5 questions about Eat Cake
A got an email not too long ago from Andrea Silenzi, a fellow radio producer who is teaching a radio drama class to high school students at 826 Chicago, that city's branch of the Dave Eggers-created 826 Valencia writing center.
Her students listened to my piece Eat Cake, and afterwards she had them write out questions for me. Here's the piece in it's original January 2009 broadcast on Weekend America:
Here is what the students asked:
1. What motivated you to make this story?
In Nov 2008, I got an email from Hillary Frank, who was working as an editor on the program Weekend America. She asked me to pitch something to the show. I was dying to do more radio drama, and Hillary has lots of experience writing fiction, so I thought she'd be an ideal editor to work with on a short radio drama piece. She told me that Weekend America was receptive to fiction, and it would be easiest to do something if I could "peg" it to something that was happening the weekend it aired, a holiday for example.
I looked at the calendar, at the end of January and beginning of February (because that's how long I thought it would take me to do a piece), and I looked for what I might be able to use as a peg. Valentine's Day is February 14th. Perfect.
I pitched them on the idea of developing something with improvisors. I've had a long interest in improv, I've taken lots of improv classes, and I'd become familiar with an incredibly talented improvisor named Eliza Skinner whose voice I thought would be perfect for public radio. My idea was to make a story with her and a few other improvisors based on the theme of "being alone on Valentine's Day." Most of my radio work has been more documentary-oriented, and I was interested in applying some of the techniques I'd used in documentary to make fiction, and I thought that working with improvisors was a good way to tap into that.
I cast the story before I knew what the story would be, and we built it around the performers I chose. I first just brought them into a studio with no preconceptions, and recorded them improvising all kinds of different scenarios, trying this idea and that idea, everything we could think of. After four solid hours of this we didn't have much. What was I thinking? This was not working.
I went home depressed, and listened to all of the tape. I heard one idea in there that I thought might work. We'd hit upon this idea of Valentine's Day traditions, and having some sort of anti-Valentine's Day tradition. I mentioned this to Hillary, who said, "what if you have two characters with competing traditions?" And I said, "how about one of them always calls people at random on Valentine's Day?" and we were off. I took the idea to the improvisors, and we played out the scenario in lots of different ways. I took that tape, edited it (a lot!), heard changes that needed to be made, brought the improvisors back again and we recorded pickups and new scenes. That's how the piece got written, going back and forth like that. We had four recording sessions in all.
The story came out of the process of collaboration. It doesn't sound improvised so much in the end because it's very tightly & thoroughly edited, but absolutely nothing you hear was scripted.
Incidentally, after the 2nd recording session, we found out that Weekend America was cancelled. The last show was to be January 30th, two weeks before our scheduled air date. Luckily, they let me do the piece anyway, and it aired on Weekend America's final broadcast (even though Valentine's Day was still two weeks away).
2. What was your favorite part to make?
I wouldn't say there's one scene or part of this that was more fun than another. Everything has its challenges and rewards. Overall, I'd say my favorite part was finishing the piece, because up until that point, I had no idea if it would even work as a story or not. I find making these kinds of stories to be such a delicate balance, one false note and you can lose your audience. It was a big relief to end up with something we all liked, that felt bouyant and cohesive, and that was actually going to air after all that. It always feels really good to finish something.
I also really enjoyed the casting process, Eliza was a big help with that, she introduced me to Birch Harms and Curtis Gwinn. Working with good performers makes everything easier.
3. Which scene was the most difficult to produce?
The most difficult aspect of this piece was figuring out how to make Eliza's switch from "creeped-out " to "intrigued" believable, and how to do that in a very short span of time. When Brian says he never meets the people he talks to in person, Eliza came up with this great line, "how do you know?" I think she really saved the piece with just that one line.
4. How do you picture Brian? Is he nerdy but secretly handsome? Or is he just nerdy, but that's Elizabeth's type?
I think the beauty of radio is that we each get to decide that kind of stuff for ourselves as individual listeners. Listening to the radio is a constant reconciliation between what we are told and what we imagine. What we're not told adds up to something in our heads based on what we are told, and because radio has no pictures, what it adds up to is often very different from person to person.
When Eliza says, "I didn't think you'd be blonde," that just came from the fact the Birch really does have blonde hair, she was just reacting honestly to the situation as an improvisor.
I think notions like "handsome" and "beautiful" are very subjective, and the truly important thing here is that the characters were right for each other. Elizabeth & Brian happened to click and be on the same wavelength, and they were really lucky that they liked each other even more after they met. It's hard to explain why that ever happens.
5. How authentic were the sounds you used? Were they all recordings of real places and actions?
Almost the entire story was recorded in a studio, with three mics (AKG 414's), one on each performer. I had the luxury of isolation booths, so each of the performers had their own track, which could be edited independently of the others with no bleed-though. This made working from improvisations MUCH easier.
There are two exceptions to this: At the beginning, when Eliza is talking to her cat, we recorded that down the hall from the studio, where there was a small kitchen area. And then when she's outside and yells "taxi" we recored that out on the street.
These days, my preference is to record on-location. But in the case of this piece, it was easier to do it in a studio because we were doing so much improvising, and we didn't always know what location we'd need. All the stuff that sounds like it's coming over a phone line was recorded through a studio mic and then processed & eq'd later to sound as though it were over the phone, with the exception of the random strangers Brian is calling in his exposition section. All of the ambience, sound effects and music were done in post-production. I wrote all of the music myself, and most of the sound effects came from commercially available sound effects libraries.