Behind The Talking: The Tale of Downstage Center

December 27th, 2010 § 0 comments

In this quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s, the American Theatre Wing reaches a small milestone: the 300th interview on our podcast, “Downstage Center,” which will be released on Wednesday. I have to confess, when John von Soosten, who ran the “On Broadway” channel of the now extinct (I’m sorry, merged) XM Satellite Radio, and I began the program, I don’t think we were considering posterity. John wanted high caliber guests for his channel and the connections the Wing could bring to the table; the Wing was looking for an inexpensive way to create new content for our website and any national platform beyond our annual exposure via the Tonys.

John and my plunge into Downstage Center (which I’ll now refer to by our in-house shorthand, DSC) was simultaneously sudden and protracted. It was sudden because it didn’t take us very long at all to agree on a format, but then we experienced months of delay thanks to lawyers working out what was ultimately a rather simple agreement. So when everything got ironed out in April 2004, we then leapt to get the show started – but despite our fairly extensive experience in our fields (John in broadcasting, me in theatre) we did just about the worst thing possible. That is, we didn’t rehearse. If you go back to the very earliest DSCs from April and May 2004 (please, please don’t) you’re really hearing John and I working out the program on air with such guests as Bernadette Peters and Bebe Neuwirth, to whom I am eternally indebted and perpetually apologetic.

Over time, John and I evolved out a rhythm, which usually involved each of us asking two or three questions in succession, then ceding the microphone to the other. We worked things out as we went along, learning that if two hosts was often challenging (which it was), then having two guests at once proved even trickier, which is why you’ll notice that convention having slipped away rather quickly. Because we were working live to tape (well, digital file, but you know what I mean), we developed our own idiosyncratic series of hand gestures through which we could communicate during the program, a system about which we ultimately warned our guests. All of them were fine about it, save for James Earl Jones, who would stop speaking the moment our hands made any movements, even when we tried to do them out of sight. He later admitted he was just having fun with us, but when Darth Vader bellows, “What are you doing,” it rather stops the flow of conversation.

When we began the program, it was broadcast on XM – which had less than 1 million subscribers – and streamed from the ATW website. Satellite radio was only starting to gain an audience foothold, but even it was more established than the initiative The Wing undertook beginning in August 2005, something called podcasting. Vague language in our contract with XM permitted us to distribute the program in this new form via iTunes and as a result, those who didn’t want to pony up for an XM receiver and a monthly fee could hear the program for nothing. This was cutting edge five years ago, if that’s possible to believe.

It is safe to say, DSC was not a high priority inside XM. Our original recording space was handed over to the team of Opie & Anthony; we were banned from using it when we had the temerity to obscure some naked pictures prior to interviewing Dana Ivey and didn’t properly restore them. It’s probably just as well, as the studio under their reign featured an awful lot of Purell bottles and Lysol wipes for my comfort, suggesting what might have been going on at other times of day. We ultimately used, I believe, six or seven different studios over the course of the show’s run on XM.

The end of the XM era began in 2007, when it was announced that Sirius Satellite Radio and XM would merge. But then a funny thing called regulatory approval proceeded to delay the merger for some 18 months, a time during which employees of XM (and I’m told, Sirius) had no idea what would happen when the two companies were conjoined. No word on programming, no word on employment. Limbo.

So John and I just kept turning out DSC every week, always wondering which one would be our last. The end, when it came, was fairly swift, and was every bit as unfortunate as the kind of corporate downsizing we see portrayed on film and TV (and for too many, I’m sure, in real life). John and DSC both went off the air in November 2008 after an interview with Jan Maxwell. 227 editions wasn’t a bad number, and they were all safe in the files of the Wing and perpetually available to the public via our site.

Over the next few months, there were intermittent conversations with the folks who held sway over the Broadway channel at Sirius/XM. Despite the urging of fans and some inside the Wing, I was holding out hope that we could retain our broadcast berth, but after a series of occasional talks, we finally got the word that there was no place for DSC on the Broadway channel. “Too much talking,” I was told. In a Catch-22, I was also told we would not be considered for any of the talk channels, because they wanted to keep their theatre programming exclusive to the Broadway channel. Other broadcast outlets declined our hour-long conversations with theatre pros as well; we simply didn’t fit the mass media model, which was definitely about sound bites and rarely about theatre.

Now by this time, podcasts were common, coming from basements and bedrooms, as well as studios, all over the place. But because the studios of XM had given us a really high-quality aural experience, I was loathe to settle for something less than optimal. I was also concerned as to whether we could retain the caliber of guests we’d been enjoying if DSC became something recorded in our office conference room. But thanks to the opening of CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and our longstanding relationship with CUNY TV, which managed the technical facilities of the J-school, we were afforded access to a fully equipped radio studio and an expert tech staff, so we could restart DSC with the same level of professionalism that characterized the XM experience. Taping began in July 2009 and the show returned, podcast only, in August.

We didn’t come back exactly as we were. John, as our listeners know, was not part of the reconstituted program (he’s fine though, by the way; we spoke last week). Our lack of budget and what had been an ongoing challenge of working out the various schedules of two hosts as well as those of guests and the studio dictated that we keep it as simple as possible, so I would fly solo. But as the theatre insider of the original pair of hosts, I often think of John as I record the show now, remembering that not everyone will know, when a guest mentions the choreographer “Jerry,” whether they’re referring to Robbins or Mitchell, and I should clarify for them.

It was gratifying to find that our fans hadn’t unsubscribed from iTunes, as so as soon as we returned, so did the downloads. Now, 73 programs since our return, we will have served out just under 1 million mp3 files of DSC in 2010 alone, and more than 3 million since the podcasts began.

As for guests, we’ve had no significant problems. The podcast format is now a recognized platform for publicity and exposure, and the artists seem to revel in having an hour to discuss their work in-depth. Our 300th guest is, fittingly, someone of great stature in the field, the composer John Kander, following our previous milestone programs: #250 with Stephen Sondheim and #200 with Hal Prince. While our 301st program will feature a return guest, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, we strive to avoid returnees, and the field of theatre is sufficiently vast and filled with talent that we don’t expect other return guests for a long time (unless there are other major playwrights who have 75 plays under their belts).

Personally, I had the opportunity to interview my “most wanted” guest, a goal I set when we began in 2004: Sir Ian McKellen, back in October. So now I have set an even more challenging, but not necessarily insurmountable, goal. Sam Shepard, I’m after you, sir. Please?

For all who have listened to and supported Downstage Center, thank you. Please don’t hesitate to suggest future guests, and we’ll do our best to get them talking. Best wishes for the new year.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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