UPTOWN — For most small creative teams, the biggest obstacle to their next project is money, but Kat O'Connor and Michael Coorlim like to joke they wouldn't let finances stop them even if it meant recording their next project in a closet.
And that's exactly where O'Connor found herself when they launched Synesthesia Theatre, "an audio drama serial podcast" that seeks "to contribute to a cultural shift through narratives that normalize stories about the traditionally marginalized: women, minority, and LGBT characters presented as people rather than genres," according to the project's website.
"We already had the mics because I was doing some voiceover work and audiobooks," O'Connor said. "After that, it was just a matter of expanding our setup a little bit."
AN IMPROVISED SOUND STAGE
For the theater group's first audio serial, "Iron Horses Can't Be Broken," adapted from Coorlim's steampunk western novel, the entire cast recorded from O'Connor's Uptown living room.
"Iron Horses Can't Be Broken" follows British detective Alton Bartleby as he scours the American West in search of his sister Sarah, whom he abandoned 10 years earlier. Bartleby is far from prepared for what he finds — and who his sister has become.
"[We expanded] our setup with the isolation box and some music stands to hold scripts so we didn’t have to shove people in the closet," she said, but that's as fancy as the operation gets.
At first, the two were looking to produce a web series, but quickly "realized we needed to have a fan base first in order to get the kind of financial support in order to make that happen."
To start launch a series, they estimated they'd need to raise about $25,000 through crowd-sourcing, which they figured was a little hefty.
On the other hand, “audio is something can more easily be done on a shoe-string [budget]," she said.
A NEW FRONTIER
While O'Connor has never listened to the uber popular "Serial," the increased popularity of podcasts and audio storytelling made it the perfect time to buy in, even if audio isn't necessarily their shtick, Coorlim said.
“There’s been a lot of interest in audio dram lately. Starting with 'Serial,' it really took off really big," he said. "And there’s been a sort of general podcast renaissance. It’s sort of the right time to start entering into it. Now that it's easy to distribute [and] easy to produce.
"The tools we have now are at the point that if you have a professional attitude toward things, and you’re working with talented people, it’s really a good time where you don’t have to have as much capital to start."
O'Connor's background is in film and theater and Coorlim is a writer "of strange stories for strange people," according to his website. Both do have experience with producing audio books.
But despite her experience with voiceover acting and audiobooks, stripping visual tools from a stage-style play was still an adjustment for O'Connor.
“I’m a very visual person, so trying to re-conceive the story I have in my head — which is entirely visual — as something that auditory is the unique challenge. Plus, our technical expertise doesn’t necessarily lie with sound design; luckily, we know smart people who can help us with that," she said.
To cast the production, O'Connor put out casting calls through Chicago theater networks and on social media to finds actors and actresses "willing and anxious to try" voice acting, she said.
"The whole idea between acting and being able to convey emotion and intent through voice alone, that kind of arises naturally from being in that emotional head space when you are acting."
SHRINKING THE STAGE
But just because there's no stage doesn't mean there wasn't movement and physicality. In the case of James Sparling, who plays Alton Bartleby, "he moved around a lot," O'Connor said.
Recording in such a small space was "quite restricting" considering how physical he is while acting, Sparling said. But he and his colleagues are used to watching Sparling struggle to reign in his physicality.
"Much to the amusement of my fellow players, I do tend to still be quite physical when I'm recording," he said. "I find it helps and I'm not skilled enough to do it without. I recently did some [automated dialogue replacement] work on a movie and again amused the engineers by contorting myself to get myself into the correct emotional space while at all times addressing the mic."
Moving off the stage and behind a microphone wasn't necessarily easier or harder for Amanda Meyer, who played Florence Bartleby. Instead, it was just a different method of storytelling and performance, she said.
For her, the challenges included not being able to look her partner in the eye, keeping still and controlling the hand gestures that come naturally with her speech, she said.
"Even shifting weight might cause a floor creak," she said. "While physicality can inform a performance, this kind of storytelling requires you to really paint the picture with your voice. It's a slight turn of the dial on making the language more colorful so the reader can see your intent with their ears."
MOVING ON UP
Luckily for the crew they should have a little more space to work with soon. For the next production, Synesthesia Theatre will be working with the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, which works with Chicago-based podcasts.
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