The Craft of Audio Drama

As voice actors, we are always looking for innovative storytelling methods and new ways to ply our craft. Commercials, video games, and animation are some mainstream avenues to broaden our voice acting portfolio, but there is another medium that is continuing to gain ground: audio drama.

To be clear, audio drama is not itself new, having experienced a meteoric rise in popularity during the radio boom of the 1920s and 30s. This popularity would begin to wane with the advent of television, but it never entirely died away. The BBC, for example, went on producing shows and has become something of a gold standard. In more recent years, groups and companies such as Graphic Audio, Lamplighter Theatre, Big Finish Productions, and Focus on the Family have produced dramas of extremely high quality, some of which have nudged that bar of excellence even higher than that of the BBC. We are beginning to see major labels jump into the space, employing Hollywood actors such as Jon Hamm, Kerry Washington, John Lithgow, and Aaron Paul. In short, it is safe to say that audio drama, while not new, is re-emerging.

Drama is not just for the radio play anymore!

So, what exactly is an audio drama? One definition comes from J.D. Sutter, host of the Audio Theatre Central podcast, who said, “Audio drama is a dramatized audio production consisting of a full cast of actors performing a story, accompanied by sound design and music to create an immersive aural experience.” While there can be some debate about exactly what this covers, it’s a good definition that nicely summarizes what producers should attempt to accomplish in an audio drama.

Because audio drama itself is unique in the voice-over world, it’s important that actors wishing to dive into it understand some of the differences and also how to adapt to them. In most acting gigs, there is a visual element that helps tell the story. In live-action, the actor also has the benefit of direct contact with co-stars. For example, it’s much easier to vocally react in a fight scene if one is physically interacting with their counterpart. In audio drama, the actors do not have such luxury. They may not be in the same room. Or even recording lines and vocal foley in the same session!

Due to these kinds of challenges, it is vitally important that the actor learn to “remain in the scene.” It’s easy, especially in a purely aural setting, to say one’s line and then just wait for the other person to say theirs—but this is a temptation that should be avoided. The audio drama actor should learn to “inhabit” the lines from other actors and, if appropriate, react to them. For example, if someone delivers shocking news in the real world, listeners don’t wait respectfully to gasp until the person has finished speaking. In the real world, a speaker doesn’t know they’re about to be interrupted.

Another adaptation actors often need to make is learning to “interact” with the world. Characters in audio drama are not cardboard cutouts who never move and interact with their surroundings. If the character is rising from or sinking down into a chair, the listener should hear that effort. If the character is delivering lines while walking along a busy avenue, they will likely speak with a slightly raised tone. If they are on a galloping horse, there will likely be a little “jog” in the voice. A thousand tiny things like these are key to creating that “immersive aural experience” that Mr. Sutter referenced.

An additional skill audio drama actors develop is the ability to “interpret” their fictional setting. In live-action, one has a set to assist in this interpretation and in animation, one may have a storyboard. In audio drama, it’s just the actor and, hopefully, the director. Audio drama has been appropriately called “the theatre of the mind,” and that is exactly what it is. If your character is bearing a heavy backpack, they will sound a bit more strained. They will also tire more quickly than characters less burdened. If it’s cold, your character will sound cold—this doesn’t necessarily mean their teeth are constantly chattering, but their voice will likely sound “tighter.” If they are walking down the street of a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic city, they are going to sound tense and alert, and may be speaking in hushed voices. Part of this, as mentioned, is the director’s job—setting the scene and guiding actors through. But the actor can make that job easier—and increase the likelihood of callbacks—if they hone the ability to interpret fictional settings and inhabit them effectively and consistently.

Now, on a practical note, how does one prepare for acting in an audio drama? 

First, make sure your equipment and recording space is on par. Room reflections are deadly in raw recordings intended for audio drama. It’s an engineer’s nightmare to try to scrub them, even using good tools, and nothing breaks the suspension of disbelief more quickly than a character standing in an open field and yet having that close, room-like reverberation. This is even more important than some other types of voice-over. While we certainly want to avoid room reflection, a listener can grow accustomed to it at a low level in something like long-form narration. But it simply does not work in audio drama.

Mic technique is vitally important with audio drama. Learning to “work” the microphone is a great skill. This can be challenging, especially for audiobook narrators. Audiobooks are intended to be an intimate listening experience. Mostly, it’s just one person speaking right into the listener’s ear, and that is how they are performed. With audio drama, you are a living, breathing character who uses full dynamic range. Moving around (working) the mic can make a huge difference in how believable your performance will be. Additionally, good technique can avoid plosives—even minor ones that might pass muster in narration or commercial work—which are damaging to a production’s believability, because we don’t really hear those in the real world.

Finally, if going into a directed session, have a pen and paper ready to jot down any notes from the director. Being open to direction and knowing how to incorporate said direction will make your director a very happy person.

If you are interested in diving into the exciting world of audio drama, here are some resources to get started. Casting Call Club often has audio drama listings and is a great place to begin learning the ropes. It’s also great for networking, which is key in most industries and audio drama is no exception. X, formerly known as Twitter, has many indie audio drama producers and production houses. There are some Facebook groups as well, including Audio Drama Hub. You may also consider searching out coaching and workshops specifically geared toward audio drama or finding like-minded partners to work scripts.

Check out our free PDF with pro tips from real working voice-over actors here!

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