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Could Amazon become the next big funder of new playwriting?

Gary McNair. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge Gary McNair. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
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A selection of international playwrights has been commissioned, using a $5 million fund from Amazon audiobook giant Audible, to write new plays that will be downloaded on demand. Fergus Morgan asks: is this the future?

Is this the future of playwriting? Last month, digital audio giant Audible announced the first group of writers to receive commissions from its $5 million (£3.6 million) theatre fund. It’s an exciting list of 15 emerging playwrights from around the world – nine women, six men – including Lauren Gunderson and Leah Nanako Winkler from America, Nassim Soleimanpour from Iran, and James Fritz and Gary McNair from the UK.

Nassim Soleimanpour Photo: David Monteith-Hodge
Nassim Soleimanpour Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

The fund, announced last Spring, used an advisory board of established playwrights, directors and actors, including Annette Bening, Tom Stoppard and New York Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, to select the first batch of recipients.

Each writer lands a commission for a one or two-person play and is granted resources to help them write it. Audible will then produce the plays as audio dramas and make them available to buy, download and listen to, wherever and whenever, from its online store sometime next year.

That’s not all. In addition to commissioning new works, Audible has announced that this new fund will also focus on distributing live recordings of plays already in production. The first of these – John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons, which is running on Broadway, and David Cale’s Harry Clarke, returning Off-Broadway later this month – will be available later this year.

Similar plans are yet to be announced in the UK, but it’s definitely on Audible’s agenda. There’s no shortage of eminently adaptable solo shows on the London stage, after all.

These aren’t uncharted waters for the New Jersey-based giant – it already has an Audible Original Drama series, a hotchpotch collection of adapted novels and classic plays – but it does mark a fresh drive into producing new writing and another shot fired in one of the busiest battles the big internet companies are currently fighting: the battle to get in your ears with audiobooks, podcasts and plays. Over the last decade, it has exploded into a multi-billion-dollar industry and the race to dominate it is hotting up day by day.

Lauren Gunderson. Photo: Kirsten Lara Getchell
Lauren Gunderson. Photo: Kirsten Lara Getchell

Music-streaming service Spotify, as well as Audible, has recently launched its own range of podcasts and platforms to rival Apple’s original. Google has just introduced audiobooks to its online store. Audible, which was bought by Amazon for $300 million (£218 million) in 2008 and is now a subsidiary of the internet giant, has always dominated the audiobook market but, with its theatre fund, it is also looking to corner the underdeveloped market of original, on-demand audio drama.

This fund could be the beginning of something much bigger. Chief executive Don Katz has spoken of his determination to usher in a new golden age of audio drama and five million dollars goes a long, long way in this sphere. According to Audible, there’s more investment to come.

One only has to look at the explosive growth of podcasts in recent years to understand how rapidly these ideas can catch fire. Ten years ago, podcasts were an under-explored niche. Today, thanks in part to wildly popular successes such as Serial, S-Town and My Dad Wrote a Porno, they’re big business. Really big business: according to industry leader Edison Research’s last annual report in April, 42 million people now listen to podcasts every week in the US alone. That’s more than go to the cinema.


5 things you need to know about Audible

1. The company was founded in 1995 by chief executive Don Katz and sold to Amazon for $300 million in January 2008.

2. It has more than 200,000 audiobooks available, either by individual purchase or through a subscription.

3. It recently launched a range of Audio Shows, featuring original content from Mark Kermode, Nick Offerman and Mo Farah.

4. It’s the leading company in a fast-growing market. In 2009, audiobook revenue in the US was $900 million. In 2016, it was $2.1 billion.

5. According to Audible, more than one billion hours of content was downloaded from its store in 2017.

Audible’s new drama project is in its early stages – only 15 plays from 15 writers have been commissioned – but given that potential for rapid growth in the spoken-word audio industry, it’s important to understand where this might lead and to imagine what the implications for the UK theatre industry might be.

It is, first and foremost, a huge opportunity for the writers commissioned – the chance to write an audio drama production from the world’s leading audiobook company, with a potential international audience of millions. James Fritz, whose radio drama Comment Is Free won two awards at the BBC Audio Drama Awards last year, is one of the first selected and he’s aware of the chance he’s been handed.

“To be given the space, time and money to write one of my plays – that’s amazing,” he says. “That potential for it to be experienced in different ways and contexts is really exciting.”

Although the size of the commission has not been disclosed, Fritz confirms it is substantially more than he would get from producing a similar work elsewhere. “It does make a huge difference to someone like me,” he says. “It helps me pay the rent and keeps me from doing non-writing jobs for another year.

“It helps take the pressure of other projects, too. I can afford to take a job that pays next to nothing in a space I want to work in or with people I want to worth with, because I’ve got something that pays a bit better. This will definitely make a lot of writers consider writing audio drama who maybe hadn’t before.”

Playwrights James Fritz and Gary McNair commissioned by multimillion-pound Audible fund

It’s not just writers that should be intrigued. Yes, Audible works with a lot of big names – its A-list audiobook collection is read by a host of Hollywood stars – but it also provides plenty of work for jobbing actors. Katz even reckons his company is the single largest employer of actors in New York. If these new audio dramas take off, there could be plenty more where that came from.

In the US, where there is a distinct paucity of major audio drama producers, Audible is expanding into relatively unoccupied territory. In the UK, however, it’s a different story. Audible is looking to encroach on an industry that’s currently the preserve of the BBC, which has dominated the production of audio drama in the UK, virtually competition-free, since the form first took flight in the 1920s.

Already facing small-screen competition from online on-demand services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, the BBC could soon be seeing similar challenges when it comes to audio drama if Audible’s new scheme gains momentum. Today, it broadcasts more than 700 hours of drama a year, much of it fresh work from emerging playwrights. As Lyn Gardner observed in her Guardian blog last February, few institutions do more to nurture new writing in this country than BBC Radio.

Its content is remarkably successful, too. Audio drama’s natural home has, of course, been Radio 4, which has several regular slots – the 45-minute long Afternoon Drama slot on weekdays, and the slightly longer Saturday Drama slot at the weekend among them – plus long-running soap The Archers.

Leah Nanako Winkler.Photo: Leni Kei Williams
Leah Nanako Winkler.Photo: Leni Kei Williams

The relatively untrumpeted continuance of these stalwarts belies their scope. Combined, they pull weekly audiences in the region of eight million. The Afternoon Drama approaches one million listeners daily. London’s National Theatre would have to fill every seat in all three auditoriums every day for a year to match that.

But despite these numbers, radio drama isn’t lucrative for anyone involved, particularly not for the writer and producer, who might slave away at a project for months for only a few thousand pounds and a 45-minute broadcast. And, although the programme is captured forever, rights restrictions often mean it disappears from BBC Radio iPlayer within a few weeks.

Couple this with the fact there is hardly any critical conversation around audio drama and the result is that, of the hundreds of radio plays the BBC produces in a year, plenty sink without trace after their hour of airtime. Then there’s the issue of Radio 4’s listenership, which has long stood accused of being too old, white and middle-class. Not every playwright is happy about that.

Audible can offer writers and producers something different: permanent availability, a more diverse, potentially larger international audience and significantly greater financial recompense.

But there’s no immediate reason to fret over the future of BBC Radio Drama. The corporation has been producing high-quality drama for decades, has a loyal following and is easily the world’s largest producer of the form. It has a wealth of talent at its disposal, a captive audience of millions and long-established mechanisms for evolving projects from birth to broadcast.

Maggie Brown: Netflix is driving up production budgets

But, as Netflix and Amazon Prime have proved with television, such institutional advantages can evaporate quickly. Beyond its financial resources, Audible has an invaluable edge: it’s new and unencumbered by the responsibility and bureaucracy that state broadcasting brings with it.

The specifics of its audio drama project are still evolving, and, unlike the notoriously slow-to-change BBC, it can design its content afresh for the ease of the listener. It can be fleet-footed and fast-moving. Couple that with the resources and recompense it can offer writers, producers and performers, and the result is a force to be reckoned with.

To categorise whatever relationship Audible and the BBC may have as solely competitive is wrong, however. There’s plenty of scope for collaboration. Just as Netflix hosts BBC TV dramas alongside its own original content, Audible could host BBC Radio dramas.

Indeed, it already stocks some BBC adaptations, from Jane Austen to John le Carre. Co-productions, such as audio equivalents of BBC TV’s collaboration with Netflix on David Hare’s Collateral, could also be a possibility, according to Audible.

That’s a lot of ifs, the biggest one being the condition that Audible’s new fund for emerging playwrights is just the first chapter of a dramatic new era for audio drama. It’s a possibility: the Amazon subsidiary could be opening the door to a new and exciting platform for theatre creatives.

And the extremely deep pockets of Audible and its parent company Amazon make it doubly exciting, according to Fritz.

“It’s a serious amount of money,” he says of Audible’s fund. “Imagine if a big theatre in this country said, ‘We’ve got five million and it’s all going to go on producing new writing’. It would change the whole landscape.”

The first 15 playwrights

James Fritz (UK) Based in London, his work includes Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, Ross and Rachel, and Parliament Square, which won a 2015 Bruntwood Prize.

Gary McNair (UK) Glaswegian theatremaker and associate artist at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. His shows include Letters To Morrissey and Locker Room Talk.

Nassim Soleimanpour (Iran) His work includes White Rabbit Red Rabbit and Nassim, which premiered in Edinburgh last Summer.

Madhuri Shekar (India/USA) Based in New York, her credits include In Love And Warcraft and A Nice Indian Boy.

Leah Nanako Winkler (Japan/USA) Playwright from Kamakura and Lexington, working in New York.

Aaron Mark (USA) Playwright and director whose plays include Empanada Loca and Squeamish.

Aditi Brennan Kapil (Bulgaria/Sweden/USA) Working in the US, her credits include Agnes Under The Big Top and Imogen Says Nothing.

Antoinette Nwandu (USA) Award-winning playwright whose play Pass Over sparked debate at its 2017 premiere in Chicago.

Bridgette A Wimberly (USA) Her musical Charlie Parker’s Yardbird came to the Hackney Empire last June.

Chisa Hutchinson (USA) New York-based writer whose 2010 play She Likes Girls won a GLAAD award.

David Rossmer (USA) Actor/musician, won Drama Desk Awards for The Other Josh Cohen Off-Broadway.

James Anthony Tyler (USA) Dramatist who received the $25,000 2018 Horton Foote Playwriting award.

Lauren Gunderson (USA) She is claimed to be the most performed playwright in the US.

Paola Lazaro (USA) Puerto Rican writer who was resident playwright at the Atlantic Theater Company.

Regina Taylor (USA) Golden Globe-winning actress and playwright from Texas.


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