Thursday, July 19, 2007

Writers On the Air Workshop - Day 1

Day 1 was really about introductions and a little audio theater overview. We have a wonderful range of experience at the table, with many returning workshop participants and folks who have experience producing audio theater and stage theater, among others. We went over some key points about audio theater - that it's really about writing a good story, what are the limits on language for broadcast, the many narrative devices available (and how narrative is not so frowned upon in audio), about 6 main characters is a good limit, though you can have a lot more minor characters.

In discussint the challenges and guidelines for giving and getting criticism, one participant made the link between criteria and criticism. Once you know the criteria, e.g. what the author is going for, then you can give constructive criticism on whether that criteria was met. Another participant used the phrase "roses and thorns" to describe good criticism. A third participant suggested that, before giving a critique, you ask yourself: "What is it (the piece)? How was it done?" and then "My response to this is ______________."

In discussing how an audience talkback can sometimes run away with your work, someone pointed out a quote from Isaak Denisen: "Your only loyalty as a writer should be to the story."

We did an exercise to explore writing in the sonic realm and look at what sound effects can and cannot do for you. Each writer had a card with a sound effect that they had to describe. The other writers then tried to identify the sound. Finally, the writer shared some lines of dialogue that might help the listener identify the sounds. One of my favorites was the description of a low-pitched, slowly repeating, creaking (The description was more eloquent than that but I failed to write it down). Our guesses were all over the map. The dialogue was Amish-style and talked about pulling a heavy load and fixing the axle and led us to figure out that the sound was a wooden cart rolling.

The exercise highlighted the dangers of depending solely on a sound effect to convey information to your listeners. Also, when even a little context is provided, the listener tends to expand and build upon it to create a world and sense of time and place.

Here are a few for you to try to identify:

1. Loud, uninterrupted metalic buzzing with varying pitches
Dialogue: "How many feet did you want cut?"
"It's a six-foot fence, so-"
"Right, then - six feet." Followed by sound.

2. Slushy, watery crack, tearing, grunt, groan, scream, rustle, deep breathing.
Dialogue: "You've got a right arm. I'm gonna make sure you never use the left one again!"

3. metallic shwunk, swoosh of air, human gasp, splatter, drip, heavy sickening thud
Dialogue: "Take it easy! Put that down! We can work this out! No, stop! Stop!"

4. A slipping fabric sound like cloth being pulled taut, perhaps a grunt or "ah" and faint foot pad, followed by a zzzip and a tinkle of metal
Dialogue: "Hang on a second - wrong leg. There we are. These used to fit ... Ahhhh."

Answers: 1-power saw, 2-arm being torn off, 3-throat being cut, 4-man putting on pants.
(They were all fascinating - wish I'd written them down!)

Now, try your hand at the writing part. Choose a sound effect. Describe it, using only sound words that the listener would hear (no identifiers such as "sounds like a hose being turned on"). Then, write some dialogue that will provide identifying context.

1. Sound of a body being dragged through the mud
2. walking through snow
3. whip cracking
4.getting a haircut
5.stacking wood
6. running through the jungle

Finally, we listened to the first 5 minutes or so of the following WRW productions:
THE SHADOW: SILENT AVENGER (classic old-time radio style)
FALL OF THE CITY (completely different style, written in same time period)
CHRISTMAS AT THE TNT (modern piece, slice of life, rich atmospheric soundbed)

We noted the distinct styles of the writing, the flavor of specific genre writing such as noire. Also, we talked about how the listener needs adjustment time if there is an abrupt change in style, perspective, point of view. As authors, we need to be consistent OR be intentional when we shift. Finally, I pointed out that most strong pieces establish the conflict in the first 5 minutes or so. Which brings us to tomorrow's assignment - describe your central conflict, how it starts and how it ends.

See you tomorrow!

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