A company known for audiobooks is mounting starry live productions — and recording them, too.
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Elizabeth Marvel took off her shoes, stretched out her arms and started describing her horrible dreams. Ato Blankson-Wood offered thoughts on astrology. Bill Camp, cradling a guitar in his lap, asked if someone could go get coffee, while Jason Bowen adjusted his chair.
Then, after a bit of banter about the sounds of snacking, the actors nimbly slipped into character, adapting the mien of the four troubled Tyrones in Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning classic, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
With just a few performances left of their intimate, searing revival at the Minetta Lane Theater, a small Off Broadway house in Greenwich Village, they were now a half mile east, at the Cutting Room Studios, futzing with headsets and repositioning microphones as they recorded the production for the company that had underwritten it: Audible.
In a move that echoes the radio dramas of yore, and at a moment when audio is enjoying an unexpected boom, Audible, a subsidiary of Amazon, is making a bold push into theater.
The company, which created its theater division just five years ago, has already released 93 audio theater works, and this month it added a theater tab to its app.
Along the way, it has become a big player in the theater world: commissioning new work from 55 playwrights; presenting 25 shows in person at the Minetta Lane, which it is leasing; and becoming one of the most active commercial producers in the city. In 2020, Audible took on the entire season of the prestigious Williamstown Theater Festival, remotely rehearsing and recording all seven shows when the pandemic made it impossible to stage them in person.
It also has producing credits on two Broadway shows, “Sea Wall/A Life” and “Latin History for Morons,” both of which the company also recorded and released on audio.
The pace of production has been quickening — Audible released 24 theater works last year, up from nine in 2018 — and the complexity of its theater work is increasing, as the company becomes more technically sure-footed and more confident in its audience’s openness to multicharacter soundscapes.
The Audible effort is a descendant of the old-fashioned radio drama, which began in the 1920s and featured work from playwrights including Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller and directors such as Orson Welles. The form has continued to thrive in Britain, thanks largely to the BBC, but it faded in America after the mid-20th century, becoming a niche sustained by organizations including National Public Radio, which aired Earplay from the 1970s through the 1990s, and L.A. Theater Works, which has more than 600 audio titles in an expanding catalog featuring works by Dominique Morisseau and Tom Stoppard, as well as Miller and Ibsen.
The pandemic renewed flirtation with the form: When theaters were closed to protect public health, many turned to audio, as well as video, to continue making work and reaching audiences. But Audible, which says it has subscribers in 175 countries who listened to 3.4 billion hours of audio last year, has the potential to have much further reach because of its huge base of subscribers, and the deep pockets of Amazon.
“There’s a lot of audio drama being made by independent people for love, not money, but Audible is able to invest a lot more than independent productions are,” said Neil Verma, an assistant professor of sound studies at Northwestern University who has written about radio drama. “They have the opportunity to experiment, to attract more expensive talent if they want, and they also have the ability to distribute in a way that other entities don’t.”
Audible has released plays in Spanish and Hindi, as well as in English. “Our theater titles have been listened to by millions globally,” said Kate Navin, the artistic producer of Audible’s theater division, which has five full-time employees. “We end up getting in front of a lot of people.”
Verma said that one looming question is how long Audible will stay committed to theater. “They’re a tech company, so they try a lot of new things that survive or dissolve,” he said. “Radio drama has never been central to the mandate of any of the entities that have made it — it’s always been a side element of whatever the larger project is — so in that sense it’s always a little vulnerable.”
Headquartered in Newark, Audible was founded in 1995 by Don Katz, and was purchased by Amazon in 2008 for $300 million. Katz is an avid theatergoer, and Audible quickly turned to actors to voice audiobooks; then, when Audible started creating original content, Katz thought playwrights were better suited than screenwriters to crafting purely narrative stories. And he knew they could use the money.
“There was always a purely aesthetic vision, and also a business idea that lives in parallel, which includes the fact that theater is without a really sophisticated electronic analog to supplement its existence,” he said. “Because we were able to have the person in the seat be multiplied, we could inject a new revenue stream into the world, and one that would go directly to writers and actors.”
Katz hired Navin, a former theater agent, to run Audible’s theater division. To begin, the company announced that it would allocate $5 million to commission audio plays from emerging writers; since then it has commissioned plays from established ones as well.
“I had seen firsthand how hard it was for playwrights to stay in theater,” Navin said. “So many playwrights were leaving for film and TV. I was struck that this might be an opportunity that would give them more options.”
Audible’s initial audio-bound, in-person productions were starry solo shows, including “Harry Clarke,” featuring Billy Crudup, and “Girls & Boys,” featuring Carey Mulligan. But the Williamstown season forced a faster-than-expected reckoning with complexity — the slate of productions included “Chonburi International Hotel and Butterfly Club,” a 13-performer play, and “Row,” a new musical.
Some of Audible’s offerings, like “Long Day’s Journey,” are recorded in studios; others, particularly comedies like Faith Salie’s “Approval Junkie,” are recorded before live audiences.
During the pandemic, when theaters were closed, Audible’s theater division employed more than 300 artists, Navin said. Now, she said, it must figure out what role to play in a post-lockdown world. “We don’t want volume for the sake of volume,” Navin said.
For now, the company has been upgrading its technology, outfitting the Minetta Lane for 3-D audio recording. And it is beginning to imagine whether it could produce a musical. “Interest is high,” Navin said. “But that’s a post-pandemic conversation.”
Audible is an unusual player in the theater world because it is not primarily a theater company. The company’s main source of revenue is from members who pay to listen to audio titles.
That means box office revenue is not a make-or-break factor for Audible’s theater productions, which allows the company to do risky work, and, even more distinctively, to stage short-run productions, which in turn allows them to attract film and television stars who have limited time in their schedules. The economics of most commercial play productions generally require stars to commit to runs of at least 15 weeks; because Audible isn’t looking to recoup costs from ticket sales, it can accept fewer. “Long Day’s Journey,” for example, had planned only a six-week run, which was shortened to five when the start of performances was delayed by concerns about the Omicron variant.
“They don’t need to make a profit off of everything they do,” said Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater. “What they need is for each project to elevate the brand, and that means they can look with a less bottom-line-driving frame at the works they create.”
Another upside: Artists are paid more for shows that are recorded as well as staged in person.
“The pay is wonderful, and the reach is grand,” said Robert O’Hara, whose planned Williamstown production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” wound up being made for audio by Audible, and who went on to direct the “Long Day’s Journey” at the Minetta Lane and on audio.
O’Hara, like other artists interviewed for this story, said Audible has been admirably hands-off. “I’m not getting dramaturgical notes from Audible,” he said. “They don’t have a take on ‘Long Day’s Journey.’ They allow the artists to be the artists.”
His “Long Day’s Journey” staging, although backed by an audio company, had a number of striking visual moments, from its quiet opening to projections used onstage. “For me, audio was not the end destination,” he said. “Audio was the gravy on top. I was doing a stage production.”
Marvel, who compared Audible to the Medicis, the historic Italian banking family associated with arts patronage, said the shorter run of an Audible production was a plus for her: “It’s a wonderful time model, where you’re not giving four to six months of your life to a play. It’s a reasonable amount of time to give, which, as an actor who is a parent and has to make income in other ways, is realistic and helpful.”
There were other pluses. Marvel said she wanted to be part of trying new forms for theatrical storytelling. “We all have to look forward and just keep opening the iris for new ideas and new ways to work and new ways for people to access work,” she said.
Marvel and O’Hara also both said that they weren’t sure other producers, either commercial or nonprofit, would have taken on the risk of the abbreviated, contemporary version of “Long Day’s Journey” that Marvel had long wanted to make. “I don’t think there’s another place I could have gone,” O’Hara said. “No one in their right mind would let me cut this play and modernize it.”
“Long Day’s Journey,” with four actors and a rich soundscape, is being followed by a live production of “Coal Country,” the first show Audible is presenting in-person outside the Minetta Lane. The show is an eight-actor documentary play, with music written and performed by the singer-songwriter Steve Earle, about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia. It was first produced by the Public and opened in March 2020, but a week later the pandemic cut short the run.
“It was heartbreaking for us,” Earle said. “It was four years of work, and we got it up and had great reviews and were selling out, and then we opened and closed.”
While live performances were almost entirely shut down, Audible reassembled the cast and recorded the show, to the relief of its creators. “For us, it has always been incredibly important that this play be seen, heard and experienced outside of New York, and particularly in Appalachia,” said Jessica Blank, the production’s director. “Audible immediately made the play accessible to people who wouldn’t have had access to it otherwise.”
Now Audible is presenting a second in-person run of the Public’s “Coal Country” production at the Cherry Lane Theater, through April 17. Earle, who moved to New York hoping to break into the theater business, and who is working on a musical adaptation of the film “Tender Mercies,” said he was relieved to have Audible’s support.
“I have long experience with taking corporate money to make art, because I come from the record business,” he said. “Anything that makes theater available to everybody, I’m all for.”