Alternative rock: WTJU and UVA Drama collaborate on a wacky new audio drama

Denise Stewart, Mark McLane, Randy Risher, and Jess Littman are some of the voices in “The Perfectly Circular Rock,” a podcast that sound designer Lewis Reining describes as “a zany, witty series that transforms the mundane into a riveting listen.” Photo courtesy Nathan Moore Denise Stewart, Mark McLane, Randy Risher, and Jess Littman are some of the voices in “The Perfectly Circular Rock,” a podcast that sound designer Lewis Reining describes as “a zany, witty series that transforms the mundane into a riveting listen.” Photo courtesy Nathan Moore

Imagine that an enormous, totally round rock has suddenly appeared in Charlottesville. How would people react? Would the rock be considered a threat, a sign from God, or both?

Replace Charlottesville with the fictional Elkisbourne, and you’ve got “The Perfectly Circular Rock,” a new podcast produced by WTJU and UVA’s drama department. Early one morning, the title object materializes in the center of town. Within hours of its appearance, the residents of Elkisbourne start to project their own ideas onto the rock—using it as a metaphor for a failed marriage, constructing a religious cult around it, even attempting to grind it into an anti-aging cream.

Such an open-ended concept could go in countless directions, but director Doug Grissom says that he and his colleagues ultimately decided on an “all-out comedy.” This decision of tone was just one step in the creation of the podcast, a process that lasted more than a year.

Grissom, an associate professor in playwriting, wanted a reason to work with students in the MFA acting program. He submitted a proposal for a Faculty Research Grant for the Arts, only knowing that it would be an audio story co-produced with WTJU. Once funding was approved, Grissom and his students needed a big idea.

Brainstorming proved fruitful. “On Friday afternoons, we would meet and piece things together,” Grissom says, but their abundance of ideas made it hard to move forward. Winter had arrived by the time they decided on the rock idea, and the subsequent writing lasted through the spring semester. The past few months were spent recording and editing material at WTJU, with Grissom using local connections to fill spots in the cast left by any students who graduated last spring. On November 21, 10 full episodes of “The Perfectly Circular Rock” were released on RockDrama.org.

For the technical side, Grissom enlisted the help of WTJU’s national program producer Lewis Reining. Although Reining has worked in radio for around eight years and has wanted to create audio dramas since high school, “The Perfectly Circular Rock” is his first real chance to do so. In 2012, he co-directed and produced a modernized version of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast, but the finished product was only about half an hour. “The Perfectly Circular Rock” episodes run roughly 20 minutes each.

The project brought some unique challenges. For one, most of its 25 voice actors were accustomed to the stage. “In some ways, there’s freedom—you only have to worry about your voice,” Reining says. “But at the same time, these mics are so sensitive that any sort of movement can come through.” He had to discourage the actors from gesticulating too violently or “pounding on the tables.”

His collaborators quickly learned the rules of radio, however, letting Reining focus on the details. Technically, the audio of “The Perfectly Circular Rock” is gorgeous. The podcast’s plot requires some pretty unusual stuff to be portrayed through sound—from a dog urinating on the rock to Slam Hammer, Elkisbourne’s Bogart-esque private eye, getting knocked out with a baseball bat—and in each of these circumstances, Reining delivered.

He loves the challenge of making bizarre sound effects seem realistic, and says he’s grateful for the freedom that modern sound editing technology grants him. Today’s audio dramas are heavily informed by their predecessors, he says, but adds that “you’re able to layer things with a granularity you couldn’t before.”

Even a perfectly edited podcast can fall flat if the content is lacking, though. In the case of “The Perfectly Circular Rock,” there’s no shortage of content—it just might not be what listeners are expecting. Both Grissom and Reining concede that “audio drama” is a misnomer, since the podcast is mainly composed of absurd vignettes created by Grissom and his students during brainstorming. Recurring characters are scarce. Aside from Slam Hammer, whose rambling, mock-noir monologues are some of the project’s funniest moments, the story is framed by competing radio personalities Moe DeLawn and Synnove Olander interviewing members of Elkisbourne about the rock.

Running jokes reappear more often than most characters, which provides a cohesion of its own. Listeners will want to pay close attention to learn if a perpetually unfulfilled request to hear “Stairway to Heaven” is ever granted, or if the rock is ever called “spherical” instead of “circular”—because, as several characters complain, “circular is two-dimensional…a rock cannot be circular.”

While this grant has ended, Grissom and Reining are open to another collaboration. “I loved doing it. I wasn’t sure I would,” Grissom admits. He cites the flexibility of creating an audio drama, as opposed to directing something onstage, as one of its greatest benefits.

“For the most part, it costs the same in an audio drama if you want to set it in space or you want to set it in an old-style Western,” Reining adds. “It’s so much easier to do. You have the freedom to go wherever.”

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