If you wanted to see Tamara Kissane’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder when Little Green Pig premiered it, a lot of stars had to align. 

You had to have childcare or time off work or sufficient wellbeing—whatever your impediment is—on one of nine nights in early 2018. You had to have transportation to Hillsborough, where the play ran at the now-defunct Mystery Brewing Company, and you had to have the money to cover the modest ticket price. To even hear about the production, you had to be in the know about the world of local independent theater, and you had to be comfortable entering a hard-to-find, nontraditional performance space where everyone seemed to know everyone else already.

But now, if you want to experience The Master Builder, all that has to align is your cursor and the play button of an online audio player, any time you want, at no cost. 

That’s just one of the reasons why Kissane turned her script into an audio drama, released in July on her podcast Artist Soapbox. But in an area where independent artists are strapped for money, time, and space—and in a culture where arts access has risen to the top of the discourse—it might be the most important reason.

“One thing I’ve learned as a podcaster is how percussive people are,” Kissane says, minding the recording device on a table in the Lakewood Cocoa Cinnamon. “They hit everything—their bodies, the table. I tell them, ‘You can do whatever you want, just don’t touch anything.’”

Kissane graduated from Duke with a theater degree in 1995. With a few gaps of time away, she’s been working as a playwright, actor, director, and producer in Durham ever since. She produced original work with Cheryl Chamblee in Both Hands Theatre Company, performing in downtown-Durham storefronts and warehouses before that was a thing. One of their final shows was at the Liberty Arts warehouse before the roof literally fell in, which would come to seem like a metaphor for independent art’s development-driven challenges that no playwright would dare to contrive. 

As such, Kissane was ideally positioned to be a crossroads for the conversation about the state of local art in her podcast, which she started almost two years ago. Each episode is a long talk with local art makers and producers in all mediums.  

“Selfishly, it was about how I can’t be at all these [events], and my solution was to have people come to me,” Kissane says. “And I was having all these conversations that were the same—everybody was recreating the wheel, but nobody was sharing information or resources across different types of artistic expression. The dancers were doing cool things, but the theater people weren’t learning from that. I wanted to expand my network and share information.”  

Perhaps introducing audio drama to the podcast was inevitable: Kissane is a longtime audiobook fan, and she says she’s been into podcasts since before they were such a commonplace obsession. 

“I like to listen,” she says. “It’s my preferred way of getting information; I’m not really a visual person.” She also, as someone concerned with access to making and participating in art, wanted more people to have the chance to experience the work.

“I can’t show up like I could before I had kids,” she says. “I can’t participate in the same rehearsal and performance schedule. There are a lot of people who can’t get to the arts for a lot of reasons. This is one way to do it. The deadline is my own—I can expand and experiment until I release the thing. Locally, we’re not always able to enjoy each other’s work because we’re making work or seeing a million other things, and I’m also interested in making the talent we have accessible to a nonlocal audience.”

As precedents, Kissane cites UK audio dramas like Wooden Overcoats and local productions such as Howard Craft’s Jade City Chronicles on WUNC. As a theater artist, Kissane quickly discovered that there was much more to transitioning into audio than reading the script in a studio. Accustomed to scanning actors for expressions and body language, she found she had to close her eyes while producing the scenes. 

“It is a different medium, because you have to build in so much of what you’re used to seeing,” Kissane says. “I really like silence on stage, but you can’t have too much silence in audio because people think there’s something wrong. The listener has to hear something, even if it’s a breath or a sigh. I realized I had a lot more sight gags in The Master Builder than I thought I did.”

Kissane’s play, which gender-flips the leads from Ibsen’s original, is an absurdist dramedy that revolves around Sully (played by Dana Marks), a star architect who designs homes for the wealthy but can’t seem to make one for herself. 

“In the stage version, Dana is washing up and changing clothes while she’s talking,” Kissane says. “I can’t do that in audio. So we have things like the sounds of the washing and hangers, but she also says ‘pants or skirt?’ so you know she’s changing.”

The Master Builder was recorded at Shadowbox Studio in two days; production took several months, editing together the best takes and adding Foley effects, music, and diegetic sounds. It includes most of the original cast, with sound designer Edith Snow, composer Wendy Spitzer, audio engineer Alex Maness, and production assistant Amanda Hahn. 

“It’s very much like film because things are recorded out of order,” Kissane says. “But the actors are in same room. We did at least three takes of every scene, and we also recorded sound separately. There’s a moment when a tightrope is wheeled in, and it’s actually a wind-up toy. Meredith and I exchanged seventy pages of notes in almost three months of post-production. I would have liked to maybe double that.”

She’ll get the chance to try, as she’s working on an adaptation of her prior play, The New Colossus (based on Chekhov’s The Seagull). She’s also writing an original episodic drama specifically for audio, which will be abetted by a grant from the Manbites Dog Theater Fund

“It’s really a fun puzzle, how to say it without saying it,” Kissane says. “Because how much is too much to say about a thing? What is just enough?”

bhowe@indyweek.com


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