Over a year ago, I was asked if I would be interested in doing some kind of radio drama for WESU. Write a script, cast a few actors, direct it, edit it, and air it. I was really excited by the idea. Radio is such a unique medium to work with, and it’s rare for an opportunity like that to just fall into your lap.
“Yeah!” I said, “How long would it be?”
“I don’t know, probably 20 or 30 minutes. Whatever you want.”
I ended up wanting three hours. That was, in hindsight, probably too much. The person I was talking to was Simon Korn ’17, who would spend the next year producing the project. I sat down later that day and thought about what kind of radio project I would enjoy doing. The choice of a murder mystery parody came instantaneously. It could harken back to the old radio dramas from the ’30s, and it’s a fun genre to play with. From there, I knew I wanted it to take place on a cruise ship full of horrible rich people. There could even be fake radio ads. From there, the Narrator (ultimately cast as Eli Sands ’18) had to be a major entity, and the major twist could be…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Hydrus” is the neglected lovechild of Agatha Christie and H. P. Lovecraft. Travel blogger Ava (Zoë Thrasher ’16) becomes sucked into a world of murder and horror on a St. Patrick’s Day cruise. She’s joined by the Chief Engineer (Nate Ko ’18), the Captain (Mio Magee ’18), the Cocoa Baron (Adam DeSantes ’18), the trophy wife (Elli Scharlin ’18), and many others.
During Spring 2015, I outlined the basic plot and the lead characters. Originally intending to release the series weekly over the second half of fall 2015, we aimed for six episodes (as per WESU’s release schedule). Without having a script ready, I wrote sides (short scenes and monologues) for auditions, not knowing if any would end up in the final project. None of them did.
Most plays audition actors during the same semester they are produced, which is logical for a number of reasons. We chose to audition the semester before, however, partly because we planned to begin recording as soon as the fall semester began. This also allowed me to write the script over the summer with the actors in mind, which was helpful.
Things change. Due to multiple complications (and multiple concussions), air dates jumped to to January and finally March 2016. This proved more good than bad, as it gave us enough time to record and edit. Recording wrapped shortly after Thanksgiving break, and editing wrapped the week before airing. By its completion, Hydrus had involved 20 voice actors, six singers, six editors, Simon, Alison Silverstein ’18 (an essential Assistant Director), and myself.
One of the joys of voice acting is the ability to double up roles. Korn was featured in two commercials. Silverstein played a pivotal character that we named Soup Lady. I played the Butler. To an extreme, Oren Maximov ’17 voiced a total of three named roles.
Directing voice acting is an entirely different world compared to stage or film acting. On one register, it’s simpler. You can still do multiple takes. You can have your cast look at each other in the room with the scripts still in front of them. Physicality and facial expressions mean nothing. The entirety of performance comes through vocal delivery. It’s a different, but equally challenging mindset.
We operated on the wonderfully liberating budget of $0. The majority of equipment was loaned from WESU, and in one case from Red Feather Studios (for two sung sequences). Sound effects were taken from a database provided by the Film Department. We were able to balance a large-scale project on a microbudget scale, which is a rare opportunity and one I’m very grateful for.
One of the reasons I took on the project was that I knew how much I could learn from working with an entirely new (and also old) medium. While WESU was very helpful in giving us the space and equipment necessary, there isn’t an extensive infrastructure or community of experience to help with radio dramas like there is with student theater and film at Wesleyan. We were essentially in a Brave Old World. To my knowledge, nothing of this scale had ever been attempted on campus.
Obviously, the most distinguishing quality of any story on radio is that it is entirely sound. While dramatic pauses are great for visual stories, the last thing you want is dead air. Which means dialogue, lots and lots of dialogue. And then sound effects. Hundreds of sound effects. Editing and mastering took nearly as much time as recording did. But after a year, seeing (or rather, hearing) the entire process come together was immensely rewarding. “Hydrus” is a three-hour story that is the culmination of the tireless efforts of several dozen wonderful people, and that will never cease to amaze me.
“Hydrus” aired on WESU from March 13-18. It is now available as a podcast on most podcast services, including iTunes. It has several hundred downloads from ten countries, including one that libsyn.com labels as “Other Regions,” which can only lead me to conclude that someone is listening either from their own cruise ship or from an interdimensional abyss.
If anyone is considering doing their own radio drama, I’d give mostly the same advice I would for film and theater. Start small. If it’s an original script, edit and workshop like crazy. Play to the medium’s strengths. What story can you tell sonically that you normally couldn’t otherwise? Find a team you trust, and get going.