On one long August day, Eli Horowitz camped out in a cramped studio in Brooklyn with Oscar Isaac, Catherine Keener, a microphone, and a solitary Betta fish named Young Hollywood swimming laps around its little bowl. Horowitz was there to direct Keener and Isaac as they acted out the story of a strange and intimate relationship between a therapist and an army veteran who come together as part of a secretive — maybe even sinister — government program. Isaac played the vet, Keener the therapist. Young Hollywood served as scenery.
The catch: They had to convey all of this exclusively through sound — including the fish. Also, Horowitz had never directed an actor in his life.
“I literally Googled ‘how to direct,’” Horowitz said. “I swear I read a WikiHow page about it.”
Horowitz has built a career as an experimental storyteller. He was managing editor and then publisher of the innovative fiction outfit McSweeney’s, then the creator of a pair of “digital novels,” which play with geolocation and serialization to make stories for mobile devices. Now he’s working in a new form: the fictional podcast.
Horowitz is the head of the new, one-man fiction division (official title: executive producer of scripted content) at Gimlet Media, a Brooklyn podcasting company begun by longtime NPR journalist Alex Blumberg in 2014. Homecoming, the tale Horowitz was directing, is Gimlet’s first scripted series, with its premiere on Wednesday. It’s part of a new wave of ambitious audio fiction, one that moves beyond the early experiments that favored sci-fi and horror plots and cheap and simple storytelling devices and now boasts sophisticated sound design, top acting talent, tightly wound plots, and form-bending structures.
“We’re starting to get away from the idea of the old-school radio drama with a capital R and a capital D,” said Julie Shapiro, the executive producer of the podcast network Radiotopia. In its place, she said, “a more contemporary sense is developing of what audio fiction can be.”
The audio storytelling renaissance has been a long time coming. Unlike in Britain, where audio drama is a fixture — a daily radio soap, The Archers, has been airing on the BBC since 1950 — U.S. audio drama peaked in radio’s golden age, from the 1920s to the 1940s. “Then television came along and sucked everybody away,” Blumberg said. “Radio drama calcified right where it was.”
The innovation of the podcast — a digital, downloadable, listen-whenever-you-like format — has opened up audio storytelling to upstart creators, who can offer their products to a global audience without any backing from a radio station. Yet, about 10 years in, fictional podcasts are still finding their footing as a form.
Genre fiction is overrepresented, partly thanks to the lasting influence of the most famous radio dramas (like Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds) and to the demographic overlap between early tech adopters and fans of geek culture. And then there’s the popularity of meta story structures — narrative conceits that help to frame the tale.
Welcome to Night Vale, a darkly funny podcast about a town where every conspiracy theory is true, takes the form of a community radio program, so listeners feel as if they’re just tuning into the broadcast. Last year, a collection of science-fiction podcasts — including Limetown, The Black Tapes, and The Message — all borrowed elements from the true-crime series Serial. Each features a Sarah Koenig-esque reporter who’s running down a story that turns spooky.
Just as stage plays once opened with explanatory prologues and early novels were told through letters, these conceits provide listeners with a familiar format that helps warm them up to the somewhat alien idea of fiction through their headphones.
“Nobody watches CSI Miami and says, ‘Wait, why is there a camera in that police office?'” Blumberg said. “We suspend our disbelief.”
Homecoming drops the act. While the series, which Horowitz wrote with the screenwriter Micah Bloomberg, plays with native audio elements (like phone calls and interview tapes) — most of the time we’re just listening in, no explanation necessary.
So while Homecoming — in addition to Keener and Isaac, it also stars David Schwimmer, David Cross, and Amy Sedaris — is billed as a psychological thriller, it feels more experimental than the thrillers we’re used to watching on film. A distaste for cliché stopped Horowitz short of inserting a metanarrative structure to hold the listener’s hand, and the audio format prevented him from structuring his story around physical action.
“In a way, the whole plot came out of that challenge,” he said. “I wanted a whole plot where the actual meat of the story was the conversation.”
In Homecoming, therapy sessions between Keener and Isaac, and phone calls between Keener and her boss, played by Schwimmer, swirl just around the edges of the central mystery of the story line, twisting closer and closer until its secrets are revealed. The audio-only form frees the story to play with disorienting notions of time, place and identity that might not be possible on film.
In piloting the series, Gimlet found that its scripts were initially too long to expect listeners to sustain that level of attention. Episodes of Homecoming now clock in under 30 minutes.
“We’re trying to explore what the form can be,” Horowitz said, “while also trying to be conscious of what it is now.”
He’s betting the audience is ready to listen. He’s already at work on Season 2.
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