Birds twitter. Footsteps scratch across the pavement. There's a rustling of clothing and the beeping of a phone.
Those are some of the opening sounds of Orange Dot, a podcast based on the play by Canadian Sean Dixon about two city workers waiting for their crew to arrive so they can cut down a tree. As many as 3,000 people saw the original stage production of this existential drama during a two-week run at Crow's Theatre in Toronto last March. But five times more people, most of them from outside Canada, have downloaded the first episode of the podcast produced by PlayMe, a service that specializes in producing audio versions of recent Canadian plays.
Can the podcast save local theatre?
"We saw how ephemeral theatre was," said Chris Tolley, co-artistic director of Expect Theatre, which produces PlayMe. "That's part of the magic, that you have to be in that one location at one time to catch it, but that's also a bit of a drawback. So many people miss the opportunity to see amazing work."
So, he and his co-director Laura Mullin, already aficionados of the podcast, have turned to sound to extend theatre's reach. Since they started PlayMe in 2016, they can boast a remarkable 500,000 downloads of the 10 plays (and several short stories) that they have made available free on iTunes.
"It is bringing people into the theatre that otherwise wouldn't be listening to theatre. … The idea is that it democratizes the theatre: You can have equal access whether you are in Trout Lake or Toronto," Tolley said.
So far, most of the content has come from small, indie theatres: Mullin and Tolley's idea was to extend the reach of the plays that were only being seen by small audiences or writing that hadn't even been produced.
But larger theatres have noticed PlayMe's impressive numbers and this month Mullin and Tolley announced they have signed up six leading Canadian companies. The new PlayMe Network will include Toronto's Tarragon and Factory theatres and Musical Stage Co., Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company, Edmonton's Citadel Theatre and Artistic Fraud in St. John's.
These theatres will start recording the podcasts during their final rehearsals of new shows so that they can offer the audio plays to audiences as soon as the physical plays open, hoping the podcast will advertise the show and the theatre – and vice versa.
"The theatres are very curious to work with us. … Everybody has been really game," Mullin said, explaining that the theatres want to see whether the podcasts will boost ticket sales of the same show or perhaps subsequent shows in their seasons.
The 2018 PlayMe Network season will start with two plays that open in February in Toronto: Factory Theatre's production of BANG BANG, a play by Kat Sandler (about a playwright who is writing a hot script about a police shooting until he meets the officer in question), directly followed by Tarragon Theatre's production of Bunny by Hannah Moscovitch (about a young woman struggling with her sexual desires).
"A lot of people realize digital is the way to go for the performing arts," Tolley said. "We see ourselves almost as a broadcaster."
The analogy is not coincidental: Shortly before the CBC closed its radio drama studio in 2012, Mullin and Tolley worked on a production there and were deeply impressed by that hallowed place stuffed with foley equipment, those pans of gravel and squeaky doors that reproduce the sounds of everyday life. After all, a podcast of a script with sound effects is just radio drama by another name.
"We were born right out of it," Mullin said. "It seems a shame now that podcasts are so huge; they just missed each other by a few years. … We are picking up where the CBC left off."