a roster of about 25 friends who we email out to with the date we're planning to record, and we cast based on who can make that date (if we don't have enough people for a recording we'll approach friends to expand the roster further). Science Brian has a science background (as you might imagine), Action Dan doesn't have one (but is interested in it), and Producer Dan knows more than the other two on most topics, but not many of the cast have formal science backgrounds and it's in no way necessary. A lot of the AST cast roster have experience acting, though, and that is vastly more useful.

Everyone then turns up on Producer Dan's doorstep on the appointed day, where they are treated to lunch. We'll do two read-throughs of the script – the first is for everyone to figure out what's going on and how to act their lines, and the second one is a proper rehearsal. We'll often change lines after the first run-through, as some things look fine written down, but sound weird when a person says them out loud. The recording process itself takes a few hours, and within about a week Producer Dan presents Action Dan with the finished mp3.

The exact method for producing your audio drama will differ wildly depending on your setup – you can use anything from a mobile phone, to a laptop with a USB microphone – so rather than us going into detail on how Producer Dan does it, we shall just point you at the wider internet which is full of good guides. You can see Producer Dan's writing on some specific examples of audio production at the Action Science Theatre blog.

You might notice a recurring theme in the story of making an episode – it's all a big collaboration. From the writing, to the acting, to the production, it's a group effort that makes Action Science Theatre what it is.

Now, since lab lit works on the line between art and science, we took that as our starting point for a very special episode of Action Science Theatre written by all three of us, and then recorded and produced especially for you fine folks. Enjoy, and why not head over to Action Science Threatre for more?

Related information:

(1) Where we decide something 'begins' is always slightly arbitrary, but the birth of audio drama is generally taken to be the 1954 "Under Milk Wood", written by Dylan Thomas. Yes, that Dylan Thomas.

(2) It is left as an exercise for the reader to decide which two.

(3) (Well, Producer Dan Makes Things Up About Audio As He Goes Along, but don't tell anyone -> Producer Dan)

(4) Celtx is the tool we use for our scriptwriting – it handles all the formatting, saves to the Cloud so that all three of us can see the latest version of the script, and outputs nice pdfs.

(5) "This gun in my right hand is loaded" is the title of a wonderful Timothy West audio drama lampooning the sort of audio drama writing where everyone speaks like a weird person. You can find a short except of it here.