Interview with Jonathan Mitchell of “The Truth”

In the past, I’ve sometimes had trouble describing The Truth to people. The words “radio drama” can sound archaic, conjuring up ideas of pre-television soaps with novelty organ music, or detective stories with internal monologues that overuse the word “dame.” The new podcast The Truth is most definitely neither of these things. Every two weeks, the show brings us a new piece of audio fiction, ranging in genre from sci-fi, to comedy, to horror. Actors voice largely improvised performances in between the rigorous outlining and editing processes that go into making the show, giving The Truth a happy mix of spontaneity and calculation. In short, it’s difficult to describe because there’s virtually nothing else like it right now. It’s one of the few programs out there that can truly be called singular. Last week, I spoke with the show’s producer Jonathan Mitchell over Skype. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Brendan Bourque-Sheil: So I read that you had studied music composition in college.

Jonathan Mitchell: That’s right.

BB: So what were you focusing on at that time?

JM: The way I got into this was that I was writing a lot of music at University of Illinois, where I was going to undergrad. It was very Avant-garde, experimental, you know–learning composition mainly through studying late twentieth century classical music. Contemporary classical music I guess.

BB: So like Phillip Glass or Stephen…

JM: Stephen Reich, yeah. Actually I was particularly into sound mass composers like Xenakis and Ligeti. But I really lit up when I started taking a recording studio class. There was something about the immediacy of recordings and that sense of feedback that I just responded to. The idea of using recorded sounds and natural sounds as a musical element was really interesting to me. I learned the recording studio through studying the history of contemporary experimental electronic music, starting circa WWII I guess.

And so like all the early pieces that we did were using just the technology–or similar technology–that would’ve been available during a particular time period. One of the first pieces we did was a musique concrète piece, which was basically just taking sounds recorded in the natural world and manipulating them into a musical context. I really loved that idea. It made immediate sense to me. It made actually a lot more sense to me than a lot of the music I was being exposed to in school. It had a more visceral quality to it, without being traditionally musical in a tonal sense.

BB: What you’re describing sort of reminds me of a band called The Books. Do you know them?

JM: Oh yeah. Sure.

BB: Was it anything like that?

JM: Well it wasn’t so rhythmic. It was more like sound mass composers really. More like sound collage, but really musical sound collage. Like taking sounds and reversing them and slowing them down through effects, that kind of stuff. But as I worked more and more in this vein, I started using speech as a sound source and I really liked that the linguistic aspects could give meaning to the piece that were different than the sonic aspects, so you could have two levels of meaning to it. And so I started experimenting around with that and around the same time I was really interested in film–almost obsessed. And I wanted to take a film class at U of I. They only had one film class. I would sign up for it every semester and I wouldn’t get in. But I did have this recording studio access and so I thought “well maybe I’ll just make a movie without pictures” because that’s actually something I could do at the time. And this was about 1990-91 or so, so it was before making videos or films or even recordings was really accessible. You kind of had to have access to a studio in order to do a high quality recording. I had that and so I started to think maybe I could tell stories and use some of the vocabulary I’ve been learning about through electronic experimental music and apply it to storytelling.

So my masters thesis when I went to Mills College was essentially a radio drama, although I didn’t call it that at the time. I wasn’t really thinking of it in terms of radio drama. I was sort of young and idealistic. I thought of it more like an opera without singing; that’s what I called it. The idea was just to use spoken dialogue but set it in a way that emphasized the musical qualities of it and use sound and music and speech and storytelling and kind or combine them all into this sonic expression.

And so eventually I needed to get a job and I started working in radio because I had a lot of those skills already. And it’s a lot easier to make a living making documentaries in The United States. I was really interested in documentary too. The most interesting opportunities I was getting were usually documentary-based or somehow reality-based. So I just followed that for a while and always tried to do little radio drama things on the side and tried to explore it as much as I could. And over the course of the past ten or fifteen years or so, I’ve helped start three or four shows. I worked at Radiolab for a bit and that really matured my sensibility for what makes a good story. And I felt like I really wanted to do something that expressed my own sensibilities as a producer. I felt like radio drama was a good combination of the skills that I had to offer, so I went for it.

BB: You mentioned that Radiolab went into helping you figure out what makes a good story. With The Truth, because it can be such a unique program, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint what influences it creatively, but everybody has creative influences. What are some programs or some individuals who you look to when you’re creating The Truth?

JM: In terms of my true influences, probably filmmakers. Like, when I was a sophomore in college, the thing that made me want to do this in the first place was I saw Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Stephen Soderbergh, and that really changed my perception of what films could be, I guess. So Stephen Soderbergh is someone who’s always really been inspiring to me. And of contemporary filmmakers, I’d say Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite. I think he’s probably the best filmmaker working today.

In terms of radio, I think Joe Frank had a huge influence on a lot of what we call contemporary creative radio. Like he had this huge influence on This American Life and Radiolab and really the way that stories began being produced in a widespread way around 2000 or so, which is to kind of do things that are a little improv-based, using music in a particular kind of way. So that definitely had an influence on me. I guess also just working in music. Frank Zappa had a huge influence on me. I remember there was an album called We’re Only in it For the Money that I listened to constantly when I was in college. The way he edited things and manipulated sounds and was so free stylistically going from one genre to the next. He really was indiscriminate in terms of what kind of materials he considered using.

BB: You’re pretty indiscriminate too as far as genre is concerned. On The Truth, it’s everything from contemporary realistic fiction with a sort of comedic feel to people literally living underground. Are you making a conscious effort to use a lot of genres or is that just how it happens?

JM: It’s mostly just how it happens. I guess once we sort of notice that we’re doing a particular kind of piece a lot, we consciously try not to do that for a while. Like right now we’re trying to get away from sci-fi types of stories, because we were doing that a lot for a while. We don’t want the show to be defined by a particular genre. It’s always been very appealing to me to have the opportunity to experiment around with a lot of different story-telling approaches. I think it’s mainly driven by what I’m interested in and what the people who are part of our collaborative team are interested in.

One of the reasons why a lot of the stories are so different is just because they’re each being developed by a different person. We have a core group of maybe six or seven people and the way it’ll work is, someone will bring in an idea for a story and we’ll all brain storm what can be done with that idea. The next week, they’ll come in with an outline. And we’ll give feedback on the outline–talk about what’s working, what’s not. You know, maybe in their outline it will feel like “well the story doesn’t really start until the end, so let’s actually start at the end and develop a different ending.”–That kind of stuff. So we go through several rounds of that. And it usually takes about a month to get an outline to a point where we’re ready to record. So it’s being sort of developed by a particular person on the team who started with the idea. Like, the last story we did, it’s called “That’s Democracy.” That was Louis Kornfeld’s idea. He developed the outline and we all talked about it every week for about a month–a month and a half, until it was finished. I actually put a copy of it on the website so you can go see it on that page. But we added a lot through improv. We did a lot of development to the story when we recorded it and then as it got edited, so it was really being rewritten throughout the entire process.

BB: So there’s not really a stage where it’s like, “once it gets to this point, we stop changing it…”

JM: That stage is when it goes up to iTunes (laughs). It’s not done until it’s done. That’s part of it. What we’re making ultimately is a recording. We’re not making a script. We’re not making an outline. We’re making a recording, so we try to take advantage of all the opportunities that gives us in terms of how we can write the story.

BB: The episode “Total Transparency,” was completely improvised in one take and then just edited right?

JM: That’s right.

BB: You could’ve done more takes. You could’ve had people add things in. I’m sure it occurred to you at many times that things could’ve gone differently. Why did you choose to limit it to one take?

JM: That was an experiment to see if we could do that. We spent about three hours just improvising ideas. I think that day we maybe recorded four or five different stories and that was the one that really worked. It doesn’t always work to just do free improv. It usually doesn’t work actually. If it does work, it’s kind of luck (laughs), because improv is very different than storytelling. It has different sets of strengths than a written story. What we found is that in order to make a satisfying story, it almost always works better if you have an outline, and have thought through where the story’s going, what all the elements are, what the premise is, what the ending is. If you think out all that stuff in advance, it gives you so much more freedom to make interesting twists or to make it actually mean something at the end. Improv is much better in doing comedy–things that aren’t really reliant on story so much. So we come up with a story and then we apply improv to the story that we’ve written.

But that particular one, “Total Transparency” was just an experiment because the other thing was, I’m trying to keep the podcast pretty regular, like every two weeks. And some of the stories take a lot longer to do than others. The way I have it organized right now is that we’ll alternate it. We’ll do one story that’s a little more labor intensive and then the next podcast, I’ll try to do something that is pretty easy to do. Maybe that’s taking a piece that I’ve already done, or, in that case, I brought the actors into the studio like two days before the podcast needed to go up, so we didn’t really have time to rehearse it. I really needed to just have a story to put up. So that’s why I didn’t go back and change it or anything.

BB: Since you have people who are a lot of times improvising based on an outline and then–as you said–you have people who get assigned a story and then other people add to it, there’s a very collaborative feel to it. Do you prefer working collaboratively?

JM: Well there’s a lot of advantages to it. It’s faster. The ideas tend to be better because more people are contributing–you have a broader set of ideas to choose from. I’d say it works for this. It depends on what stage you’re talking about though. It’s not really a free-for-all. We’re collaborating in terms of generating ideas and trying to think through what this thing is, but ultimately, it all has to be funneled through an editing process in order to really be cohesive. So I’d say certain aspects of it are highly collaborative and certain aspects of it aren’t really so collaborative. It’s about finding an appropriate balance between those two.

BB: It’s knowing when to do it.

JM: Right.

BB: How are you working with the people who you’re working with? Why, when you wanted to do this, did you come to them?

JM: I first met Ed Herbstman through Hillary Frank.There’s a long history to this, but I had produced a story for Weekend America and Hillary was my editor, and that story was called “Eat Cake.” I did it using some improvisers who I had seen perform in New York. I took improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater for about a year or so and started going to shows and was looking for people to work with. I saw a bunch of performers that I really liked who I thought would work on the radio really well. So I invited them into the studio and we tried to do a story and that’s what ended up being “Eat Cake.”

BB: And Eliza Skinner was working on that.

JM: Yes. She’s very, very talented, and very talented at musical improv too. Anyway, so that piece turned out nicely although Weekend America got cancelled. And the producer of it moved into a development position at APM and Hillary and I knew that he was looking for shows to develop and so we pitched him the idea of doing a fiction show because we all liked how that piece turned out. And he got us a little bit of money to produce a pilot–segments–and one of those was a piece called “Moon Graffiti” that was an alternate history of the moon landing and Hilary had met Ed a couple years earlier and I was looking for actors to play the astronauts. She suggested I talk to Ed. I met him for lunch and decided he could play Buzz pretty well.

And it turns out Ed is really, really good. He’s a really smart guy, a brilliant performer, and he runs a theater in New York called Magnet Theater. It’s an improv theater much like UCB that offers improv classes and has shows every night of the week.

And so we ended up working on a piece for This American Life together. That took a long time to do–longer than I had wanted to take–and as soon as we finished it, I just wanted to do something that took like a month. I wanted to do something very, very quickly. So I was talking to Ed about this and we talked about getting a group of performers together and meeting regularly and finding a way that we could do pieces much more quickly and use improv more in the development of stories. He knew lots of performers. He suggested a lot of people to me. I looked at them and together we formed a group of people who we thought, you know, their voices would work well on the radio in the way that I wanted and who were also good writers and improvisers. And we just started meeting every week. The performers, almost all of them perform at Magnet Theater regularly. And for different stories, we’ll need different kinds of actors for different characters. We kind of look around at who’s there and find people who would be good for it.  And on a sort of ad hoc basis, we invite people to be in stories.

BB: Essentially what do you think is the responsibility of your show? What are you always striving to do?

JM: I guess to tell a good story. That’s pretty much it. I don’t want to waste peoples’ time (laughs). I want them to be good stories that people are glad that they heard and feel like-when they’re over–that it was time well spent. I mean, there’s other things I want to do, but that’s the broad agenda. I really like the idea of dramatic fiction. I like the idea of doing things that have a certain kind of authenticity to the performance style. I don’t like, for example, things that are too cartoonish. I like things to sound a little more realistic.

BB: The improv definitely helps with that. It makes the dialogue so organic.

JM: Yeah, that’s the idea. I think a lot of that is also how it’s edited too. It really needs to be tightly edited in order for that to work. Another big part of it is that I want to use sound in a really integral way to the way the story is communicated, in much the same way that filmmakers might think about how something can be cinematic. They think about visual storytelling. I think about aural storytelling.

BB: Making the most of the medium.

JM: Yeah, and making it more immediate so that ideas are communicated very efficiently and taking into account how people actually listen to things and what sound is really capable of communicating. I guess ultimately also, because my background is in music, I really think of what I’m doing as a musical form in a way, in that it has a rhythm. It’s a combination of sounds that are orchestrated to create a certain effect. So I really want to apply a kind of musical sensibility to what I’m doing and make the sound design and the music and the words and the story all work together and make something that’s fun to hear.

The podcast is available for free through Soundcloud and iTunes. To find out more, visit the show’s website at thetruthapm.com



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