Writing Audio Fiction through Improvisation
Why improvise audio fiction? Why not just sit down and write an ordinary script? In audio, whether documentary or fiction, we often search for methods to sound "as ourselves." If we want to reach out to listeners today, it is central to create what the critics of podcasting sometimes refer to as ”babble” or ”waffle.” Babble is the sound of the authentic, as if everything we say is invented spontaneously in the moment. One tool to achieve this is improvisation, and in this essay I will describe how we worked with improv in the podcast series The Dinner Party (2016) at Swedish Radio Drama.
The series is about three couples who celebrate New Year's Eve together, an evening that will end in disaster. As the listener, you follow the dinner scene by scene and hear individual police interviews with all the dinner guests. In the extremely collective work that was required to create the series, not only my role as showrunner and director was affected, but so was everyone's role in the production.
The Art of Sounding As Ourselves
Film directors like Martin Scorsese and Mike Leigh, and theatre directors like Keith Johnstone and Ariane Mnouchkine, are known for their improvised work. This effort to reveal surprising and intimate moments between actors is not new in film and theater.
For me, the impulse to work with improv in the series The Dinner Party came from the intimacy of the podcast format, as well as from my own work with improvisation on the theatre stage. My experience was that a script is rarely as brilliant as when it is written in the moment by an equilibristic group of actors. In theater, these rare moments of divine inspiration are fleeting . But the amazing thing is, in film as well as in audio, they can be captured, cut, and edited.
To create the series, we searched for actors with great courage. To make improvisation really work, we need actors who are willing to use personal material--to dig into their own life experiences--and also who feel free to touch on taboo subjects--to say ugly and dirty things. Any theme whatsoever that is used in written drama and fiction must be possible material for the improviser. Moreover, the advantage of the audio medium is that we can cut away pieces and edit afterwards. Recording improvised fiction is therefore a safe place to break taboos, a space with great freedom for the improviser.
Another source of inspiration for us in the complex script-writing process was LARP theory. LARP stands for Live Action Roleplay and is a kind of theater without an audience. The focus is on your own experience as a participant, and, led by a game master, you play and act as a character in a story, often during several hours or days. We would record The Dinner Party with six wireless earset microphones and two stereo boom microphones on location in an apartment in Stockholm. For this we needed tools to create, in short time, strong characters, relationships, and a dense world, which, during long takes, could trigger credible dialogues and scenes. We realized that we had much to gain in the methods of live role-playing and reality games. With LARP technique, we can quickly create secure frameworks to act in a logically coherent world that holds a strong energy. In the long run, LARP inspired us to let the actors cook and eat dinner for real, and record in costume and makeup,
Writers’ Room and Casting
As the showrunner of the series, I created a team consisting of writer Daniel Karlsson, who had extensive experience in serial production, and game designer Anna-Karin Linder, who brought knowledge of LARP scripting to the work. Sound designer Frida Englund and producer Magnus Berg also participated in the writing of the script. In our previous improvised serial The Managers (2016), we had realized that the producer’s and sound designer's involvement in the script is a prerequisite to make an improvised script work. This kind of script is written largely in the moment, on set, which demands that the production team be tight and synchronized. Not only must everyone have to know the story, they also have to know where the story must move while recording. Rounding out our writing team was our social media editor Sofia Ekman Neves.
Our first session consisted of a story presentation by me, the showrunner and director. I sketched the theme of the series, its characters, and storyline. Based on my presentation, the team then spoke freely about their ideas and thoughts. Each one had brought clips, images, and materials that we entered into a joint interactive document online. We returned to this document between and during each writing session, and we also wrote in it together in real time. Between our intensive sessions in the writers’ room, I developed and corrected the script.
Our second session was about defining and clarifying the theme: life choices. We developed the story through hundreds of Post-its – exactly what in this theme was interesting, what was the hidden story inside the theme?
The next session was all about character. We went deeper into the six different characters at the dinner party, wrote more Post-its, switched them between characters, and tried out what would happen if we changed ages and genders.
In conjunction with this, the sound designer, the producer, and I started to cast the series. We chose to do personal interviews with the actors in which we not only tested their voices and the orchestration of voices, we also carefully explained the process and method of the production. Were they prepared to play in a script of which they did not even know the story? What was their relationship to improvisation? Would they dare to throw themselves into a recording that in parts better resembled LARP than theater or film? What were their own thoughts about partner relationships and throwing “grown up” dinner parties with partners? Were they willing to use personal material in the improvisations?
The writers’ room deconstructed the storyline into eight sections and created character focus and cliffhangers for each part. What would make the listener binge the story? What was important in each section? Who and what would be the center of the action in each part? What was the great disaster in the series that everything would lead up to?
The Actor As Screenwriter
When the casting was done, producer Magnus and I created a series of workshops for the actors Magdalena in de Betou, Fredrik Lundqvist, Alexej Manvelov, Ulf Rönnerstrand, Sanna Sundqvist, and Sandra Stojiljkovic while the sessions in the writers’ room continued. Our first acting workshops dealt with character. Each actor received a character sheet in advance which contained a few basic conditions – and a catchphrase.
This information is for your eyes only.
High Sensitive – the social lubricant
You grew up in a middle-class home. Good upbringing.
You are a person who takes responsibility for and rescues social situations. You want everyone to have fun, you talk a lot when it gets quiet, you entertain, and, if required, you even sing to make people feel good.
You want stability, absolutely not adventure.
You have a career and a high salary.
You really do not need your partner, either socially or economically.
You want to change your partner, for example his clothes and other things.
You love your apartment.
You want to have more sex.
You are bisexual but you do not talk about that.
Secretly you feel that your children take too much space.
You think a lot about the meaning of life and your life choices. Who you want to be does not match who you have become.
Phrase that you repeat / can always respond with: "That's me."
Based on these primary conditions, the actors were asked to select and bring a costume to the first workshop. Even though we were not working in a visual medium, using costumes was important to deepen the density of the world we wanted to build for the recording. In recorded improvisations, we then met and interviewed the six characters, and in these magic sessions, the actors filled the character frames with names, backgrounds, interests, desires, voices, and expressions – souls. It was amazing to literally see and hear the characters come to life.
After the first character development, the actors got to meet their respective partners in further workshops, first through a LARP method that we named "first date." Completely without recording and without an audience, the actors were asked to “LARP” their characters’ first dates during one hour. The only task they were given was to bring back the memory and story of their first date to tell to Magnus and me, plus a selfie of the two characters together. "First date" created a strong energy and generated specific details about the couples that all of us brought to the continued work with the series.
The next step was to improvise scenes from the (problematic) everyday lives of the couples, and then let them face a therapist in a fictional family therapy. On two occasions, our screenwriter Anna-Karin Linder acted as the therapist, and, with her knowledge of the script, she could also tilt the therapy sessions to what we needed for the story.
Now the script was written from two directions. While the plot emerged on Post-its and white boards in the writers’ room, the actors filled the script with physical information about each character and specifics about their relationship. The information we got through the acting workshops directly affected the choices the writers’ room made.
In the last workshop, we met all characters as a group and focused on the relationships between the different participants of the dinner. There were best friends and a brother and a sister – what was their story? In the interviews, the actors also were asked to improvise scenes from their shared histories. Whenever one of us said, "show us what happened," they had to portray the situation they had just told us about in the interview. For example, the brother and sister, Victor and Katrin, shared their memories of how as children they used to bathe together in a lake in the summer. The cast brought the story material and shared experiences from this workshop into the recording, and on many occasions they referred back to it in dialogues and scenes.
When the text was finished, it consisted of eight acts and a total of nineteen scenes. The scenes consisted mainly of proposals from me to myself as director about how to instruct the improv. Sometimes I suggested individual instructions in which certain information was hidden between the actors, and other times I suggested collective instructions where the whole group was tasked with moving the scene in a certain direction.
INT. Mauritz and Katrin BEDROOM - New Year’s Eve at 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Katrin and Mauritz try to make love and fail.
Katrin: You have a big argument about an absurd detail that leads to a quarrel about sex. You go through the past year's sex life, and you think you have a lousy sex life. Argue associative, argue about everything except Paris - Paris is in the subtext. Your goal is to make love to Mauritz.
Mauritz: You have a big argument about an extreme detail that leads to a quarrel about sex. You go through the past year's sex life, and you think you have an okay sex life but in Paris you will have a fantastic sex life. Argue associative, argue about everything except Paris - Paris is in the subtext. The scene ends with you not being able to have an erection.
Katrin and Mauritz: The scene will end with you having sex.
Cliffhanger: The doorbell rings in the middle of the failed sex act.
The Director As An Invisible Improviser
Each day on set started with a disco dance session in the living room of the apartment we rented for the recording. Sometimes the sound designer Frida Englund joined the dance. Improvising a podcast series really does require from everyone on the team a danceable attitude, meaning a playfulness as well as a flexible attitude towards our own ideas in every situation. The producer, sound designer, actors, and director must be able to swing freely, with and against each other, to float and follow impulses. In an improvisational recording, the first take nearly always works best, while the second and third ones becomes more and more tense and closed. It makes the work quick and intense. We made no retakes in The Dinner Party. The entire six-part series, each part twenty-eight minutes, was recorded in a total of four days.
Even I as director had to improvise and literally dance through the work. The great thing about directing audio fiction is that I can stand anywhere in the room. No one sees when I sit with the actors at the dinner table or eavesdrop just a few centimeters away from two characters cuddled up in a sexy slow dance. I moved like a ghost through the scenes and dialogues. With gestures, pushes, and facial expressions, I directed in an intuitive flow, an almost choreographic way of directing.
Central for the direction of The Dinner Party were also the Post-it instructions. During the four days of recording, I wrote hundreds of pieces of paper with directing instructions such as:
- leave the room
- ask about Paris
- tell us about how your husband is in bed
- try to finish the scene
I improvised these notes in the moment and the actors got them in their hands in a flow. Sometimes producer Magnus Berg and sound designer Frida Englund assisted, adding instructions, which we needed. I cut the scenes only a few times. It was important that the cast went deep into the world of The Dinner Party and also that "bad proposals" could flow through the acting. The scenes needed space to spread and swell in different directions.
Since we recorded with six wireless earset microphones and two stereo booms in this “LARP-y” way, the actors were often scattered in different rooms, as well as outside the apartment in exterior scenes. Two to three scenes could run in parallel. As a director, I was then completely dependent on the producer and sound designer. They were my extra ears and at times made director’s decisions. Between the long takes, I constantly discussed with my producer and sound designer: Do we have what we need? What do we lack? Has anything happened in the improvisations in the other rooms that affect our next step? What instructions should I bring with me now?
The last thing we recorded was the police interrogations. For these we hired a professional actor who also works as a police officer. Actor/police Hilda Ramsten was asked to design the interrogations as real ones, including all formal and "boring" details. In turn, the characters were not at all prepared for the hearing and had no information about what they would be asked. The method gave the hearings an authentic babbly character, far different from the overly dramatized interrogation scenes in crime series. And in the end Hilda – “for real” – made the decision as police officer to arrest two of the characters.
The Sound Designer As Script Editor and Co-author
Once all the material was recorded, the most extensive phase in the process began. While the recording time is short in this type of work, the editing phase is much longer, which gives the sound designer an artistic key role. Improvisation requires that the sound designer be deeply involved as co-creator. The process has much in common with a documentary approach. We have this huge amount of recordings, interviews, and scenes, which we must boil down to a sharp piece with clear frames, turning points, signposts, and highlights. In a series, we also need the arc of the story to carry the listener all the way. When we developed the basics of this method, we used the support of a documentary reporter working at Swedish Radio to give us ideas about the recording and editing phase. Together with producer Magnus Berg and sound designer Frida Englund, I realized early on that we had to borrow journalistic methods and work as a synchronized team in the editing.
In the first step of the editing of The Dinner Party, the sound designer Frida Englund made a rough cut where she more or less followed our original script. We had imagined eight episodes, but with critical ears she worked it down to six parts. Still, the range of the material was so large that it was difficult to oversee and make choices in it. After we had listened through it all once, producer Magnus Berg transcribed large portions of the material to create an overview. The story was to be told on two different levels: the dinner with all the scenes it contained, and the police interrogations. In addition, as the dinner was recorded with six wireless earset microphones and two stereo booms, we had endless opportunities to "zoom in" on parallel dialogues, scenes and spaces, cross cut, and so on. What should we focus on? What was important to make the story crisp? Magnus transcribed scenes and created two different documents, one which described the content of each episode, and one that described what the six different characters said in the police interrogation. Based on this "new" script, the three of us worked in close dialogue. To save time, Magnus edited parts of the material roughly, and Frida developed the work further. Frida functioned as a script editor, and between the extensive editing sessions, Magnus and I reflected on her work in feedback sessions.
The role of the sound designer in an improvisational work is crucial and requires a deep knowledge of storytelling and a unique ear for the actor's expression and tone. Frida Englund put her mark on the series not only with her first selection of scenes, but also with her specific temperament, individual narrative technique, and the pace and rhythm of her editing. In this type of work, the producer has a great responsibility to take the extended sense of collectivity that manifests during the recordings and spin it like thread all the way through the editing process. As showrunner and director, I continuously discussed the editing with Frida and Magnus, and I was the one who made final decisions about dialogue, scenes, and the soundtrack when our opinions diverged. We also had test listens where the production was exposed to other people's scrutinizing ears. But most of the meetings in the editing room were characterized by a common flow, a teamwork where decisions were made somewhere in the space between us all.
The dialogue of The Dinner Party was described by test listeners as "documentary" and "natural," and critics rated the series as "wonderfully colloquial I took all of this as proof of what we actually managed to create: babble. It may sound easy to create babble, but in fact it is a sophisticated art. It is an art in which many discoveries are made . Today, the listener often seeks authenticity, intimacy, and personal relationships instead of the objective distance of traditional radio. This makes new demands on artists in a tumultuous era for audio fiction--an era of which we have only seen the beginning.
Malin Axelsson is a playwright, author and director born in Stockholm 1975. She is the artistic director of Swedish Radio Drama since 2015. During 2009-2015 she was the artistic director of ung scen/öst. She graduated from the Swedish University College of Film, Radio, Television and Theatre in 2002, and has been translated into German, French, Rumanian and Norwegian. In 2015 she debuted with the novel Anropa.