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Chapter 4. Formats > Produce Great Audio Theatre

Hack 32. Produce Great Audio Theatre

Write stories, build scripts, and produce audio theatre for segments of your podcast.

When we think of radio theatre, we imagine the classics such as "The Shadow" and "The Lone Ranger," shows from decades past when there was no television. Today's audio theatre is far more diverse than these shows were. We have audio books in which a single narrator plays several parts. We have shows such as This American Life (http://thislife.org/) that tell personal stories through clever use of narration and music. And we have plays set as audio theatre with full productions. These are popular in Britain, where the BBC presents full productions of drama, comedy, science fiction, and more.

Audio theatre provides you with a new outlet for your creativity and a new way of expressing complex topics through storytelling and parody. What's better is that you will be able to do it all with the audio setup you already have for your podcasts. All you need are some inspiration and enough writing skill to put together a script. From there, you use the three key elements of audio theatre—dialog, sound effects, and musical cues—to tell your story in a way that engages listeners.

This hack concentrates on small, five- to seven-minute productions that you can integrate into your podcasts. In radio, these are called sketches, and they are held as separate constructions from the unstructured portions of the show because they are scripted and are produced in advance. They involve up to four people, one or more microphones, some music, sound effects, and a script. The principles for the creation of sketches scale nicely to the size of a complete audio theatre production of a longer play.

4.14.1. The Story

A clear story is the foundation of any great audio theatre segment. Stories are available on the Web, but it's more interesting to do an original production. To give you some starters, here are some easy sources for stories:

Politics and current events

Nothing makes an easier target for parody than the recent hijinks of your least favorite politicians. Listeners already know the characters, and with a little narration, it should be easy to bring them up to speed on current events.

Pop culture

Just like politics, pop-culture icons from the worlds of music, movies, and commercials make excellent familiar targets for parody.

Life reenactment

Use stories from your life and reenact them through a short skit, with you and a friend playing out your roles, or even inverting them.

Religious or classic works

Use portions of classic fiction stories or events from religious works (which are filled with lots of short stories).


Use a joke as the basis for your sketch.

Urban legend

Urban legends can be very funny and engaging.

These are some simple starting points, but you should let your own creativity be your guide. Movie productions spend a lot of money on props and effects to tell a story. With audio theatre, the story is primary, with some music and a few effects thrown in to help set the scene. With the financial portion of the equation removed, you can tell as elaborate and fanciful a story as you choose.

With the story in mind, you need to decide on the characters and the narrative arc of the story. An arc starts with a setup in which you introduce the characters, their relationships, and the setting. Then, the story creates a conflict among the characters, and finally, a resolution. This is the standard three-act linear formula: setup, conflict, and resolution.

A linear narrative works best in audio theatre. A timeline that jumps around, as exemplified in movies such as Pulp Fiction, works on film but is confusing to listeners in audio. Clarity is critical in audio theatre because listeners effectively are blind. They can see only what you tell them, and what they can hear in the music or effects. For example, unless you as the actor tell your listeners what you're holding in your hand, your listeners will never know you're holding a gun.

4.14.2. The Script

With a story that has characters and a narrative arc in hand, the next step is to write the script. Start by writing out the scenes as an outline of the whole story. Detail what is supposed to happen in each scene, and then which characters are in the scene. Try to avoid having several scenes where no action occurs. Otherwise, you will bore your listeners and they won't stick around for the end. In addition, I recommend having between one and four characters in any scene. Using more than that will make it difficult for listeners to keep track of who is saying what.

With this outline in hand, you can write the script. The script needs to be formatted so that the actors can read it quickly. I recommend using the Courier font, in bold, at 12 points with a wide margin to create a paragraph width of around 5 inches. At that rate, a page of script is about 45 seconds of audio. So, a five-minute sketch is roughly six or seven pages.

Each line is a cue. A cue is either a line of dialog, a sound effect, or a musical reference. The lines should be numbered on the page, restarting with the number 1 on each page. Following the number, you should include the character's name and the line of dialog, sound effect, or music reference. You should underline sound-effect lines, and start them with the word Sound, followed by details on the sound effect to be used. Here is an example script that I wrote for a section of Shakespeare's Macbeth:

Table 4-1.
1.MACBETH:That will never be. Who can impress the forest? Yet my heart throbs to know one thing. Tell me, if your art can tell so much, - shall Banquo's issue ever reign in this kingdom?
4.ALL WITCHES:Seek to know no more.
5.MACBETH:I will be satisfied. Deny me this, and an eternal curse fall on you! Let me know!
7.MACBETH:Why sinks that cauldron? And what noise is this?

Keep in mind when you are writing your script that your listeners aren't in the room with you. They can't see you. So, anything you want them to see will have to come from the dialog or the sound effects.

4.14.3. The Studio Setup

Thankfully, the same requirements that make for a good podcasting studio also make for a reasonably good audio theatre setup. A large-diaphragm studio condenser microphone [Hack #13] will serve nicely for recording several voices. I recommend positioning the microphone at around collarbone level, with a pop filter placed such that you won't be able to get closer than eight inches to the microphone. The proximity effect is not helpful when recording dialog for audio theatre.

Whatever setup you choose, you should endeavor to create most of the sound for the show in the live performance. If you leave editing to post, you will find that you can mess with the sound for days or weeks to get it to feel right. It's far easier to create a live setup that will produce most of the sound you need, and reserve post-performance editing for adding music and doing any necessary trimming.

4.14.4. The Performance

Recording the sketch starts with picking the right actors. If you have the luxury of actually picking voice talent, you will want to choose individuals whose distinctive voices help flesh out the characters. In the likely event that you are doing the voice work yourself, you should try experimenting with different voices or accents.

Keep your studio quiet during the recording session. Extraneous noises confuse your listeners and distract them from the plot. Try not to laugh, sneeze, or cough. If you are walking around, take off your shoes unless the walking sound is important to you. If you are using multiple microphones, assume that they are all live. And try to keep the page-turning noise to a minimum. It can help to print the script single-sided to avoid the noise of flipping a page, and to allow you to move the pages from side to side. Plastic page protectors also help reduce noise, as does stapling the script in the lower left-hand corner so that the pages fall down as they are read.

Here are some simple hand signals you can use to communicate among actors:

Open hand

Indicates that the person should stop, like a traffic cop stopping traffic.

Pointing finger

Indicates when a music, effect, or dialog cue should start.

Drawing circles with your finger

Tells the speaker to "speed it up." The motion is similar to the motion of circling your finger on the side of your head to indicate insanity.

Hooking two index fingers together

Indicates that the cues need to be tightened up so that gaps are removed between the lines of dialog.

Pulling your ear

Indicates to the speaker that he needs to increase his volume.

Putting your finger to your lips (shhh)

Tells the recipient that she needs to be quieter.

Slitting your throat with your finger

The sign for "cut" and indicates that the scene is over, or at least that this segment of the recording is over.

All the actors involved need to have copies of the script, and one of the people should act as the director. The director wears headphones, monitors the sound, and conducts the performance to indicate when actors should start and stop, to introduce sound effects, and to give nonverbal cues.

I recommend recording short productions several times to get the timing right. The first few times should be a recorded rehearsal with the production version coming from one of the later recordings. Especially when you are just starting out, it can be difficult to read prepared scripts with a style that feels unscripted. Professionals call this "lifting the script off the page," and it comes only after the actors have rehearsed several times so that they feel comfortable with the words. Sound effects.

Sound effects [Hack #58] are a very important part of audio theatre. They provide an element of realism to the story that dialog can't provide. The ideal sound effect complements the action taking place in the dialog.

You have two options for introducing sound effects into a production. The first is to inject a digital sound effect directly [Hack #58] into a recording. You can do this live by using a cart program [Hack #54] [Hack #55], used in combination with Audio Hijack Pro on the Macintosh or Total Recorder Pro on Windows PCs [Hack #50]. I recommend using a reverb effect on the sound effect before using it in your show so that it sounds natural in the context of the recording. If you want your listeners to feel that the actors are far away, the gunshot one actor fires at the other also should sound far away. Another method for making a prerecorded effect sound more natural is to record it to a CD or tape, and then play it back through a portable CD player and record it with the studio microphone that will be used in the show.

The second option for sound effects is to do them live, with devices or with what is at hand. Here are some basic effects that will get you started:


Shake a 2 x 4-foot, high-impact polystyrene sheet/panel (.60 mil).

Walking through a jungle

Shake two little egg shakers and make vocal animal sounds.

Shoveling dirt

Shovel gravel in a gravel box.


Twist a little bird call and make vocal bird sounds.

A plane flying and sputtering

Apply a vibrating pen toy to a cardboard box, and move it.

On the radio

Hold a coffee mug off to the side and talk normally. This will create a boxy effect that is similar to talking through a phone or over the radio.

One particularly useful tool is a crash box, which is a metal tin (a large popcorn tin works nicely) that's filled with noisy junk and is duct-taped together. You can use this to simulate crash noises. You can also do a lot with just your mouth if you experiment a little. Just get creative with it.

Another important effect is the walla. A walla is a crowd noise sound, like the sound of a bar crowd or the roar of a stadium at a sporting event. It's easy enough to get with four or five friends mumbling in a random way. What's important is that there are no discrete words in the sound to distract listeners from the important primary dialog underneath which the walla is layered.

Always keep in mind that listeners will hardly notice if you miss a sound effect. But listeners will get confused by too much background sound or effects. Don't overuse the powerful tool of sound effects. Music.

Adding appropriate music to the start and end of a production or around each scene can provide listeners with a strong sense of place and time. As with any other podcast music, you will need to work through the licensing issues [Hack #68]. Which music you use depends entirely on your production's theme and in which portion of the show it's used. For the introduction, I recommend using something light, perhaps the beginning of a piece of music. For the conflict sections, use something with some more tension and drive. Then, at the conclusion of the production, use the end portion of a piece of music.

Using Apple's GarageBand or Sony's ACID is an easy way to create music that is license free and won't be so strong as to distract listeners from the story. In particular, stay away from sounds that are primarily in the treble clef. These can be distracting. Instead, keep with something fairly rhythmic in the bass clef.

4.14.5. Mix-Down and Encoding

The final phase after the recording is to use multiple tracks [Hack #60] in your sound editing application to layer any music or effects. Create another track, and then import and position the sound effects where necessary. If you chose a multiple-microphone recording setup, you will need to pan the recorded tracks to the right and left, and position them within the sound field. I recommend keeping the stereo spread between the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions, if you think of the left and right sound field as the top of a clock between the hours of 9 and 3. Having the actors in discrete left or right positions is gimmicky and distracting.

I recommend keeping your first few productions as technically simple as possible. Unless stereo is required, go with mono, with just a few sound effects and music for the intro and the outtro [Hack #63] to set the scene.

One very helpful effect to use on productions is a reverb or room simulator [Hack #51]. These provide the illusion of different rooms and spaces, eliminating the need to build different sets that would provide genuine room reverberation.

4.14.6. More Resources

To learn more about audio theatre, check out my site, RuyaSonic (http://www.ruyasonic.com). From there you can get scripts, word templates, and articles on writing and production. You should also check out Crazy Dog Audio Theatre (http://www.crazydogaudiotheatre.com/). Crazy Dog has a terrific audio piece on how script writing for audio is fundamentally different from writing for film. Audio Theatre.com (http://audiotheatre.com/) and the Independent Radio Drama Productions site (http://www.irdp.co.uk/) also are excellent resources.

4.14.7. Legal Issues

If you plan to make money off of your audio theatre segments, you should have your actors sign releases. These should define the expected profit, how it will be calculated and distributed, and what percentage, if any, each player receives.

4.14.8. Wrapping Up

My final advice to you is to keep the production simple and the script creative. Don't confuse listeners by trying stories that are too complex, and have too many characters or effects. And don't bore listeners by doing something so conventional that it's predictable.

Audio theatre is a blast to create and it makes for great listening when it's done well. Experience is what it takes to do it right, and that experience comes from making a lot of mistakes. Still, it's fun trying your hand at some acting, and audio theatre makes it cheap and easy to do.

4.14.9. See Also

Tony Palermo and Jack Herrington

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