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Kaitlin Prest, creator of audio fiction podcast The Shadows, poses for a photo at home in Toronto.Marta Iwanek

On a warm mid-August morning in downtown Toronto, the podcast producer Kaitlin Prest knelt fully clothed on the bed of Johnny Spence, a performer in her new scripted show, The Shadows, switched on her digital recorder, pulled him close, dangled a large microphone next to their faces and pretended to have an orgasm.

The two slumped gently onto the bed, a soft postcoital glow overtaking them. “Ohhh, that was fast,” murmured Prest, elongating her vowels. She sounded as if she was about to fall asleep. The moment was intimate and delicate and true.

Except, of course, that it was fake. Well, sort of.

For more than a decade, first in a risqué show called Audio Smut that aired on a Montreal community radio station and then, beginning in 2014, as part of the burgeoning audio scene in Brooklyn with her podcast The Heart, Prest, 32, has been mining the raw stuff of her life and others’, transforming it into sinewy pieces about love and sex and sexuality and power and the messy business of humans relating to one another. She proved a rare host who excels at self-examination without self-indulgence.

The range was vast, and the pieces that she and a small crew of like-minded women put together were compulsively shareable. They were also brutally, seductively honest, and frank in their use of language. In one seven-minute episode of Audio Smut – winkingly dubbed a “quickie” – Prest details her penchant for masturbating in public bathrooms. An acclaimed four-part series of The Heart called “No” in 2016 revisits a range of sexual encounters over her life in which Prest didn’t entirely give consent, and then narrows in on one of those incidents to question the man involved to try to understand what he’d been thinking.

“I got pleasure out of making people uncomfortable,” Prest says now, of that Audio Smut squib. “I liked pushing people’s limits.”

But what happens when that troublemaking spirit gets into bed with a notoriously rigid media corporation? Because The Shadows, which dropped online on Sept. 25 amid great anticipation from Prest’s indie fan base, is being brought to you by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And, in separate interviews with The Globe and Mail, both she and a CBC executive were liberal in their use of the phrase “calculated risk.”

It’s about 9:30 a.m. on that mid-August morning, and Prest, who grew up in the tiny community of Winchester Springs, Ont., is standing outside the Value Village discount store on Bloor Street West, having just purchased a key prop for the orgasm scene she’ll record later.

She begins to explain that, at some point over the years, even as she was delving deeper into herself and others, she began to strain against the limits of non-fiction. “I think the reason I went into fiction was because trying to represent feelings started to get confusing in documentary: How to document the inner landscape,” she says. “Over time, I feel more and more that technique is the only way. Using music, using sound. Really good writing.”

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The Shadows podcast is Prest’s first full-length work of fiction.Marta Iwanek

The Shadows is Prest’s first full-length work of fiction – a six-part serialized drama about an artist named … er … Kaitlin who is torn between two men, Charlie and Devon. It’s a meditation on the ideal of romantic love and the compromises we make to commit long-term to another person.

Prest’s fans will recognize her editorial voice, as when Kaitlin (the character) explains to the listener, “I always cry when I fall in love. I cry because it’s the moment I realize I won’t be getting out of this unscarred.”

And, standing here beside a bright yellow bicycle adorned with a riot of silk flowers, Prest acknowledges the show may not be entirely fiction: Around the time she began working on The Shadows, she – that is, the real Kaitlin – had just gotten out of a long-term relationship. Episode 1 begins with Prest’s voice from a conversation she recorded with her soon-to-be-ex at the end of a relationship.

“It’s become fiction enough that it’s not a direct representation of what happened,” she says. “Like, plot points are different. There are things I put in the play that never happened in real life. But I don’t know. Everyone who knows us is going to be wondering what’s true and what’s not. You know?”

An hour later, she and Spence are kneeling on his bed. She explains that she met him at an audio festival last year. “I picked people who are not professional actors, specifically.” Then, to Spence: “I picked you because you’re a flirty person and we’re both flirty people. We’ve spooned.”

He adds that, when they met, “We were both having complicated times with our partners.”

Spence asks about the key prop she picked up that morning: It’s a big, baggy red sweater, which his character loans Kaitlin at the end of Episode 2. He recalls with a laugh that, when they spoke the night before, he wondered why she needed an actual red sweater for the scene. “I said, they won’t be able to hear what colour it is, and you were like, ‘They will hear!’”

(Earlier, inside Value Village, as she moved among the racks in the ladies knit section, Prest noted that audio fiction often doesn’t sound authentic, because it’s recorded in a studio. “Even in documentary, people are always talking about sound richness. And how, if you’re on scene, recording people actually living their lives, it adds so much. So I needed to have the sweater.”)

Prest outlines some of her other goals for The Shadows. “There’s two male characters in this, and for me, representations of masculinity are really important. I’m trying to break out of what is understood to be hot.” She adds: “‘Hotness’ is such a political thing, so I’m trying to make, like, kindness hot.”

Spence interjects to note that his character, Devon, isn’t a bad guy even though he’s cheating on his wife with Kaitlin.

“The whole point is trying to upend the classic love story,” Prest explains. “I mean, that’s my mission in general – trying to tell love stories that are accurate to the way we’re actually living, and also sort of challenge the narratives that are out there. Which is hard, because now that I’m making fiction, I’m realizing why all the rom-coms are structured [the way they are], because that’s what keeps people turning the page.”

Later, as she takes a Lyft to the house belonging to Mitchell Akiyama, who plays Charlie, to record a scene with him, she describes her working process: “I wake up in the morning, it’s like a five-minute bike to his place, he makes us coffee, we go up to his bedroom, we sit down on the bed, we philosophize about love for an hour and then we pretend we’re in a relationship for the rest of the day,” she says. “We’ll sort of set out these loose parameters of what happens in the scene, and then we’ll be in it until it comes to some sort of completing moment, and then we’ll try it again.”

Today, Akiyama has only about 30 minutes to spare, so they do a quick scene and then she heads back to the bedroom studio she’s set up in a house just off of Queen Street West. As she walks the streets, she admits she was scared of The Shadows “becoming CBC-ified. I trusted them that they were actually legitimately interested in reinventing things.”

She came to the table, she says, with a term sheet that clearly spelled out her reputation for sexually explicit content. “I won’t sacrifice that for – like, ‘Grandma in Edmonton.’”

“In the beginning [of Audio Smut], representing the private sphere as honestly as possible was, like, my M.O. Not fading to black as soon as the couple kisses. Just thinking about sexuality and intimacy is a really political thing.”

And yet, she admits, she’s changed over the years. “We were like, so raunchy, so fearless, that, over time I became fatigued with how hard it was to convince people that I was worthy of professional respect in conference spaces, or festivals.”

She remembers being dismissed as “the porn girl. I hated that.”

Making The Shadows, “I do think I self-censor a little bit. Like, just knowing it’s the CBC, it’s hard not to.” She adds: “I don’t really want there to be barriers to the ideas I’m working with in this.”

“Maybe I do care about ‘Grandma in Edmonton!” she exclaims. “I don’t know!”

The Shadows begins streaming on Sept. 25. Prest will be featured in The Art Gallery of Ontario’s First Thursday event on Oct. 4.

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