While the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc within the theatre community, it has also presented opportunities for some out-of-the-box ideas for performances. One company who has explored the use of a podcast to deliver theatrical performances is Pipe Dream Theatre, established back in 2010. I talked with founder, lyricist, and performer, Liz Muller, to ask her more about her organization, and how she feels the pandemic has affected the theatre community.
What inspired you to create your first musical podcast, “Three Ghosts?“
“Three Ghosts” is an original musical based on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Written in 2007 as a stage production, it has had many incarnations, most recently a podcast. Simon (C.E., co-founder of Pipe Dream Theatre, music and book for ‘Three Ghosts”) has been interested in doing a musical podcast for years, but I had been working abroad ten out of twelve months. There just wasn’t time. So 2020 happens, and I say, okay, now’s the time. Let’s do it. I suggest “Three Ghosts” to Simon, and we start brainstorming and casting immediately. About a week later, Simon finished writing a brand new script, invitation emails were sent out to performers, and we started overhauling all the music. We were full-speed ahead.
On September 18, 2020, we had our one and only full cast Zoom rehearsal, and on December 19, 2020, we released “Three Ghosts.” In four months, we wrote the script, re-orchestrated all the music, wrote new songs and lyrics, cast the show, had individual rehearsals, gathered thousands of sound files, edited, and mixed a two-hour musical with a cast of 46 people from around the world.
What are some of the unique challenges of producing a musical podcast that differs from the other virtual theatre mediums that have emerged during the pandemic?
Not being together makes it difficult to create acting relationships and requires a great deal of trust. Outside of the one full cast rehearsal, the actors never delivered lines between each other. They had to imagine the other person was speaking to them while they recorded multiple takes of their lines alone — much like how animated films are done. After that, if a performer had a delivery that was off or needed different pacing, we
would chat on Zoom and figure things out. This is unlike virtual musicals where the cast can see and respond to each other in real time. But our actors just had to have faith they’re on the right path, and I had to make sure we all sounded like we were telling the same story. It’s tough not having someone to play off of! And I’m sure many neighbors were confused by what they were hearing! The cast was marvelous every step of the way.
And, of course, tech. Tech issues can make or break your show. Since everything we do is pre-recorded, mixing and pacing are issues that can be dealt with at any point. However, with everything on lockdown, all the actors had to record in their own homes with their own equipment or the mics we could afford to send them. This resulted in a vast array of recording quality. Sometimes things could be smoothed out in the mix,
other times it was trial and error as we would re-record bits, and still other times we just had to say, hey, it’s a pandemic, and this is what we can do! But our performers came up with some creative solutions on where and how to record to get the best results — on an iPhone in their car, in their closets, and some people waited until 3 a.m. so the neighbor’s dog would be asleep (no joke).
The other problem is money. Without ticket sales, money for podcasts is
confined to donations and selling ad space. We never want to sell ad space. It works fine within a talk show format, but with drama, you run the risk of taking people out of that world. Making money was never our goal. A creative outlet for us and our performers was always the goal, but it has to be said that funding future shows will always be a problem.
Do you think that some of these unique theatre mediums will continue beyond the pandemic?
Absolutely. I personally have loved going to immersive online events and theatre. There have been some extremely creative and inventive ways to use the virtual medium. Pipe Dream has every intention of continuing to write musical podcasts because it has given us the freedom of creativity to do everything we want — things we may not be able to do in a live performance and for a fraction of the budget. Casting is amazingly flexible with podcasts as well. Not only can a person be double or triple cast, but they can also play any size, shape, sex, or age that they can convince through their voices! People with performance anxiety now have an outlet. People who never had the time before can plug in a mic and be in a show.
Beyond that, the audio world is very compelling. We can create virtual worlds that immerse the listener in something really magical — and often impossible to do otherwise. The 3D sound design can transport you to a different time and place. You can experience these worlds at home, in your bed, on a train, in the woods — any place you can take your phone and headphones, and that is something that will still be appealing even after the pandemic.
How did you assemble such a diverse and far-flung cast for “Three Ghosts?”
Years of working with people. We’ve worked in theatres all over America, I’ve worked for cruise lines, theme parks, schools, we have friends, and friends of friends. We’re very open to performers who act as their living, and performers who miss doing theatre when they were kids or maybe never even got the chance to try. The truth is we have an embarrassment of riches. We have so many talented people that we can’t write fast enough to feature everybody! But we’re moving as fast as we can, and we can’t wait to introduce the world to all the extraordinary people with whom we have worked.
What other things are upcoming or in the pipeline?
We are currently in the writing and recording stages of “Afterwords,” grown-up children’s stories. This one is out-of-the-box, totally different from what Simon and I usually write, and we are so excited about it!
“Afterwords” is a trilogy of musicals and plays that teach grown-up life lessons using wonderfully horrible situations. It’s filled with stuff we all need to hear from time to time. This one is not for the kiddies. There is all kinds of adult language and scenarios. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s sad, and it’ll really make you think about your relationships. If we’ve done our job right, it’ll have your emotions all over the place in the best possible way. And as an extra cool follow-up, we have “The Conversation Afterwords,” where drama therapists and mental health experts will analyze each show and talk about the psychology behind it as well as offer helplines and places to reach out if needed.
We also have a handful of “land” projects we’re working on. We call them this because someday, when theatre exists on land again, and not just virtually, we hope to see them realized. Our main goal is to just keep going, just keep creating. It’s important for us, and it’s important to the performers we know to have a creative outlet, especially in a time like this that is so difficult. Hopefully, Pipe Dream can continue to do its part to support as
many performers as possible, but also support our listeners with some entertainment to escape into today, tomorrow, and years to come.
Thank you so much to Liz for taking the time to talk with us! If you’d like to learn more about Pipe Dream Theatre, listen to “Three Ghosts,” or find out more about upcoming projects, please connect with them using the information below:
INSTAGRAM: @ourpipedreamtheatre @lizmullerdirects
FACEBOOK: Pipe Dream Theatre
TWITTER: @pipedreamtheatr (No “e’)
BUY ME A COFFEE: buymeacoffee.com/pipedream