For Your Ears Only: Broadway’s New Stage Is a Mic


“You have to make your voice do everything,” James Monroe Iglehart said. If you have seen Iglehart onstage — as the genie in “Aladdin,” say, or as Jefferson in “Hamilton” — you will have admired his nifty footwork and kinetic facial expressions. Those don’t matter now. In his apartment, in front of his “really expensive” microphone, he creates characters with vocals alone.

Since theaters shut down in March, some Broadway actors have found a new stage. Over the last month, a host of audio dramas and musicals have appeared: “Little Did I Know,” about recent college grads who take over a summer theater; “Bleeding Love,” about a post-apocalyptic city in which people are afraid to go outside; “Dracula, a Comedy of Terrors,” about well, Dracula; “Closing the Distance,” an anthology series about quarantine; and “The Pack Podcast,” another anthology series.

These shows have been assembled, wholly or in part, by stage actors in isolation. Some, like Iglehart, who has done voices for Disney series, and Annaleigh Ashford, who played a troll in “Frozen” (“I’m very proud of that”) have considerable voice-over experience. Others have little or none. Among them, they have recoded only a handful of audiobooks, a reliable source of income for actors between live jobs.

All are trying to master the form’s technical specifics — “the spit or the plosive p’s, those things get in the way,” Kelli O’Hara said — and pull off decent sound quality while stuck at home. “It’s been really challenging with a 3-three-year-old,” Ashford said. But in offices, bathrooms and beneath duvets, they are making themselves heard.

An audio drama isn’t the same as a stage show. “What makes theater a unique art form is that the actors and the audience are in the same room,” Taylor Trensch said. But maybe it kind of is. O’Hara said that while recording, “I felt that same rush of desire to communicate.” Maybe it’s even better. As she pointed out: “We’re using your imagination. We’re not giving you everything. We’re letting you build the world while you listen.”

And everyone agreed that with theaters shut, it was good to have something to do. “Oh my gosh, it was nice to just have a reason to be creative,” Trensch said. That these were all paying gigs helped too.

We spoke to performers about recording at home, building a role through phonemes alone and whether audio drama can replace live theater — for now, anyway. These are excerpts from the conversations.

Podcast: “Little Did I Know”

Character: Lizzie, “a woman who knows exactly what she wants”

Where did you record? On my bathroom floor with a microphone on my toilet — incredibly glamorous — and my dog just laying by the bathtub.

How do you develop a character using just your voice? I have to rehearse in front of a mirror first. I have to act with my face, with my entire body, because otherwise nothing will come through. It’s a bit lonely.

Does this substitute for live theater? I think it’s a great substitute. I love that the audience can be engaged in their imagination, seeing these characters the way that they want to see them. Seeing things on Zoom for me is not the same — an apartment in the background doesn’t do it for me.

Podcast: “Bleeding Love”

Character: Bronwyn, “a total dreamer, that quintessential fairy tale ingénue”

Where did you record? In my bedroom, right by a window, which is not necessarily the best thing, but I have big curtains.

How do you develop a character using just your voice? Voice-over work has made me a better actor. The specificity of every moment, every breath, every pitch is so important. It becomes very intimate.

Does this substitute for live theater? I love this medium. I love telling stories in this way.

Podcast: “Dracula, a Comedy of Terrors”

Character: Lucy Westfeldt, “this strong, spunky, fiery, smart, savvy ingénue”

Where did you record? I’m in San Antonio with my parents, recording in our home office. With some of the racier scenes, my parents were like, “What was happening in there?”

How do you develop a character using just your voice? Complete, genuine honesty. Because you can hear it when people are just speaking words.

Does this substitute for live theater? The reason that there’s a reverence for live theater is you’re not able to manufacture or multiply it. It’s special.

Podcast: “Bleeding Love”

Character: Sweet William, “what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in tenderness”

Where did you record? I live in a railroad apartment and my bedroom is perfectly in the center. I sat on the ground next to my bed and put the comforter over my head.

How do you develop a character using just your voice? I try to think about layering in as many details as possible. I am mentally, energetically trying to send all of my thoughts and feelings through my voice.

Does this substitute for live theater? Podcasts are amazing. But I don’t think they can measure up to the back flips in your stomach that you get from seeing an amazing play or musical.

Podcast: “Dracula, a Comedy of Terrors”

Character: Dr. Westfeldt, “the premier doctor of the criminally insane”

Where did you record? In my office in my apartment in New Jersey.

How do you develop a character using just your voice? Voice-over gives more freedom because you can be silly and crazy. You don’t have to worry about what you look like. So you can go as far as you want. It’s just about conveying that emotion of what’s happening.

Does this substitute for live theater? I’m not going to call it a substitute, but I would say it is a good diversion. I bet when this is all over more people will be using their computer to create content.

Podcast: “Bleeding Love”

Character: Lolly, “she wants what she wants when she wants it”

Where did you record? In the living room at the Airbnb I was in.

How do you develop a character using just your voice? You have to stay focused and listen in a different way, working off of the other actors without being able to see them and feel them and touch them. You have to make your tech setup intimate. I’ve almost had to become personal with the microphone. I don’t mean that in a weird way.

Does this substitute for live theater? All of it is good for now, because it’s what we’ve got. But it’s also really frustrating, because it just reminds us of what we don’t have.

Podcast: “Dracula, a Comedy of Terrors”

Character: Mina Westfeldt, “the sad, very ill-equipped sister”

Where did you record? In my closet with a bunch of pillows around me.

How do you develop a character using just your voice? As physical as you are onstage, you are behind the mic.

Does this substitute for live theater? There’s a reason that people crowded around their radios during the Great Depression, because it was an escape. Listening engages you in a really special way that feels more like live theater than watching a video screen.

Podcast: “Closing the Distance”

Character: Mommy, “just a mother at home trying to come to grips with what’s happening”

Where did you record? We’re in the house out of the city and we have a room upstairs that we use as an office. I was in the back sitting at a table and my husband was sitting on my children.

How do you develop a character using just your voice? We read one pass yesterday very simply and it was very heart wrenching for me. Then the note came back: “Give me all of your emotion.” You never know what they’re hearing on the other end.

Does this substitute for live theater? It is a little bit of a gift. I sat up in that room yesterday and I felt the same adrenaline rush that I’ve gotten performing in front of people. There were aspects of theater that were getting too unimaginative. In something like this, the listener is responsible for being the creator.


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