Interview: Laurie Steven, Creator of THE OTHER PATH, a new Fantasy Podcast series from the Odyssey Theatre

Laurie gave us some insight on what we can expect, as well as some of the differences between bringing a theatre production and a podcast to life.

By: Oct. 03, 2022
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The Other Path Cover Page
The Other Path, Cover Art by Robert Hunt

In advance of Odyssey Theatre's launch of its fantasy podcast, The Other Path, we met up with the series creator, Laurie Steven, to give us some insight on what we can expect, as well as some of the differences between bringing a theatre production and a podcast to life.

I will confess that I don't know much about the world of fantasy; it is not something that I usually seek out. Are you a fan of the fantasy genre in general?

It depends on what you mean by "fantasy". I'm not a fan of the entire fantasy genre either, but I have always had a passion for old folktales. Back in the eighties, when I was starting out in the theatre, I was interested in folktales and the Jungian interpretation of folktales. For example, Marie-Louise von Franz and all these old classics, like The Women Who Run with the Wolves [by Clarissa Pinkola Estés]. I see fairy tales as a representation of our psyches and the collective consciousness of society. The old folktales can be rough, gritty, and even disturbing sometimes, and they speak to issues that we still face today. At the Odyssey Theatre, we do a lot of mask work and use a physical, choreographic theatrical style, but we are still telling stories. We have also done contemporary comedy, but then we started telling folktales and myths for contemporary adult audiences and that has been a rich part of our journey at the theatre. Getting into international myths led me to collaborations with International Artists and has allowed us to see how stories from around the world have universal significance.

Theatres across Canada have been complaining about reduced audiences since before the pandemic. Some young people I know introduced me to blogs, vlogs, web series, and podcasts and I have been thinking that the way forward for the theatre will be a pairing of live and digital work. I had no time to really explore this idea of fusing live and web theatre together until the pandemic hit and it brought everything to a standstill. We decided to use the time to get this digital program up and running. Folklore and fantasy are not a big part of regular Canadian theatre's content so I thought that, if we were going to do this, we could use the opportunity to engage with some of the amazing Canadian fantasy fiction writers and folklorists that are out there. All the writers involved are passionately committed and have ideas that they want to express about the contemporary world, and they wanted to use this format to tell their stories. Now we have five of these audio dramas that are ready to be shared.

Are the episodes linked together or is each one standalone?

Each episode is independent, and they are all quite different from one another, but they all have something to say about today's society.

Marty Chan's story, "Double Trouble", is about a struggling couple that is trying to get their life back on track in a trashed Alberta economy. Jo Walton's "Heart's Home" is about people returning from war, facing post traumatic stress disorder, but at the same time becoming aware that we have issues at home that are similar to those faced in war. There is a universal theme about war and oppression and how people can come together to deal with it.

I guess what links them together is that my general request was for each writer to take a fairy tale, put it in a modern setting and say something important [laughs]. What sets this series apart from other fantasy fiction audio dramas is that they are not science fiction or horror-based tales. I said that I wanted something that captured the spirit of folklore - enchanted, eerie, haunting, with a touch of comedy. So, the episodes range from chilling dramas to macabre comedies.

Headshot of Laurie Steven, Series Creator
Laurie Steven, Series Creator

Were the authors handpicked or did you send out a request for submissions to various authors?

For this first season, I approached each author. Usually, my time is spent reading plays from around the world, but for this, I read an extensive amount of fantasy fiction. Whenever I found an author who wrote something that I found compelling, I sent them an email asking if they would be interested in participating in the project. For example, Jo Walton is the author of Tooth and Claw - it's a Victorian drama written like a regular work of fiction set in the Victorian era, but the characters are all dragons, and it is quite vicious! Apart from being a lot of fun, the novel peels away the skin of our civilization and looks at the underlying power struggles that exist in our society.

Marty Chan has done all kinds of things from radio to television, but I read this wonderful young people's play that he wrote about the myth of the monkey king, which is a classic Chinese myth. He combined it with a story of Chinese immigrants coming to Canada and I just loved the way he wove his story in and out of the myth. I thought, "I have got to have this guy on my series"!

Emily Pohl-Weary wrote Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl; it's a young adult novel about a contemporary young woman who has discovered that she is a werewolf. Pohl-Weary is a community activist who has worked with street kids and, in her podcast episode, "The Witch's Circle", she is writing about two young women living a group home where one of them is a victim of sexual extortion. Her friend tells her that she has heard about a witch in the woods that may be able to help them. So, they go off into the woods in search of the witch and have a series of gruelling tasks to perform. I hate trying to put words in the mouths of living playwrights but, for me, it is a story about empowerment and how these women find themselves through this experience. All the stories have also incorporated at least some element of comedy, so it is not exclusively dramatic.

Everything that I read from each of the five authors featured in our podcast series struck me and I knew that all of them would have something meaningful that they could contribute to this project. And I guess, because I was reaching out to them with something that was in their general range of interests, they were excited and jumped on board even though, for four out of five of them, this was their first audio podcast.

How long is each episode?

About thirty to forty minutes. I really wanted us to reach, not only Odyssey Theatre audiences, but also younger audiences and audiences that are into podcasts and I wanted to speak that language. Podcasts are generally thirty to forty minutes in length, so that's what they ended up being.

How were the actors selected in the virtual environment?

I held online auditions. Odyssey has been around for 37 years, so we do have a core of returning actors. Although there are some new actors in this series, a lot of them have a history with Odyssey Theatre and many of them are originally from the Ottawa area, but some have since moved away. I wanted to provide something for actors that work with Odyssey to participate in, since the pandemic was so gruelling for them.

How challenging was it to bring this series to life during the pandemic?

There were pandemic related challenges; our advance rehearsals and workshops had to be done online. We had to do COVID testing and follow safety protocols when we went into the studio. Although that aspect was challenging, it wasn't the most challenging thing - the most challenging was my thinking that doing a podcast play would be easy!

I confess that I told writers it would take three drafts, but it ended up taking six to eight drafts for each play. Janet Irwin and I did the dramaturgy, and we did two workshops for each play at various points in development, but then there was a whole new world to be learned about audio drama. Initially, I thought all I would have to deal with was the text, then record the actors' voices and throw in a little music and sound. I was comparing it to live theatre where we have sets, costumes, lighting, choreography, and original compositions; it's a very demanding style of theatre that we produce. I quickly lost my naiveté because audio drama has all these things that must be built into the soundscape through sound effects and musical underscoring to create spaces and transitions. A good example is when I had to work out the staging for someone walking from left to right, getting closer to someone. Some of it is done in postproduction, but part of it is actually done through microphone techniques. It has been six months of postproduction work with sound and music designers. In theatre, that all happens in advance but with audio dramas, it happens afterwards so that the audience can feel where the characters are in relation to each other or to the space. All the stuff that I do in the live theatre world had to be translated into this environment and that was a huge learning curve for everyone involved.

Are there plans for another season in the works?

Yes! If you would have asked me six months ago, I would have said no way, but as I could see everything coming together, I thought, we need to do this again! Also, I had interest from writers that were not available for the first season and people will have a chance to listen to the first season to see if it is right for them. So, it's a good time now to go out and ask for general submissions because I would love to do a second season. I think it will be easier since we've gone through the learning curve, and I know now what the demands are, and I can communicate that properly to everyone involved.

Is there a fee to listen to the podcasts?

It is free. People can go on our website, and listen to it there or, if you are a podcast listener and you listen to Spotify or Apple or whatever platform you use, we will be there too. It is a great way for us to reach out to younger and more diverse audiences.

How will the podcast series impact Odyssey Theatre's programming, since it is so labour intensive?

Our first order of business is to be back in Strathcona Park next summer with a show. Keeping the theatre under the stars and our traditional programs of training, play development, and community engagement is critical. We will have to raise extra resources and develop a new season in a balanced way moving forward. I think that arts councils are becoming more receptive to the idea that theatre must engage in the digital world to stay relevant. I am also hoping that one or two of these shows could go onto to become full length stage plays. Some of the shows have a bigger story that have been scaled back to suit the podcast format and others could be translated to an evening of one-act performances. So, I think it can be a testing ground for innovative ideas and a way to meet new writers.

Who will this podcast series appeal to?

Our target audience is adults and young adults. We are also reaching out to fictional podcast listeners across Canada, as well as people in the folklore community. We would love for our Odyssey theatre audience to try it out, even if they have never listened to a podcast before. They will get the same kind of enchanted imaginative journey that they get in the park, but they will get to sit comfortably at home with a glass of wine!

You can tune in to The Other Path's first podcast episode, "The Witch's Circle", by Emily Pohl-Weary, on October 5th here or wherever you get your podcasts. A new episode will be released every two weeks until November 30th. Click here for more information about Odyssey Theatre.