It’s not that plays are new to recordings, or that corporations never before invested in the stage. What is novel is how this company is commissioning dramatists to write plays for its global listener base and at the same time curating them for a narrower market of theatergoers.
You might say that Audible is assembling a digital repertory company, with platforms both on air and on legs. (Launched a quarter-century ago, Audible was acquired in 2008 by Amazon, whose chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
“My wife is seriously smart about theater, and we go a couple of times a week,” Audible’s founder and chief executive, Donald Katz, said in an interview. “When I saw what was happening, that the next generation of plays was being written to an intimate aesthetic, I realized there was the capacity to customize the experience to the power and intimacy of the human voice.”
As a result, Audible embarked on a mission to archive and create new work, much of it in the form of solo or small-cast pieces, and offer them to Audible’s subscribers, who number in the millions (the company declined to provide detailed data). An artistic producer came aboard in March 2017: Kate Navin, a former agent who, with a small team of producers, began the task of building a theater collection.
“We’re getting close to the point where any book worth reading is also being heard,” said Katz. “Theater doesn’t have that electronic analogue.”
The company’s theatrical aspirations, according to Navin, prompted a natural migration to the stage, with a twofold thesis: “That theater artists are underutilized, and there is a product model that we can use to fix that a little bit.”
The model has resulted in a burgeoning role off Broadway for Audible, which has given commissions to 25 playwrights since 2017, with 10 more to be awarded in the coming months. A few judged especially stageworthy have been selected for live production, such as “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” in the 400-seat Minetta Lane. Aasif Mandvi’s “Sakina’s Restaurant” was produced there last year.
Works from other theaters have been brought in and preserved in Audible recordings as well: Billy Crudup, for instance, performed David Cale’s solo show, “Harry Clarke,” at Minetta Lane in 2017 after a successful run at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre. And Carey Mulligan arrived in 2018 with Dennis Kelly’s one-hander, “Girls and Boys,” after its sold-out engagement at London’s Royal Court Theatre.Some of the special events — including solo shows with the likes of Patti Smith and Alan Cumming — are recorded live in the performance space, so that audience reaction can be part of the recording. Mike Daisey’s monologue “Bad Faith” will be presented there on Dec. 8 and 9.
“The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” the sixth work for which Audible is sole stage producer, is Gunderson’s account of a wrenching period in the life of the discoverer of radium, who was twice awarded the Nobel Prize, for physics and for chemistry. At the height of her fame in the early 20th century, she became embroiled in a public scandal in Paris over her affair with a married man. As pointed out in Gunderson’s tale of the spirit-reviving friendship between Faridany’s Marie and Mulgrew’s Hertha Ayrton, an acclaimed British physicist, the outsize abuse heaped on Curie seemed driven by misogyny.
Gunderson, whose J.M. Barrie adaptation, “Peter Pan and Wendy,” begins performances Dec. 3 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, said that writing primarily for audio consumption struck her as challenging, “but the overall goal was revolutionary. British audiences are used to radio drama, but in American culture not at all. This takes the ‘local’ out of the theater experience, which is a good thing. People anywhere can be in the room with the characters I created.”
Engineers may have their hands on the soundboard dials, but Audible likes having a stage director’s fingers all over the production. In the case of “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” Navin hired Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who has worked at major theater companies across the country, including Washington’s Studio Theatre, Arena Stage and Folger Theatre, to direct both the audio and stage version of the play.
“It’s a different way of working,” Upchurch said during a break in the Audible recording session. The day before, in a rehearsal room in Manhattan, she was frequently out of her chair, conferring in a whisper with Faridany or Mulgrew, to refine some movement or note the desired impact of a lighting effect. In Newark, her only contact with the performers was over a loudspeaker. “When I’m in the studio,” she said, “I try not to watch the actresses. I want to make sure I’m getting it just through my ears.”
The altered process affected the actresses’ own way of growing into their roles. Normally, the physical and vocal aspects of a character meld when actors move from table readings and early discussions to getting a play on its feet. For this play, scheduling mandated that a recording session be held before rehearsals for the stage version were finished. “I thought, ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to be ready,’ ” Faridany recalled. But the break actually gave her more time to reflect. “It was incredibly helpful. It was a little bit like going back to the table.”
Listening in the studio to Faridany, who had the central part in Shakespeare Theatre’s 2012 revival of “Strange Interlude,” and Mulgrew, a veteran stage and screen actress best known as Captain Janeway on TV’s “Star Trek: Voyager,” you understand the importance of vocal richness. “I’ve learned a lot about pleasing the ear of an older person; it has to be clear,” Mulgrew said, perhaps explaining the crispness of her diction as Ayrton, who invites Curie to her English cottage for sanctuary from the ravenous press.
Navin said her team felt upon reading Gunderson’s finished version that it would be “playable” — that it would work in front of a crowd. “You can just tell when you read a script,” Navin observed. But, as the playwright noted, not everything in a work of drama is playable on a recording.
“There are a few moments in the stage production that do not translate for the audio production,” Gunderson said. “Basically, it’s an entirely silent scene, a little moment at the end of the play, with Marie holding her radium. It is an internal moment, a kind of dangerous moment that if you listened to it would just be silent, with the sound of [radium] ticking.”
How that would be handled on the audio version was still under discussion. On the Minetta Lane stage, the scene unfolds just as Gunderson described. “It’s a gift to the people in the room,” she said.
Meaning that occasionally, even with a drama designed for the ears, the eyes have it.
The Half-Life of Marie Curie, by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. About 85 minutes. $43-$77. Through Dec. 22 at Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York. ticketmaster.com. Available Dec. 6 to listeners on audible.com/theater.
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