John Lithgow’s latest stage isn’t a stage at all: How theater is moving to your phone and car
Shhhhh. John Lithgow is performing his solo show, “Stories by Heart.” The five audience members are riveted. Don’t speak, don’t fidget, and for God’s sake, don’t look at your phone. The actor appreciates your attention. He needs it. He is accustomed to performing this show for hundreds of people after a recently wrapped Broadway run.
The small Burbank recording studio he currently finds himself in is quite different. On this particular afternoon he’s acting for the audiobook and podcast company Audible, which has recently made calculated strides into the theater space by recording one-person productions.
Tall, with posture that makes him appear even taller, Lithgow cuts a familiar and somewhat formidable form sitting on a swivel chair in front of a wooden lectern with an open book — and a large microphone — in front of him.
He’s performing two stories that his late father delighted him with as a young boy: Ring Lardner’s 1925 short story “Haircut,” and P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.” He falls into character with ease, assuming the voices of up to five characters. His hand feigns a slight palsy while he intones the lines of an elderly man, and if the actor stumbles, he pauses, swallows and begins again as an Audible minder in the recording booth makes a slender pencil stroke in the script.
The reach of Lithgow’s critically acclaimed show had been limited to the 740 seats of the American Airlines Theatre. The recent Audible release, however, instantaneously expanded the potential audience into the millions.
Or as Audible founder and Chief Executive Don Katz says, “In a matter of seconds, more people can be listening to an Audible original than can pack a 1,000-seat theater eight times per week for half a century.”
That doesn’t mean Katz is disdainful of the live theater experience. To the contrary. As part of what Audible calls a commitment to expanding the reach, scope and impact of theater, the company has claimed the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village as its creative home for live performances. It has also been commissioning established and emerging playwrights to write one- and two-person shows to be performed as Audible Originals.
Participants in Audible’s theater lineup say Minetta Lane is the linchpin in a program that aims to forge a wholly modern frontier for theater, pairing an age-old art form with technology in a way that not only democratizes access but also encourages artists to approach theater in new ways.
Playwright and actor David Cale’s one-man show “Harry Clarke,” starring Billy Crudup, was the first play to stage a limited run at Minetta Lane before it was recorded for digital distribution. Cale recalls a thrilling cross-pollination of forms that benefited the live show and its digital counterpart.
“Harry Clarke” not only enjoyed four weeks of rehearsal but also ran for eight weeks at Minetta Lane before Crudup went to the studio to record it with director Leigh Silverman and the production’s sound designer, Bart Fasbender. By then, Crudup was in fantastic shape for the recording.
“It was a dreamboat of an experience,” Cale says. “You just cannot get that level of detail and performance without having done a run. It was fully realized and there was no compromise.”
The closest comparison to what Audible is doing with theater in 2018 would be radio in the 1930s and ’40s. More recent correlations can be made with the late Joe Frank’s series on KCRW as well as with public radio programs like “This American Life” and “The Moth Radio Hour,” though those focus more on nonfiction storytelling.
Regardless, what’s old is suddenly new again, as is often true with modern technology. In this case, that technology is the smartphone, which enables listeners to put theater in their pockets while they’re driving cars, climbing mountains, biking at the beach or lying by the pool.
Audible is not alone in recording plays for mass consumption. L.A. Theatre Works has been doing just that since the mid-1980s, when a group of 35 actors including Lithgow banded together. The nonprofit’s purpose is to record the canon for entertainment as well as artistic and educational enlightenment.
LATW producing director Susan Albert Loewenberg says LATW was among the first companies to sign on with Audible. Now more than 300 of its titles are available for purchase online.
“We do full audio productions with sound effects and music and everything that’s required to make the experience really explode in your ears,” says Loewenberg, adding that audio recordings are far superior to filmed recordings of live theater, which can fall flat no matter how amazing the material or acting. “When you’re listening to a great audio recording, you should feel like you’re peeking through a keyhole at someone else’s life.”
Representatives for Audible would not reveal listener numbers for theater productions, but Loewenberg says that compared with the billion-dollar audiobook market, recorded plays are a labor of love. LATW spends between $25,000 and $60,000 to make a good recording, and the company relies on gifts and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, among others, to keep the microphones on.
Audible, which is owned by Amazon, has no such financial hurdles to overcome. It also isn’t yet producing plays on quite the scale that LATW is. The latter stages and records live performances at UCLA, sometimes featuring casts of 15 or 20, while the former is focusing on one and two-person plays.
Loewenberg feels no competition from Audible and says with a chuckle, “I’d like to think Don Katz and his company were inspired by the L.A. Theatre Works titles.”
Actress Judith Light, who has recorded for both LATW and Audible, heaps praise on both.
“It expands the world of entertainment and the world of storytelling, and allows for an evolved way of listening,” says the actress, whose most recent work for Audible was Neil LaBute’s “All the Ways to Say I Love You,” which she also performed off-Broadway in 2016. “If you go back to the basics and the famous phrase, ‘Mommy, Daddy, tell me a story,’ that’s what this is about. It brings that electric, exciting, thrilling listening back into a person’s life. And suddenly we become children again.”
When you’re listening to a great audio recording, you should feel like you’re peeking through a keyhole at someone else’s life.
Susan Albert Loewenberg, L.A. Theatre Works
Theater, as anyone who has ever sat rapt before a staging of “Hamlet” or “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” can tell you, is as much about watching as it is listening. But if you close your eyes, it can come alive in your mind, Lithgow says.
When the actor stands in the recording booth at Out Loud Studios, a cup of peppermint tea beside him along with a bottle of water, some tissues and throat lozenges, he meticulously acts out every portion of his show, just as he did on Broadway.
“I recorded it doing everything, just to remind myself what the next line was,” he says. “And I did all of the sound effects I did onstage as a way of creating the story in the imagination of the audience. So the whole thing has been a great experiment.”
In this way, Audible theater productions aim to expand storytelling culture. Audible CEO Katz hopes to eventually see creators “writing to the Audible aesthetic from different walks of literary life,” much as the company now finds writers including journalist and nonfiction scribe Michael Lewis (“Moneyball,” “The Blind Side”) writing strictly with the idea of audio performances in mind.
Audible first made a real stab at cultivating this kind of crossover in February when it announced it had commissioned 15 emerging playwrights to create audio theater for one or two performers. Its advisory board is a cast of theater heavyweights including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage (“Sweat”), Tony nominee Annette Bening, Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis and playwright David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”).
The young playwrights, including Leah Nanako Winkler, were effusive in their praise of the creative support and freedom they were receiving.
“For any organization, especially one like Audible, which has so many resources, to say, ‘Use our office, go to our cafeteria, we want you to succeed, we want you to be comfortable,’ really does make our work feel valuable,” she told The Times after she received the commission.
“Harry Clarke’s” Cale had a similar experience.
“We got to do exactly the show we wanted to do,” he says. “It’s really rare that there isn’t somebody saying, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ but it didn’t happen at all. They were just supportive and trying to make it the best run it could be.”
Currently at Minetta Lane: Carey Mulligan in Dennis Kelly’s “Girls & Boys.” Its streaming counterpart is already available.
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