Active Listening is a New Dramatists podcast series that invites the resident playwrights to experiment with story, intimacy, and immediacy through sound experiences. This initiative was borne of the questions that became urgent as our pandemic lockdowns began. What are creative alternatives to gathering together in rooms? What might a play for the ear sound like?
Each episode is written, recorded, and produced by a different resident playwright. Below you can find a more detailed history of how Active Listening came to be, as well a list of everyone who made this ambitious undertaking possible. Scroll down below to find an index of podcasts. We hope you enjoy these plays for the ear.
On March 12, 2020, the eve of sheltering, two questions were posed to the New Dramatists company of playwrights: what are creative alternatives to gathering in rooms together? And, what does a play for the ear sound like?
At best, this strange time in history has offered an opportunity to reconnect with our purpose, re-evaluate our practices and re-align our values and mission -- like chiropractics for the soul of our work and organizations. New Dramatists fosters playwright leadership, artistic agency and risk taking, and values new ideas and discovery. So what is the collective potential of a company of playwrights? Playwrights are thought leaders and trail blazers, why not also solution makers? How can they take their world building gifts and use them to create what they want to see or hear, not just for others to produce, but for themselves, each other and the audience that connects to and grows organically from their endeavors? Can we separate the art of theatre from the physical space in which it happens? Can we expand our ideas about venue and redefine the notion of space? Can we produce art born of urgency; work that reflects our immediate circumstances and in the time in which its most relevant and necessary?
All these questions and more were churning about in the weekly hangouts established post-sheltering. It was at one of those very hangouts in early May that Karinne Keithley Syers, Melisa Tien and others were discussing the desire to create, but not necessarily the desire to write plays. The possibility of creating plays for the ear was reintroduced and in true inspired artist led fashion, Karinne and Melisa seized the reins and gunned the engine, giving the idea momentum, traction and lift-off. Each new program undertaken at New Dramatists is a response to the expressed needs and interests of our company and strives to combine our fundamental principles: time and space for individual artists to play and experiment while working within and sharing resources with a company of peer artists. It was in this spirit that, in addition to taking on the building of the program infrastructure, Karinne and Melisa issued an invitation to their fellow company members to participate. Approximately 20 playwrights responded and with that, Active Listening was born.
Active Listening is a New Dramatists podcast series produced by Karinne Keithley Syers and Melisa Tien that encourages New Dramatists resident playwrights to explore story through sound and audio. Each individual playwright who signed on had full creative freedom over what and how they made their pieces, including giving voice to their own words. There were no content or thematic parameters imposed upon them – just open space to play, to experiment, and to listen to and follow the emergent impulse.
I spent a full day blissfully listening to the eleven plays for the ear comprising Season One and experienced an unparalleled array of spectral beauty. Each unique piece, while totally surprising, reveals the artistic soul of its creator; combined, the series, one, reveals uncanny thematic connections running throughout, and two, represents the stunning diversity and eclecticism of our playwright collective. The work is intimate, visceral, delightful, and like a time capsule, poignantly divulges what is on the minds and in the hearts of each individual artist during this stressful time in isolation. Active Listening is an encapsulation of pandemic obsessions – an archive, a message, a reminder, or suspended memory about life from the planet.
For Season Two, aka, the micro-batch, we were looking for a maximum of five or six 2-to-10-minute pieces that continue using the audio medium to experiment with short form.
We ended up with six glorious pieces from writers previously featured in Season One – Kirk Wood Bromley, Matthew Freeman, C. Julian Jiménez, and Matthew Paul Olmos, along with some new contributors – Naveen Bahar Choudhury, and Karinne Keithley Syers.
Again, I listened to the collection during a long walk and was completely overcome with emotion by the end – so much beauty, vulnerability, risk, and surprise. The invitation to experiment with form and content unleashed the lower registers of these artists’ voices. The writers tapped into subterranean stuff out of which they made haunting pieces that are emotionally raw, exquisitely rendered, and altogether, create yet another intoxicating collection of plays that comment on the trauma of the past year and forefront the current anxieties of standing on the precipice of a return to normal life, despite none of it being normal.
Our internal landscapes have been irrevocably changed by tremendous loss, grief, necessary reckoning, and uncertainty about what comes next. Each piece in Season Two captures an aspect of this state of being. They also capture how, in the face of death, we assert life in whatever way we can: sex, ritual, encounters with the unexpected, building a piece of art through collaboration, linguistic acrobatics, having an emergency go-bag, among other things. Ultimately, each piece is an assertion of life, a celebration of creativity, and a reminder about the importance of waking up each day to continue the journey.
Active Listening adds a new dimension to our work at New Dramatists. What started as an experiment has transformed into fully realized pieces comprising a magnificent, fully realized production, thanks to the playwright creators and the vision, drive, and ingenuity of Karinne and Melisa. It celebrates individual voice and collective expression, and it was made by and with New Dramatists resident playwrights. Active Listening has provided a digital outlet for artists to write what’s on their minds; it has provided a platform for that work to be produced, and it invites you, the audience, to sonically connect with us and together but apart, contemplate and navigate through the events of 2020 into 2021 and the impact on our lives right now. So, what does a play for the ear sound like? Like these perfect prismatic reflections on life….Listen to playwrights. It is well worth your time….
--Emily Morse, Artistic Director
Each of these plays for the ear comes with a corresponding "Seeing Music" visualization for the hearing impaired. Around the same time the idea for a free-range audio series had been proposed, Melisa had been spending time in virtual spaces where renewed discussions of how to make theater more equitable, in every sense, were taking place. There, she met Claudia Alick, a long-time producer of transmedia work and proponent of accessibility for the D/deaf/HOH (hard of hearing) community. Inspired, Melisa began seeking ways of making Active Listening accessible. But, how might it be done so that, for a person who is deaf/HOH, the experience of this unconventional audio series could be equally as unconventional as it would be for a hearing person?
This is where Seeing Music comes in. Melisa recalled having seen her colleague Jay Alan Zimmerman, a composer who is deaf, use a 'visualizer' application to help members of the deaf/HOH community 'see' music as it was played to the app. He'd made the app in conjunction with members of Google Creative Lab. Jay commented that the app had not been used with voices and sounds the way that Active Listening employed voices and sounds--it had really only been used with music and singers. To Melisa, this was all the more reason to try it.
The playwrights were asked to choose one of several visualizers the app offered, to go with their piece. Each audio piece was then played through the visualizer, video-recorded, uploaded to YouTube, and captioned. For hearing individuals, the visualizations can be experienced with the sound off, or on. The end result represents a way of 'listening' beyond what we normally conceive of as listening.
You can find a recording of our Active Listening Launch event by clicking here. The online webinar event took place on December 22, 2020 and featured a conversation with the producers and most of the writers from Season One of Active Listening.
3Views Editor and frequent New Dramatists collaborator Melissa Crespo interviewed Active Listening producers and ND residents Melisa Tien and Karinne Keithley Syers for the Werking Aritst podcast. They discussed their journey in producing the podcast, from inception to launch. You can listen to their interview by clicking here.
There were many amazing people who made substantial contributions to the realization of Active Listening. In addition to the intrepid visionaries, Karinne Keithley Syers and Melisa Tien and the twenty exquisitely talented company members who signed up for the project, we wish to extend our gratitude to the following people for their whole-hearted support of this endeavor: the New Dramatists staff and Board of Directors; the production team of Naveen Choudhury, Tyler Christie and New Dramatists’ web designer, Mark Sander of Q Collective; Claudia Alick for the inspiration to make this project accessible; Matthew Freeman; Barbara Wiechmann; Ben Pesner and Peter Richards of the Venturous Theater Fund.
Active Listening started as a 'listening' project, and has blossomed into an 'accessible sound' project because of the existence of the Seeing Music app -- a collaboration between Jay Alan Zimmerman (accessibility advisor for Active Listening), Yotam Mann, Claire Kearney-Volpe, Luisa Pereira, Kyle Phillips, and Google Creative Lab.
Active Listening is made possible with generous support from the Venturous Theater Fund of the Tides Foundation.