This is an article from the fall 2018 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Mary from Michigan, an audio drama from creative writing Professor Michael Byers (M.F.A. 1996), contains all of the essential and classic elements of a soap opera. There are secret boyfriends, lecherous villains, sick parents, and even an honest-to-goodness evil twin. The plot moves as fast as the episodes arrived over the summer — one 12-minute entry every day for five weeks. (The podcast is still available for download anytime on iTunes.) The pace allowed listeners to revel in the guilty pleasures of incessant plot twists, near scrapes, and cliffhanger endings. It also made for a frantic production schedule for Byers and the actors.
“In a way, this season was a proof of concept,” Byers says. “We were seeing what works, how it works, what’s feasible. And it’s completely feasible. We’ve recorded four episodes in one day, but it’s probably more practical to do three one day and then two the next.”
The process works like this. Byers writes the script, then brings the actors together to record the scenes, at which point Byers and the actors together look at what’s written and sort their way through the story.
“The actors and I worked together to take advantage of the nature of the form — quick rehearsals, live recordings — while maintaining a level of quality that we all were happy with. The actors and I learned how to make this work, and soon we were up to speed, doing our best to match the production pace of the old shows. A challenge!” Byers says. “But we got there.”
Byers has long explored ideas through fiction, jumping from short stories to novels, from family dramas to historical fiction to horror. And since 2013, he has taught classes about the world of radio drama, adventuring alongside his students through the worlds of no-nonsense cops like those on Dragnet, the pulp-era pugilists of Green Hornet, and the moralizing hero-making of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.
In addition to writing about radio, his class also puts on a live performance of a radio drama that the students write, create sound effects for, and perform together themselves — a process, Byers says, that is both rewarding and exhausting.
“I’m amazed by the dexterity and skill of the actors, who can pick up at a moment’s notice and go immediately into character,” Byers says. “Meanwhile I’m directing, working up a wicked sweat trying to keep up with them. When we’re done, I need to sit down and have a period-appropriate martini.”
Mary from Michigan builds on what Byers learned in the class. It has a troupe of professional actors that work for a company that Byers founded to make the show, the Empire Podcasting System. Audio drama has seen a resurgence as of late, with standout hit shows like the sci-fi noir Life After from GE Podcast Theater and the thriller Homecoming from Gimlet Media among many, many others. (Podcast audio dramas even have an industry-ish newsletter, a surefire sign that people are paying attention.)
But Byers and Empire’s take on the form feels different. Mary from Michigan resurrects a defunct genre — the radio soap — and remixes it with current concerns and a more naturalistic sense of storytelling while keeping the spirit and style of the original.
“It’s easy to add track after track of sound effects on stuff to make it sound like, ‘Oh, we’re really in a restaurant.’ But that actually is not how the most successful radio dramas worked. What a radio drama allows you to do is get really intimate and personal with the characters that you’re with. It’s a suggestive medium instead of an explicit medium.”
The Past Inside the Present
And there are more plans in the works. There will be a second season of Mary from Michigan, as well as a podcast about the history of the kinds of radio shows like the ones on which Mary from Michigan is based.
“The next project is a conversation podcast between me and some of the actors about the history of radio drama and comedy,” Byers says. “We’ll be talking and we’ll use clips, including Sorry, Wrong Number, this classic piece from the 1940s, and we’ll talk about how it came about, who did it, and how it sounds to us now.”
The second project revolves around a show that aired on CBS in 1943. In June of that year, racial violence swept through Detroit, one of three so-called “race riots” that would happen that summer across the United States. Three and a half weeks later, Byers says, CBS aired a special called An Open Letter on Race Hatred, dramatizing the events that had shaken Detroit.
The script for the show exists — but the recordings are gone. Byers hopes to stage the show live in Detroit alongside two companion pieces about race relations originally created in the ’30s and ’40s. “Because this unrest was happening during the war, it was seen as a national security issue and was a source of Axis propaganda,” Byers says. “So it was seen as crucial to national security that these things be addressed, and addressed in a way that is actually a model for ways to address actual social issues today.”