Audio drama is a craft that I’m glad to see alive and well, and aiming to adapt to new technologies. One current example is Starstruck, soon to be released by The AudioComics Company. As described at the site: “Buck Rogers meets Barbarella meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy… The Off-Broadway Sci-Fi Comedy Masterpiece that spawned a comic book revolution comes to audio October 31! Written by Elaine Lee with Susan Norfleet and Dale Place, featuring characters from the comic by Lee and Michael Kaluta. First on compact disc, and pay-per-MP3s downloads, Starstruck rides the airwaves later this fall!” To mark the impending release, I interviewed AudioComics Company’s Lance Roger Axt and Bill Dufris.
Also as noted at the website: “Starstruck compact discs will be $22.95, not including tax and postage and handling. These are 4-panel 2-disc eco wallets … The cut-off date for CD orders is October 20, 2010. Your CD will be mailed directly to you on November 3, 2010, so when you place your order, make sure you write down your correct mailing address. Compact discs will be mailed first class USPS … Please note that these CD’s are not available in direct maket comic book stores or big box book stores like Borders, this is an item you can only purchase from the AudioComics Company webstore. And unfortunately these are only available in the States, but for our overseas Starstruck fans, the MP3 downloads are forthcoming, and worldwide. Info on MP3 downloads to come next month.” As Lance told me prior to finalizing this interview: “AudioComics has been a five year journey which is now finally taking shape, and I’m pleased to say that Bill and I have, beyond this inaugural production, at least ten other comic-to-audio projects to keep us busy between now and the end of 2012!” My thanks to Axt and Dufris for the interview. Also, please be sure to check out the AudioComics page on Facebook.
Tim O’Shea: First off, Lance, I saw your post about attending San Diego–can you talk about how much you enjoyed meeting Stan Freberg?
LANCE ROGER AXT: Some people came to San Diego to see Tron or Green Lantern footage, others wanted to see the cast of True Blood; me, I wanted to meet Stan Freberg. And I’ll tell you something, I can honestly say that I was humbled to be in his presence. It’s been brought up on many forums and comments pages, especially in the wake of the passings of Frazetta and Williamson, to appreciate the artists who are still with us. In my case, those artists are people like Stan Freberg, the Firesign Theatre, Yuri Rasovsky, Tom Lopez of ZBS. These people took radio drama out of the golden age, the “old timey” way of writing and acting, and showed audiences that with audio there are no limitations…so, yeah, meeting Stan was a real highlight of my first trip to SDCC. Not to mention he was the nicest, most approachable person, both he and Hunter. It’s hard to find the words now…the sound man’s gone silent.
O’Shea: Starstruck’s going to be available for download and for purchase as a CD, will it also be available on iTunes?
BILL DUFRIS: Absolutely. It will be available first through our site at audiocomicscompany.com, but eventually you’ll find it through iTunes, through Amazon MP3, ZBS.org, the Spoken Network in the UK, probably Audible as well.
LANCE: We’re going to make Starstruck available through every outlet that exists for downloads. Ultimately this means more listeners, and more exposure to what we think is one of the best audio theatre pieces produced this year. And honestly we hope that it drives more people to check out the comics as well as the forthcoming collected edition from IDW.
O’Shea: What’s the biggest challenge of adapting a comic series to radio from your respective perspectives?
LANCE: …You know, honestly I think the biggest challenge isn’t so much adapting a comic book series or graphic novel, but reminding people that audio theatre is just as visual a medium as television or film or video games, and that an equally visual medium like comic books translate beautifully into audio. It’s just a different kind of visual. I’ve said this before, with audio theatre the listeners are no longer “audience:” they are part of the action, they’re directing it, they’re deciding how big the ship looks; they’re deciding the color of the sky if they want to!
I open a page from the book of Freberg: many, many years ago he wrote a radio commercial that sums it all up, if you will, where an ad exec is pitching his radio commercial in which Lake Michigan is drained of all the water, then filled up with hot chocolate and a 500 foot mountain of whipped cream, and finally a bunch of helicopters fly overhead and drop a 10 ton Maraschino Cherry on top of the whipped cream while the sky is aglow with a million fireworks, and the capper is the sentence: “try doing that on television.” What he was ultimately saying was that the mind is a billion dollar sound stage.
Now apply that to comic books, comic strips, graphic novels: if you know the art, the artist’s work, you can take those images and animate them to your liking. If you remember that audio theatre is a visual medium in itself, then the adaptation is a very easy one. Not sure if I really answered that question…but I like it! Moving on!
BILL: What Lance said…but better!
O’Shea:How did WMPG FM get involved with the project?
LANCE: WMPG just happens to be one of the few community radio stations in the United States that regularly airs audio theatre with the show “Radio Drama Revival,” which is hosted by our dear friend Fred Greenhalgh. Many people don’t know this, but NPR and public radio in general abandoned audio theatre for good in the mid-1990’s when they chose to go all talk all the time; unfortunately, a lot of community radio stations followed suit. But WMPG embraced audio drama; in fact they’ve co-produced a number of live audio drama events in and around the Portland area. Well, our liaison, Dan Bernard, who has been with the station for many years, approached them with the idea of WMPG underwriting our weekend of voice-over recording at The Studio in Portland, which saved us a great deal of money, to be perfectly honest, and in exchange they would get a small portion of the proceeds every year as a donation, not to mention the first radio airing of Starstruck anywhere in the country. Dale Robin Goodman, their Programming Director, she’s awesome in every sense of the word and as we speak we’re working out some promotional ideas for the Portland area. This was our first collaboration with WMPG, but it certainly won’t be our last.
O’Shea: Bill, what is all entailed in the process of directing a project like this, what are some of the biggest logistical challenges?
BILL: At the risk of sounding prosaic, I’d have to say that the biggest challenge came down to simply scheduling all of the actors. There were sixteen scenes and a prologue to record over a 3 day period, and a number of actors were only available during certain days. As a matter of fact, I had to step into the role of Dwannyun, as the actor originally cast was ill on the day! It was a potential nightmare, occasionally requiring the need to record the odd scene, or two, without the full complement – adding in the errant voice(s) later. But we got through it.
O’Shea: When it came to the actual recording process, I’m sure there were a number of surprises. I’m not looking to focus on negatives, but rather what were the pleasant surprises?
LANCE: The fact that aside from the scheduling issues, it came together with very few hitches.
LANCE: That too! Again, WMPG.
O’Shea: In one blog post there was talk of working a Christopher Walken imitation in for one of the characters, did that happen?
LANCE: (as Walken) Oh…hell yea! Ya know it ain’t…a show without (short pause) a little Walken! (as Lance) I’ll tell you, though, that wasn’t my favorite impersonation to do: of all things my favorite was actually James Mason. I played NORM, the Siren 3 computer, who goes in and out of celebrity voices throughout the play: Karloff, Bogie, Edward G., Peter Lorre, Shatner doing Kirk, Gandolfini doing Tony Soprano, Elvis, etc. So there’s one section where NORM goes into James Mason mode. A few days before the recording Bill and I were in his home studio finding YouTube clips of famous actors that I could work off of voice-wise, and for Mason we found the occasional short clip of 20,000 Leagues, but the one that we were just cracking up over was this black and white commercial, must have been early sixties, of ol’ James extolling the virtues of Thunderbird wine. I’m not kidding. So before I do my Mason lines at the recording sessions I’m going on and on in this breathy English voice about how much I love Thunderbird wine I’m sure prompting some of the cast to wonder if I’d had a couple glasses of it that morning.
O’Shea: Let’s talk about some of the cast and what strengths you felt they brought to the production?
LANCE: A quick introduction: putting together a work of this size and scope is not something that you can do easily. There’s a lot of people who think that if they have people speak into a microphone and then throw in a lot of sound effects and music, then, bam! instant audio theatre. It doesn’t work that way. You have to have a great script, which we had. You have to have a great director who understands how to put it all together. And you have to have great actors. There are so many audio dramas out there where the directors cast their friends or lovers or their local grocer down the street who remembers hearing the last broadcast of “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” in 1962, you can tell these people just cannot act. I don’t believe for one minute that their character is on the bridge of a starship in high stress mode fending off an alien invasion, but I do believe that he or she is front of a computer mic at their desk reading off of a script, and that just drops me right out of the action.
You need great actors, trained actors who know how to work a mic, so to speak, and we had great actors whose voices fit the roles. Moreover, they were always in the moment, committed to their roles, no matter how over the top: the villains aboard the Siren 3 immediately come to mind. Their energy was infectous. Starstruck is a raucous space opera, emphasis on the word raucous. And our actors hit the ground running with every scene. So, yeah, everybody was exhausted at the end of day, but it was good exhaustion! And you can hear that energy, that commitment, in the final mix. We really lucked out with our cast.
BILL: (in repetitive mode) Our actors were FANTASTIC! We had two read-throughs with them, and they arrived at the sessions ready to rock ‘n roll. This type of acting requires a great deal of stamina as well, as I tend to direct with an ear to physicalizing the performances. Years of working with the BBC and the inimitable Dirk Maggs honed that skill down for me. The other common trait that our actors shared was a real sense of comedy and a vocal flexibility.
O’Shea: In audio drama, sound effects are particularly crucial I think, would you agree?
LANCE: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. What’s really crucial is: how do these effects, if there are any, support the story. Again if you’re throwing in sound effect after sound effect after sound effect, you could be dragging down the production.
BILL: Like Lance says, sound effects – and music – can very easily detract from a scene/production, if used with a heavy hand (ear?). However, if used judiciously, they both can lift the production to a higher level of art. I spend ages fine-tuning my sound design, especially as the majority of mine are created without foley, with SFX/music layered in after the voice tracks have been edited. Every sound has to have a reason for being there, and be in the correct spot. I have to visualize the scene I’m listening to and ‘see’ what each character is doing, and when. Every time Erotica Ann responds to a demand for information form Galatia, it needs to be acquired within a certain time span before she relays it – keyboard query followed by computer response followed by answer. The sword fight between Galatia and Verloona – those sword strikes and clangs are tied in to the grunts and sounds of effort voiced by the two actors. Takes time! But well worth it.
O’Shea: What were some of the quirkiest sound effects you had to develop?
BILL: I don’t know about “quirky”, but I have created some rather ‘busy’ numbers for my horror series, Nightmares On Congress Street, Pts IV & V. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” there is a scene where the killer chops up the body, while running a shower to drain the blood, followed by wrapping the ‘parts’ in garbage bags and secreting them under the floorboards… all in the space of around 20 seconds – creating a layered sequence of actions to underscore the killer’s describing of the process. In “The Cabin in the Woods,” a cabin literally absorbs its occupants – there are some really ickily nasty sounds in that one! There were also the cries of the older tenants in the walls!!!
Now for Starstruck, one of the challenges was creating two individual control areas for the two space vessels – one of which is NOT your conventional interstellar vehicle. All great fun!