Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Chatterbox Audio Theater

Posted by Maximum Fun on 8th February 2010

Given that the medium of podcasting is even now resurrecting so many types of audio entertainment previously missing and presumed dead, your Podthinker is surprised how little new radio drama it’s given rise to. Oh, sure, there’s stuff out there, but 90 percent of the time, there’s something wrong with it: uncomfortably earnest, has a thinly-veiled Ayn Rand-y agenda, every voice is recorded by one dude, that sort of thing. It’s not difficult to find podcast radio drama; it’s difficult to find podcast radio drama that won’t weird you out.

Chatterbox Audio Theater [RSS] [iTunes] circumvents that weird-outiness somewhat by taking what you might call the “community theater” angle. This comes straight from their about page, which calls Chatterbox “a non-profit web-based community theater that advances the exchange of ideas by channeling creativity and artistic collaboration into recorded audio works that enlighten, entertain, and inspire.” Pretty bold statement — also pretty broad, when you think about it, but still, it has a certain nobility.

The show really does nail the community theater sensibility. That’s not to say that you can hear the scenery collapsing onstage as the ironic prima donnas argue behind it, but the proceedings do have a certain flavor of — how to put it? — easygoing goofiness. It’s a good-natured sort of casualness, though not an unprofessional one, and it combines with the physicality lent by recording live with manual sound effects and not much in the way of editing. Chatterbox’s shows aren’t miracles of audio engineering or processing, but they’re competently recorded, ably performed and built upon a wide range of (usually) solid source material.

This material includes dramatizations of such universally-known stories — you might even say “classics” — as Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” [MP3], Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” [MP3] and Herman Melville’s always eerie yet chuckleworthy “Bartleby the Scrivener” [MP3 part one] [MP3 part two]. (Speaking of eerieness, if you by now suspect that this is the sort of outfit that really does it up on Halloween, you are right. [MP3])

The Chatterbox crew (and its surprisingly enormous cast) also bring a fair amount of original material to life. As weak writing tends to be the Achilles’ heel of so much podcast radio drama — hell, of so much radio drama, period — it pleases your Podthinker to report that, here, it’s pretty sound. (No pun intended.) Though the events of “King Me” [MP3], one of those games of repeated table-turning deception, are fairly standard, they’re well-rendered. Even better are the slightly more experimental ventures, like the same author’s Fearless-like “The Separate Self” [MP3], which break from the dramatic forms you’d see on a physical stage to get creative with perspective-shifting setups only possible on radio.

But don’t be misled by the word “experimental” in that last paragraph; Chatterbox Audio Theater is many things, but avant-garde is definitely not one of them. While your Podthinker would not dream of asking them to abandon the community theater vibe in favor of, say, that of a SoHo black box mdash; much of its strength lies in its pragmatic, tried-and-true stage roots — it wouldn’t hurt to move, oh, five degrees or so toward the sort of sensibility offered on Ubuweb’s sound archive. Just sayin’.

Vital stats:
Format: live-to-tape “radio” drama
Duration: 10m-1h
Frequency: erratic, but probably averages one per month
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]