Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Rate us!

You may have noticed that we've implemented a five star rating system on our podcast archive. Please feel free to let us know what you've liked, and what you haven't. We always welcome email of course, if you want to be specific about what keeps you listening. In fact, if you want to write reviews about us on Yelp or (even better) on iTunes, that'd be GREAT.

We've seen our numbers grow a lot over this year, and we'd like to see how far we can go with our eccentric show.

At the moment, all we really know for sure is that we've got a steadily growing audience in Japan.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I've been the Artistic Director of Improv for Radiostar for all of our existence, somewhat over two years and eighty episodes, and now I'm moving on. I'm headed off to live in Africa for a year with my amazing life partner Ann. It looks like the project will continue in my absence, which is a good thing. I've never felt much sense of ownership about theatre as a product. I'm more interested in the process of making it than what happens afterward, which makes for a good split of responsibilities between me and our producer Dan, who does all our editing and postproduction.

Radiostar started out as a chance to continue improvising with a dramatic focus with like-minded folks. It's turned into something different than that, something good and interesting in its own right: a weekly improvised radio show with a distinct format and content. The shows tend to run under half an hour, the material is usually humorous, and the characters an unpredictable mix of everyday (ourselves on the mic) and the extraordinary (turtles, swans, Grand Viziers, inventors, archaeologists, and even God a couple of times). To date, we're up to about eight thousand downloads a month, the current peak of a dramatic upswing in popularity that started earlier this year. We even got hit with a denial-of-service attack that downloaded one episode a few thousand times last week before Dan caught it. But as far as we can tell, aside from this, the downloads are legit. People out there are listening to us.

I always suspected that if you do what you love doing in theater, people will eventually catch on, that they'll eventually find out about you and enjoy what you're doing because you enjoy doing it. So I always figured if we just stuck with the show, people would eventually discover it. And here we are. I've heard that about 20,000 listeners is the threshold for a really big podcast. Nobody else seems to be doing what we do, and our numbers keep climbing every month, so there's no reason Radiostar couldn't get to that level if it continues. That might be interesting.

I record my last 2 episodes on the coming 2 Sundays, and I'm off. I've learned a few things during this project:

- you can't make improvisors do anything; if you're going to try to lead a project, the best thing you can do is empower people to do what they love, and not try to control anything

- improv will send you home in the depths of despair or on the heights of exaltation, and you never know which from night to night; acting just isn't this extreme

- people do actually listen to us, but we have no idea who; it would be fun to hear from a few of them sometime

- none of this is what I had in mind at the beginning, which is the whole point of improv, and it's all been good

- downtown SF needs a few more places to sit and have dinner and a quiet drink with your friends at 10pm on a Sunday night

So long! Thanks for listening!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Adventures in Editing

If it's edited, is it improv?

This is one of the fundamental questions that we dealt with back when we first started Radiostar. It boiled down, ultimately, to what works for the medium. On stage, the joy of improv is watching performers create something from scratch before your very eyes. Digressions, losing composure on stage, messing up... all these things are part of the fun, as the audience discovers the story with the performers. This doesn't work so well on film, and doesn't really work at all on an audio-only recording. The short form games of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" is heavily edited, and the Christopher Guest films are not only edited up the wazoo, but the plot is pre-scripted. Still, these are undeniably improv.

For the most part Radiostar shows are not heavily edited. I take out pauses and "um"s, remove off microphone character name checks, microphone adjustment noises, and the pauses between scenes. A scene may climax ten seconds before the performers walk away from the microphones, so I'll cut the scene on the punchline. But by and large, a nineteen minute recording session will yield a sixteen minute show.

The shows "Foreign Film" and "Family Fundamentals" are the exception. For a couple of weeks we experimented with really taking our time with the characters. We're always striving to really ground these people, and be as real with them as possible, no matter how insane they or their situations are. So we were encouraged to let scenes spin out longer and longer in order to see what we would find. This technique often results in great material, but great material that serves as punctuation amidst a lot of wandering. Artistically, it's very rewarding and a great thing to play with, but it can make for a somewhat meandering listening experience.

So here is where the editor really comes in. Both of these shows clocked in, in the final edit, at around 20-22 minutes. Very long shows for Radiostar. The original recordings were 40 minutes and a little over an hour long respectively. "Family Fundamentals" is literally only about a third of the original material that we recorded.

So, what gets lost?

At the beginning of a recording session, we have no idea what the plot is going to be about, or who the main characters are going to be. With four or five characters, this gets worked out pretty quickly, but "Family Fundamentals" had eight characters. They all need to get established before we can even begin to know who is central and who is support. This show ended up being about Julie, Bryce, and Dan's characters (the blasphemous daughter, fundamentalist father, and amorous son). They were the ones who went through major changes and took plot driving actions. Anything in the show that supported their story needed to stay in. Fun bits about Diana's character's obsession with the Gun and Doll show and Turkey Jerky were lost, although fragments remain. Zack's Bible-believing geologist's theories about Genesis were lost, as was most of the running gag about Anasastia's equation of pregnancy with ice cream and her obsession with Splenda. None of this was cut completely, but none of the running gags were allowed to run as far as they wanted to. Chris's wail about finding yourself in a conversation that doesn't make any sense is a bit funnier in the original, because Julie and Dave had been free associating for almost two minutes in the original cut about nothing in particular. Also, Julie's decision to start working at the yoga studio is mentioned at the end of the show, but never became a major plot point. Even the main characters lost things, like Julie's tattoo of "Bathing Jesus", an internet figure who was being talked about off microphone before we started recording.

On and on it goes. Some of the bits that got cut might have been left in a shorter show, but when confronted with an hour long, fairly involved and complex plot, the editing choices are merciless. It's like trying to adapt a Harry Potter novel. Some characters get short shrifted in order to keep the pace brisk.

Still, while it makes for a lot more work for the editor, the process of the long scenes produced two extremely grounded and complex shows. A lot happens in these pieces and much of that subtlety might not have been developed if we had kept it sharp and snappy. It's something I'm sure we'll do again in the future.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Always looking for help

Over the last few months, we've been seeing our download numbers climb rapidly. So first off, WELCOME! I don't know how many people are actually watching the blog, since it's on a different server than the shows, but if you're here I hope you'll have a seat and I'll bring out the milk and cookies.

Improv, like all theatre (with the possible exception of the "one person show") is a collaborative artform. We're fortunate here at Cassandra's Call Productions to have an amazing ensemble of performers, and the tools to make this show a reality. But that doesn't mean that we can't always use a little more help.

Are you a musician? Would you be interested in contributing scene change music to one or more of our upcoming shows? Are you a sound editor who would be interested in working on our scripted material while Radiostar founder, Improv Director, and Off the Page editor is away in Africa for a year? Better yet, are you an improvisor with audio editing experience who would like to try your hand at a show or two, or even to work with us on new podcasting projects? Are you an artist, feeling inspired by a particular show who would like to turn it into a "comic"?

Radiostar has lots of ideas for expansion, but at the moment we're limited by manpower concerns. We aren't getting any money off any of this (yet), after all. But if you like what we do and want to be a part, let us know.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Catch Julie Kurtz in Anna Bella Eema

I've been encouraged to use this space to publicize my own upcoming show Anna Bella Eema, opening Saturday June 9th (tomorrow), so here we go:

Come, enjoy this world of fantastical and menacing adventure, underlined by a beautiful mother-daughter and coming-of-age story.

Anna Bella Eema

a trailer park gothic for three voices
Written by Lisa D'Amour, Directed by Rebecca Novick

First week all tickets 1/2 price! June 8th - July 1st @ TJT, 470 Florida Street, SF
TICKETS AND INFO : http://www.crowdedfire.org/nowPlaying.html
WATCH A BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO : http://www.crowdedfire.org/

About the Show: A reclusive mother and daughter's trailer park is doomed to destruction for the sake of a new highway. As menacing inhabitants of the outside world bear down on the tiny family, Anna Bella Eema, the muddy alter ego of Anna Bella, is born. And then the true odyssey begins. A spoken-and-sung three-character gothic, Anna Bella Eema asks us to listen, and listen carefully.
Starring: Cassie Beck, Julie Kurtz, & Danielle Levin Design by: Jarrod Fischer, Melpomene Katakalos, Cliff Caruthers, Wendy Lynn, and Scotty Arnold


Thursday, May 24, 2007

improv - that's where the money is

So far, we've all done Radiostar because we like doing it. Nobody's gotten rich on it yet, in spite of our recent traffic increase to thousands of downloads a month. (Either that, or they aren't driving their Maseratis to the studio). This seems to work pretty well for us.

And apparently not just us. I read something interesting along these lines today on a tech blog I follow (I write software in my daytime life), about a benefit CD everyone -- musicians, producers, even the cover artist -- worked on for free:

But when we moved into the "professional" realm, working with people who were getting paid and performing their tasks as part of their everyday business, we met many more problems. The printing company kept getting the fonts in the booklet wrong (it took six go-rounds to get it right); an engineer input one song at the wrong sampling rate, forcing us to remaster one of the discs at the eleventh hour.

All these problems were solved and I am quite happy with the finished project. But I wonder if it's just coincidence that all the people on the project who worked for free did their work flawlessly and we only met trouble when we worked with people for whom this was just another gig.... Do people work better when they're working for free?

(from O'Reilly Radar).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Normally we do all the recording for Radiostar on Sunday nights, but we recently decided to leave Sundays for improv and try other nights for mass bulk recording sessions of interviews and scripted work. Thus it was that Diana Brown and I met up with Sam Shaw in the Cassandra's Call Studio on Monday night and recorded Radiostar: Studio Interviews: the Sam Shaw Interview.

Sam's a great guy and a brilliant improviser with a rich and varied history of both improv and scripted work. It's not surprise therefore that this was also our longest interview to date. We actually are splitting it up into two different podcasts, since we've agreed that 20 minutes is about as long as we want any podcast to go if we can help it.

One very interesting difference between this interview and others we've done, is that improv is a much more collaborative process than writing. Playwrights work with directors and actors, to be sure, but it's much easier to talk about the process on its own terms. Improv is something that cannot be done alone at any point, and so the interview has a potentially bewildering array of references to other improv troupes, performers, historical figures, and even fictional constructs. At first I was a little concerned about losing whatever audience we have to this continual cross referencing, but the more I listed to the interview the more convinced I was that this was the truest representation of improv as an art form. Improv is people bouncing off of each other and seeing what new trajectory is achieved from that collision.

It also helps that Sam is very easy to listen to, and is as engaging on the "radio" as he is in person.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Experiments and Glitches

Radiostar: Off the Page is up and running and the feed is on iTunes! An auspicious beginning marred only be my own fallibility. I used the RSS feed for Radiostar: Improv and managed to copy the new feed into both locations. I wiped out all 63 entries in the old feed! I had to spend most of today rebuilding everything. So, if anyone out there suddenly found themselves downloading 63 episodes today... sorry.

Last night was an improv recording session, and one of our more unusual ones. We have a lot of content currently, so we're more free to experiment with different forms and see what comes out of the hopper. Most of last night was focused on individual scenes that were more loosely connected and less long-narrative than what we've been doing so far. Some of it may very well end up on the stream as a series of "short takes".

It made me think about the shows that we've done, though, and what makes them so much fun for me as an editor and hopefully fun for you as a listener. The first scene of a show is never the strongest part of it. "Long form" improv isn't about the immediate gag, but about the joy of seeing everything tie up at the end. It's about discovering threads and then discovering how they tie together.

We talk about doing a serial from time to time, and this sense of discovering threads and interconnections would be a thousand times more complex if we ever decided to go that route. We'd almost need to have someone keeping track of all of our plot lines if it went as long as the current improv stream has gone. It would be fun, but with the current Improv thread, Off the Page, and the upcoming Lab, I don't know when we'll have the time to add something so elaborate.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Making "Post Traumatic Fairy Tail Disorder"

RadioStar has acquired a taste for fairy tales lately, and this was the fourth one we've tackled. There's something enjoyable about having a solid backstory already established, after all the time we've spent starting from absolute ground zero. What made this particular episode curious was that two of the major players are based on a variant of the tale that most of us were not aware of. Diana and I worked out the main outline of what happened in Hansel and Gretel, but Janna was the one who remembered a version of the story where the children were helped home by a goose and a turtle.

Since we recorded it, I've located versions of the story where a duck helps the kids across a river, but I still haven't located any turtle variants. Be that as it may, Goose and Turtle quickly became two of our favorite characters and provide the stability to a cast of very unstable humans.

This is the first episode we've posted with the addition of a third microphone and our new mixing board, which has given us an even cleaner sound than before. Each channel is brought into the computer as a separate AIF file, so I pull all three channels into SoundStudio3, which I've gotten really accustomed to. Unlike the CueBase software that we record with, Sound Studio gives me a large waveform which allows for a largely visual editing style.

The music is a little more random than past fairy tales, which had an intentionally "fairy tale" quality to them. Our Pied Piper show had a lot of flutes in it, and I would have liked to have brought in a lot of accordian music for this one, but I don't have any loops like that, and by the time Jam Pack: World Music showed up, it would have been too late to post the show. So, I decided to play with a more modern musical style.

For those who wondered, that's a fireplace in Turtle and Goose's home at the end. I wanted something nice and warm, but I made it as quiet as possible so that people didn't think that Hansel and Gretel had burned down Turtle's home....


machines that improvise

Back in the 80s, someone came out with a program called racter that told stories, based on a simple templating system. There were also versions of a more sophisticated program from the 60s called eliza floating around, which simulated a therapist by asking questions, examining the answers, and asking more questions based on the user's answers. I read about stuff like this in the computer magazines that I devoured as a kid.

So ever since I learned to improvise, I've always been intrigued by the idea of integrating a machine that improvises into a show. There's not much room for this in our podcast format, but some of us in Radiostar have worked on multimedia stage improv shows, and it might fit in there. I guess we could do it with audio somehow in the podcast, but that room is already full of technology to navigate when we record, and anyway, if it worked really well, people probably wouldn't believe it was improvised. We have that problem already.

There's lots of machine improvisation around on the web. One example is a slick site that generates fake ads using images from flickr: the ad generator. Something like this would be great to just throw up on a screen and react to during an improv show. An operator could punch in keywords and see what comes up; we did this during shows with Google images, and people loved it.

(via the generator blog, a source for all sorts of clever things like this).

Thursday, February 22, 2007


Hang on, friends. Fiddling a bit with formatting to make it more consistent with our shiny new Radiostar Network page. Picked a template, and changed the fonts to Mac-style sans-serif Arial. Next step is pulling in some graphics. And if you don't like the green, please leave a comment or email me.

Green is the new black. Or something.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

this blog thing

Welcome to the Radiostar blog! Please check out our weekly improv podcast over at www.radiostarimprov.com. We have a lot of new material coming soon as well. Next month we'll be launching Radiostar Off The Page, our twice-a-month dramatic readings podcast of original short works by Bay Area and national playwrights! It's the same cast of actors as our improv podcast, with guest directors and writers. Everyone in our improv cast is also an experienced stage actor (often film, as well), so this is a natural extension of the project.

You can check this blog for Radiostar-related info anytime. A few of us are compulsive computer users and/or have tech jobs that put us in front of a keyboard all day, so we may post fairly regularly. Everyone else on the project may or may not show up here, but we'll try to encourage them.

--Chris, artistic director

Monday, February 12, 2007

Welcome to the RadioStar Network

Hey there RadioStar fans! Welcome to the RadioStar Network blog. Everyone involved in RadioStar will be posting here about their notes and experiences about what's going on behind the scenes with RadioStar: Improv, Off the Page, Improv Lab, and The Studio Interviews. Please feel free to post comments, asking us questions or letting us know your thoughts about the podcasts.

At the moment, we're only podcasting the Improv feed, but we'll have "Off the Page" up shortly, followed by "The Studio Interviews", which we began recording last night.

In case you're wondering who I am, I'm the Executive Producer of Cassandra's Call Productions, and the audio engineer for RadioStar: Improv as well of one of the performers.