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Immersive Stories Designed for Today

April 23, 2021
Natalie Koking

This season, the Playhouse commissioned artists to pursue new forms of storytelling for our audiences. One of those forms is the pod play: an audio-based story that users can download and listen through their cell phone or tablet. They’re designed specifically for your ears, unfolding like the popular radio dramas of the 1930s and ‘40s.

The Playhouse’s pod plays also feature a unique component that responds directly to the needs of audiences today: They’re written to be experienced in a specific, outdoor location so that listeners can maintain social distancing and enjoy at their own comfort level. After listeners arrive at the location of the pod play, they tune in to the audio file in which they’ll be guided throughout the location as the story unfolds, interacting with the same views and spots as the characters. It’s a creative combination of technology and storytelling that fits neatly with current public health safety guidelines.

“I wanted whatever we programmed to still feel like theatre. I wanted it to still have a live component to it,” says Director of Education and Community Engagement Daunielle Rasmussen. “You’re not watching a live actor the way you traditionally would in a stage performance, but you’re still enjoying a high-quality storytelling experience.”

Two pod plays have been released this season already. They’re available to stream and experience now, and two more original pod plays are to be released in June. (Stream The Aviators and Richie and Blanche.) Coupled with familiar outdoor spaces throughout Cincinnati and stories that are told in real time by actors, audiences can have in-the-moment, artistic experiences that include professional storytelling and theatrical performance. Think of it as the Playhouse going way offstage.


The Pod Plays Debut
 

THE AVIATORS

Last fall, the Playhouse released the first two pod plays of the season. Playwright Trey Tatum’s The Aviators takes place at Alms Park in Columbia-Tusculum. The story follows characters Kaylan and Cece (performed by 2019-20 Bruce E. Coyle Acting Interns Julia Gomez and Jo Garcia-Reger) who form an unlikely friendship while working on a school project about flight. Their journey includes an exploration of the park and all its hidden gems. Tatum says the story itself could not exist without Alms Park, which overlooks Lunken Airfield, the Ohio River and Downtown Cincinnati.

“It’s a pretty phenomenal place, and it seemed like that was the job for this project — find an environment that could play a vital and living role in the storytelling,” says Tatum. “I mean, Alms Park, come on! If you get bored watching planes land, you can literally walk 300 feet and watch the sun set behind the skyline while the Ohio River drifts by.”


Alms Park in Columbia-Tusculum.

As a multi-disciplined theatre artist, Tatum writes plays, designs sound and composes music. If you’ve seen any of the Playhouse’s Off the Hill touring shows from the last few seasons, you’re familiar with some of his sound work. He also produces an audio-drama podcast with his wife (Cincinnati-based theatre director Bridget Leak) titled, Have Monster, Will Travel. Working in this medium came in handy when tasked with crafting an audio-based story.

Says Tatum, “Because I primarily self-produce, I always have to approach projects thinking about the design and execution as thoroughly as I contemplate character and story structure. On The Aviators, I was constantly switching hats and thinking through the story from different vantage points.”
 

 

RICHIE AND BLANCHE

Playwright Isaiah Mikel-Reaves’ Richie and Blanche takes place on the Purple People Bridge. In the audio drama, a mother and son (performed by Piper N. Davis and Je’Shaun Jackson) find themselves at a crossroads. We soon learn that their relationship had taken a turn after Richie came out to his parents, setting off five years of estrangement.

Located at the border of Kentucky and Ohio, Richie and Blanche’s journey includes a walk across the bridge as they take in the views of the Ohio River and Cincinnati skyline. Visual cues written into the script help listeners ground themselves both literally and imaginatively. A sign on the bridge, which has handwritten messages and artwork, has a twofold significance — it places the listener in the same location as the characters while also deepening themes within the story:

RICHIE: Can you do me a favor, Mama? Can you read that sign again?
BLANCHE: “You matter.” It says, “You matter.”
RICHIE: Read the whole thing, please.
BLANCHE: “I love you… You matter.”

Bridge9

Sign described in the above Richie and Blanche scene.

Mikel-Reaves says the bridge represents home to him. Having relocated from his hometown of Cincinnati to pursue graduate school at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop, writing the pod play stirred nostalgia and memories of childhood.

“I wanted to juxtapose the beauty of the bridge with the brutality of the subject matter in the play,” says Mikel-Reaves. “Like my full-lengths, this play contained autobiographical content. I’ve been in Richie’s shoes and Blanche is based on the women in my family.”
 


The Purple People Bridge.

Rasmussen hopes the pod plays embody one of the missions of artistic storytelling: to deepen connections with others. She says, “Each one of these plays has really created space for the artists to explore something that’s personal to them and universal to all of us. Each one of us has our own story that’s connected to place.”



Preparing for Production

The playwrights — all of whom are local artists and storytellers — enjoyed creative freedom to choose any Cincinnati location for their setting. The only influence the theatre really has is through structure and formatting. To ensure that audiences experience the pod plays easily and realistically, Rasmussen beta-tests early drafts of the playwrights’ scripts.

“I go out to the location and the playwright either reads the draft to me over the phone, or they’re with me as we go through it,” says Rasmussen. “I try to experience it the way the audience would. And then I give them feedback, like, ‘I need language that moves us from here to here,’ or, ‘Here’s how this instructional language is affecting me as an audience member.’”

From a performer’s perspective, preparing for a pod play calls for slight deviations from their usual approach. Theatre actors are taught to embody their character through movement, mannerisms and physical characteristics, but what happens when physicality isn’t part of the performance?

“It’s all about the voice,” Davis says about her approach to Richie and Blanche. “As an actor, you always want to pay attention to everything that’s going on around you, but I had to really stay focused and locked into the conversation while recording to make it one-on-one and to feed off the energy of my partner.”

In this new style of performing, one thing that took Davis by surprise was how immersive the medium is. “When you’re performing onstage, you get caught up in it — we do that as actors, we get caught up in the moment. But as the listener, you’re walking and listening to this story and you’re like, ‘Are these people right next to me?’ And you know good and well they’re not. That was surprising to me. Taking in a story like that.”


More Stories to Come

Davis is lending her perspective to one of the two pod plays that will be released in June. As Co-Director and Cultural Director, she’s working with Cincinnati musician and hip-hop artist Deuces on The Edge of Town, a musical pod play about black empowerment in a suburban neighborhood.

Set in the city of Wyoming, The Edge of Town tells the story of a young Black man who travels back to his hometown, seeking guidance and understanding from Mr. Westmoreland — a civil rights activist who has experienced four generations of Black inequality and poverty. Specifically, the pod play explores Oak Street, an historic one-way drive that was built by the Black community but even today faces unique differences from the rest of the town. Deuces pulls from his own experiences to weave a musical narrative that explores identity through themes of class and race.

“I want listeners to experience my experience as a Black individual and a Black male who was raised by a single mother in a rich neighborhood. I want them to understand how that experience is, dealing with a town that’s supportive of things but the system kind of puts you in a position where it doesn’t really change,” says Deuces.

As a musician, Deuces is blending his hip-hop niche with the pod-play format and finding a number of similarities. He says, “This project absolutely reflects the same process of making a music EP or music album because not only are you creating music and sounds that coexist with each other to bring a feeling or vibe, but the dialogue and songs help express the message that you’re pushing to make exist in the minds of listeners. It’s practically the same. I love it.”

Davis offers her support by way of navigating the media form. “We’re letting the artist do his thing, so it’s a matter of guiding him and directing him to remember that the audience has to have a pleasurable experience in this,” she says. “You want people to be immersed where they’re just taking this journey, feeling the rhythm of the footsteps, feeling the walk, taking the turns and just taking people with you.”
 


Pictured left: Deuces. Pictured right: Carolyn Guido Clifford. Photo by Mikki Schaffner.

Playwright Carolyn Guido Clifford’s upcoming pod play takes audiences back to a familiar site: Eden Park. Her story guides listeners along Mirror Lake, past the gazebo and through Seasongood Pavilion, among other well-visited areas.

“Walking through Eden Park in spring and summer is really magical because different parts of the park are coming to life in different ways,” says Guido Clifford. “I want you to put your headphones in and go on the journey. I don’t want there to be a lot of stopping. I want it to feel like I feel when I put in my headphones, listen to my audiobook and take a walk.”

Similar to the other pod plays this season, Guido Clifford’s Eden Park setting is personally significant. She moved from Louisiana to Cincinnati years ago after accepting a job at the Playhouse, and she thought of Eden Park as her own backyard. She’s using this experience as inspiration to craft a story about a young woman who undergoes an unexpected change and must relocate to Cincinnati to live with her aunt. Eden Park plays a key role in the development of their relationship across a number of years.

One aspect of the location that spurred creative storytelling is the view of Kentucky from the park. For Guido Clifford, it prompts consideration of the cultural divide between Ohio and the South. Her characters embody this divide, too, as they reconcile differences between their beliefs and values, and implicitly explore themes of sisterhood, familial ties and intergenerational female relationships.

Guido Clifford sees the pod-play format as a vehicle for capturing everyday moments that may seem small but have a lot of significance — a perspective that reflects her traditional playwriting.

“I try to write the moments in between. Not those big dramatic moments but those really important moments in between, like cigarette breaks or the aftermath of events,” she explains. “It’s those moments that hold just as much weight. It’s not just the wedding, the first date, the first kiss — it’s all those moments in between when we’re just hanging out or walking in the park. Those tiny, little micro-moments that are part of our everyday lives that lead up to the big moments are what shape our lives and beliefs.”


Listen

The Playhouse’s pod plays are free to the public, and audiences can access The Aviators and Richie and Blanche now.