Not all dramatic arts involve live stagecraft in front of in-person audiences. In fact, some dramatists in Oregon are pushing the boundaries of what they’re familiar with in order to create something they’ve never tried before: a dramatic podcast series.
The new, locally produced series is called Average Folks and it’s being produced by a current student and recent graduate of George Fox University in Newberg. The series is a funny, quirky fantasy set in a world where medieval myths exist alongside elements of the modern world.
It’s written by Elyse Bradford, a senior in the George Fox theatre department. She is also the narrator of the audio series.
“It’s a story I’ve been working on for about five years now,” Bradford described the project. “At first, I tried it as an audio book and hated it, but that was very informational. (Then) we got the idea to do it as a podcasting series.”
While the series is similar to an audiobook in that there’s a narrator and characters reading for each part, the text has been adapted to feel more like a series -- a set of self-contained episodes that form a larger narrative.
“With a digital-specific platform … I have to be a lot more intentional with things.” - Hope Bellinger, Director of "Average Folks"
The podcast is directed by Hope Bellinger, a graduate of the same program at George Fox, who earned her degree last spring. The pair had worked together before as part of George Fox University’s Theatre Department, though never on anything as technical as this. Learning the ropes of a new performative medium is never easy, but it’s even harder during a pandemic.
Covid-19 meant that casting, rehearsing and recording all had to be done per health guidelines. The entire casting process was done virtually, with prospective voice actors submitting audio files to Bradford and Bellinger. They then had callback auditions via Zoom.
Bellinger says that the virtual nature of the production also means that the usual skills that one uses to direct a cast and crew in a traditional theatre space don’t necessarily apply here.
“There are times when I have to constantly remind myself how to direct,” Bellinger said. “When rehearsing in person, there are times when I would just take a moment to think to myself, and in that moment you can really connect to the physical bodies in that space.”
“It’s easier to kind of take stock and think, ‘OK, what does everyone need right now,’” she continued. “With a digital-specific platform … I have to be a lot more intentional with things.”
The production has an agreement with George Fox University to use eight recording rooms that are self-contained spaces where actors can record safely without the need for close interaction with other members of the cast and crew.
Pandemic restrictions aside, there are also plenty of issues that arise when managing the first professional production of these young womens’ careers. For one, they had to figure out how to secure funding for a brand-new project that neither of them have direct experience with.
“Graduating into a non-existent job market was definitely a transition." - Hope Bellinger
To do that, the production turned to Kickstarter, raising about $2,400 with donations from friends, family members and theatre-lovers who wanted to support this new venture. But even that isn’t enough to pay the full cast and crew.
Bradford and Bellinger aren’t getting paid, nor are any of the actors. The producers say this decision was made so that the technical crew -- the composer, editors and other audio crew needed to do the bulk of the production work -- could get a paycheck. That’s often the case with upstart companies, and the producers say they were clear about all this throughout the casting and hiring process.
“The way we prioritized it is that we knew the people with technical skills we would need to pay … somewhere between pennies and what they deserve,” Bellinger explained. “We knew we would not be able to pay our actors, which makes us sad but we were really up-front about that.”
If any revenue comes from the project, the producers say they will split it among the rest of the cast and crew.
The production’s reach may be helped by the fact that Average Folks just secured an agreement with Rogue Media Network based in Waco, Texas. The podcast hosting site will help pay for some costs and for marketing to grow its audience -- in exchange for advertising for Rogue Media during the streams.
Even with no guarantee of pay, actors who are without regular work due to the pandemic are still eager to find any kind of creative outlet, and Bradford says it’s been nice to provide people with a production to rally around as a creative outlet.
“I’m really really grateful for all the work I’ve been able to give artists. That’s been one of the best and most humbling things about this,” said Bradford. “We have people, like one from (The Oregon Shakespeare Festival) who’s saying they’re not getting any work but they were able to work on this.”
Bellinger, the director, described herself how she was listless after graduating in the middle of the pandemic, without any professional gigs to audition or apply for and few possibilities of making her own passion projects into a viable production.
“Graduating into a non-existent job market was definitely a transition,” Bellinger said. “In the last couple of months I sat down and was writing a list of all the different projects I never got a chance to work on. It was around that time that Elyse approached me about Average Folks.”
Pandemic restrictions and job realities aside, there are also plenty of issues that arise when managing the first professional production of these young womens’ careers.
For Bradford, the process has also been difficult because she’s still enrolled in school throughout the process.
“It’s a little rough trying to manage a business for the first time while trying to graduate,” she said.
This month, the production hopes to do a recording marathon, wrapping up the acting process so they can move onto the even-longer process of editing, mixing and getting the podcasts ready for release.
“I’m really really grateful for all the work I’ve been able to give artists. That’s been one of the best and most humbling things about this.” - Elyse Bradford, Creator & Narrator of "Average Folks"
The final product will feature a season of eight episodes, each about an hour and fifteen minutes long. They expect to start releasing episodes in late summer. You can check out the beta episode of the pilot right here.
Those involved say the podcast has been a fun learning experience that’s seen them through a truly tumultuous time for dramatists in Oregon.
“To work with Elyse and with this group of people who collaboratively create this art has been a wonderful solution in the meantime,” Bellinger said.
If you or someone you know is a dramatist in Oregon doing cool things to overcome the pandemic, let us know so we can feature it in another installment of our Pandemic Theatre series.