From left: Adam Usden (THE BOOK OF YEHUDIT), John Finnemore (PENGUIN DIPLOMACY), Jane Wainwright (WIDE OPEN SPACES), Sarah Woods (BORDERLAND)
What is your play trying to say?
Jane Wainwright: [Wide Open Spaces] is inspired by my boyfriend who suffers from agoraphobia. For eleven years I’ve witnessed the challenges (and occasional hilarity) of living with the condition. In media, agoraphobics are often painted as losers who are always miraculously cured by the end! I wanted to challenge that. My character Samuel is successful, attractive and articulate. His condition is only a tiny part of his story. Anxiety is at an all-time high, especially in the younger generation, so it felt like the right time to tell this story.
Sarah Woods: Borderland seeks to address how current societal shifts might play out in the near future, in a country called Greater Britain, asking: do we want to live here?
It explores our appalling treatment of refugees, the excavation of the NHS, and of our human rights, the rise of inequality, nationalism, racism and hate crimes, the erosion of labour pay and conditions, and a bleak post-Brexit trade deal.
Adam Usden: I think it’s less about what [The Book of Yehudit] is trying to say, than what it’s trying to ask (mainly because I don’t have the answers): how do you find your own identity in a close community? A community that you love, and loves you, but one that owes its survival to conformity and tradition.
John Finnemore: That Lauren Bacall was a terrible penguin.
Audio drama can be a challenging field – what roadblocks have you faced so far?
JW: I think the biggest hurdle was originally deciding what story to tell. I was new to radio and had preconceptions about what I thought a ‘radio drama’ was. Charlotte, my producer, encouraged me to forget that and tell the story I was passionate about.
SW: I find radio drama a releasing medium, offering a freedom of perspective. From its internal monologues to its cinematic cityscapes, it is the perfect medium for travel, to far flung climes, imagined worlds, to the past and to the future. And with every journey created inside your audience’s head the effect can be powerful.
AU: There can be some storytelling limitations. If you have more than a couple of characters of the same age and gender, it can be really difficult for an audience to differentiate between them. I’ve had to shelve my passion project containing 47 characters, all called Adam, all voiced by me.
JF: The same roadblocks I face in every type of writing: firstly making myself sit in the damn chair, and secondly keeping myself sat there.
Despite the quality of work on show, some still say audio drama is dead. What do you think might change their minds?
JW: Some of the hottest writers around have written amazing radio dramas, but people don’t check what’s out there in the way they do with TV and theatre. I try to keep up with what’s on and download the ones I want for when I’m travelling. What’s not to like about listening to great writing and amazing actors at your own convenience, all without having to queue for tickets?!
JF: Who are these idiots? If they think 300-odd new plays every year is 'dead', then there's probably no reasoning with them.
SW: I think it’s important for radio drama to keep creating work that is relevant to a wide audience, dealing with current and complex issues in a way that only drama can.
AU: Story is king. Without sweeping tracking shots of Nordic vistas to fall back on, you’ve got three minutes to hook someone before they get bored and switch off, so you’ve got to be funnier, pacier, more dramatic, and more thrilling than anything else. Audio is the hardest working medium there is in terms of keeping an audience entertained.
If you could change one thing about how the industry works, what would it be?
AU: Wait times on script reads. It’s completely understandable because literary departments are inundated, but maybe someone could develop a Dominos Pizza-style app to keep writers updated: “Your script is third in the queue.” “Your script is being read.” “Your script is now in the oven.” That sort of thing.
SW: The budget squeeze I’ve witnessed over the last twenty years is the thing that compromises the scale and influence of radio drama the most, I think.
JW: I think it’s hard for writers to get their first radio drama on. I know many talented writers who have fallen at the final hurdle. There is a lot of competition, and a lot of rounds to get through before you’re commissioned. I decided to write my script before it got commissioned. I know my scriptwriting is stronger than my pitch writing, and I think it made me less of a risk because they could see the end product.
What’s one piece of advice you would have found valuable when you started?
AU: Haha, I am just starting! All advice is welcome. I’m going to read what the other writers have said and implement it immediately.
JF: Finish things. I kept on spending weeks or months on something, and then bailing out when it got difficult, or when I got more excited about a new idea. But if you don't finish things, even when you've lost faith in them, you don't learn anything, and you certainly don't get anything made.
SW: Jeremy Howe once said to me “You can take a radio audience anywhere, but you have to bring them back safely”. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about deeply shocking issues – and take your audience to the heart of them, it means considering how you leave a lone listener who may not then see anybody for a couple of days.
JW: Wait until you’ve found the story that makes you bang your hands on the table when you’re pitching it. That’s the one! Telling a story on radio is like whispering in someone’s ear. It’s incredibly intimate, and can be very powerful. Make the most of that.