In 2019, I relistened to one of the first fiction podcasts that showed me what this medium could do: ars PARADOXICA. Looking at the podcast industry as it stands today, it’s clear that the trajectory of fiction in podcasting would not have been the same without ars. Between its large cast, massively complex writing, and gorgeous, iconic sound design, ars both paved the way of exemplary audio and remains, to this day, some of the best fiction podcasting made.
After finishing my relisten, I reached out to the team behind ars PARADOXICA to find out how it was made and how it impacted each of them: Daniel Manning, head writer; Mischa Stanton, story editor, director, producer, and sound designer; Danielle Shemaiah, staff writer, director, and fight choreographer; Tau Zaman, staff writer; Eli Barraza, staff writer; Julian Mundy, staff writer; and Kristen DiMercurio, the voice of protagonist Dr. Sally Grissom.
Wil Williams (WW): Let’s start at the very beginning. Dan and Mischa, how did you meet?
Daniel Manning (DM): At some point during the first week of college in September 2010, I was spending some time in our college dorm room when Mischa, then a stranger who lived on my floor, came in and said “Hey, I’m heading to class, but I’m leaving my hard drive here in case anybody wants some movies or TV here or something,” and rushed out. Ever the dumbass to plug a mysterious hard drive from a stranger into my computer, I quickly found that the owner and I had similar tastes in very legally acquired content. Shockingly similar. And organized so well! I immediately knew I had to become friends with this person, and I did. We bonded over our love of Primer and Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes), and our frustration with Doctor Who. I think we played the entire Portal 2 multiplayer campaign in a single sitting.
Mischa Stanton (MS): Y’know I never thought about it before. I totally could have been hacking y’all, huh?
WW: How did the rest of you meet?
Tau Zaman (TZ): Dan and Mischa I knew from college but I didn’t really get to befriend them until after hopping into the Whisperforge years after we graduated. Always had a friend-crush on Danielle as well but same thing, we only really “met” in WF. Eli and Julian I hadn’t met before joining!
Eli Barraza (EB): Zach Ehrlich (Jack Wyatt) was my introduction to Mischa and Daniel. Mischa was the first person I met in the meat space and we clicked right away (and realized how many times we had almost met over the years). As for the rest of the team, it was initially over Slack. Daniel and Julian were based in LA at the time, so it was pretty easy to see them in person. The first time I met Danielle IRL, we spent hours together at the California Science Center, and I had the great luck to meet Tau during a visit to Boston when I was in town for a friend’s wedding. I’ve found The Friendly Toast does a great job of bringing people together.
Julian Mundy (JM): Mischa and I have known each other since we were about 12 or 13 years old, when we met at an arts camp in Connecticut. We ended up being interested in a lot of the same things, spent many hours together in the computer shop, and even after we both stopped being regular campers there, we never really stopped talking. When Mischa and Daniel got to know each other in college, I was looped into some of their conversations, and it was only after we all graduated that I met Daniel in person. They’re okay, I guess.
Kristen DiMercurio (KD): Mischa and I definitely had a class together in college once, but they don’t remember it. Because I was in the back drawing penguins and they were having actual ethical discourse with our professor on the other side of the room. I know it was them; they always wore huge headphones for audio reasons. Years later, I posted on the Emerson alumni Facebook group that I was looking to take VO classes. Mischa responded asking if I’d like to audition for their “audio project” instead. I had no idea what that meant, but I Skyped with Dan and Mischa not long after. Then I met them in person when I drove up to Boston to record.
Danielle Shemaiah (DS): Hm. Though I went to Emerson with most of these folk, the funny thing is that many of our paths never crossed while we were there. Tau I always admired from afar, and Kristen, I am fairly certain, just sprang into existence our senior year when we were both cast opposite one another in Maria Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends. In a roundabout way, she’s the reason I got mixed up in all of this. We had all of our scenes (and thus, all of our rehearsals) together (there are photos, it’s the stuff of legend, I assure you.) Anyhow, this meant we spent a lot of time chatting, and by the end of it we’d formed a friendship that traversed several states and took us on many adventures. One such adventure happened to be introducing her and our friend Isa (who’s now in Brimstone Valley Mall!) to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter while I was working down in Orlando. She told me the first day about this “Weird Radio Drama Thing” she was auditioning for, and how this Doctor Grissom character was originally supposed to be a guy, but she was going for it anyhow . . . and now here we are!
WW: How did the idea for ars come about? Who had the initial concept, and who pitched it as something to make versus something to discuss?
DM: There are probably about three places that I think of when I consider the start of ars:
1. A friend of ours had a show on Emerson’s internet radio station WECB in the late-night, 12-2AM slot. I guest-hosted an episode with him, and the broadcast stretched past 2, then 3, then almost 4AM. I asked why he was doing this, and he told me that since nobody was on after him, and it was so late that nobody was around, that he could do what he wanted then. That gave me the inspiration to hide something on a radio broadcast, and I recruited Mischa, a theatrical sound designer who had deeply impressed me with their immersive work, particularly an audio version of Asimov’s “The Last Question,” to help me produce a numbers station broadcast. We did, and it premiered to possibly zero people at 3AM in March 2011.
2. The year after, I was excited to do something else with Meesh. I started brainstorming what we could make, and I stumbled upon the idea of strange radio broadcasts from a small southwestern town, seemingly from an alternate past than ours. Two weeks later, I first listened to Welcome to Night Vale. Undeterred, I was inspired by the “universal conspiracy theory” of the Assassin’s Creed universe, where every single weird historical event is tied into this grand sci-fi conflict. At the same time, I was really interested in this idea that in just about every time travel story I could think of, the protagonist (and the world) ended up worse (or neutral at best) due to the time travelling, and that the best of those stories tied the wish fulfillment of rewriting the past with ugly costs, like the tragic destiny in Timecrimes, or the accidental invention and slow travel of Primer, and the psychological and physical degradation in both. This all sort of coalesced in me sending an email to Mischa outlining this cockamamie conspiracy cosmology where time travel was possible, except only backwards, and never past a certain point—a concept I had explored before in Timeswimmers, to disarm the plot of “go back in time and write the organization out of existence”—to make sure that time travel wasn’t the easy solution to any problem anyone might have. It always had to have costs, both foreseen and not. From there, Mischa and I built a story about an alternate timeline where the Kennedy assassination was averted, using as much real history as we could to illustrate a portrait that culminated in an early Reagan presidency starting WWIII by attacking a Soviet moon base with nuclear weapons. We wrote sections of fake news reports, careful to not have too many “It’s your cousin, Marvin Berry!” moments, that were bookended with coded sections that told the “real” story (that really was just A1Z26 coding, as opposed to the more complicated ciphers of ars). We used our friends with radio shows to broadcast, and later got one ourselves for the express intent of hiding our transmissions within.
3. We did another series of episodes inspired by the tragic real-life story of Thomas Baron, an inspector who reported about safety lapses at North American Aviation during the Apollo project—before the launch pad fire that took the lives of three astronauts, including Virgil “Gus” Grissom—and testified before Congress that he had an even longer, more-detailed report about safety issues that never surfaced, because two weeks later he was killed alongside his family when his car was struck by a train. In our story, he was a time agent trying to expose the truth. Because of that story, we had to get really in detail about the origins of this time travel, and why it was so vital for Baron to prevent that fire. At this point, Mischa had finished school and I was in my senior year, and we started talking about what was next. We had become obsessed with this fictional world history we had created; our friends had long ago ceased rolling their eyes and politely smiled when we’d fall into “Mischa and Dan time” and start pontificating about our fandom of a world that only existed in our heads. After I graduated in 2014, we started plowing full-steam ahead into making a podcast; it seemed like the only thing to do with this much lore that otherwise nobody would ever see and it would be trapped in my head forever. To my own demerit, it took us almost a year to actually release something. By then, I was anxious. The podcast market was saturated in June 2015. Serial had just hit. There were plenty of audio dramas to listen to. Everyone was doing found footage. Why would anybody listen to
MS: In fairness I still ask that to myself all the time, even now that we have millions of downloads and fans around the world. It’s wild. It never stops being the prank I pulled in college, but somehow it became the basis of my entire career at the same time.
DM: I was thinking about the horse hotel today. Meesh, Kristen, do y’all remember when we did a panel at that Doctor Who convention in Maryland and the con hotel had an UNSETTLING amount of horse decor and we put a ton of work making an extremely weird intro based on a BriTANick video and seven people showed up because we were scheduled against meeting multiple Doctors Who? That was a fun con, sorta, but really I just want to dwell on the horse hotel.
MS: Yeah that hotel had a surprising amount of black and white softcore horse porn happening on the walls. There were like, weird close-up angle shots of a human leg on top of a glistening horse body as it ran. Or like, macro shots of leather saddle straps. In the lobby, in the hallways, in the rooms. Even the bathrooms. It was very odd.
KD: Oh fuck, that’s right! There were horses everywhere, but extremely sensual horses. It was tolerable when the pictures were small, but I specifically remember two large photographs like, 5×5 hanging over each bed in the room. Also, no one appreciated that BriTANick video as much as we did. I’m pretty sure we filmed it. Side note: I’ve also never seen Doctor Who, so the entire experience was like sexy horses + trash can robots + cosplay I didn’t understand + presenting to a very dimly lit room of 7 people, and honestly it all kind of felt like a fever dream. I’d 10/10 do it again.
WW: What was the casting process like? Did Kristen audition? Kristen, what were your initial thoughts on ars?
MS: When we first really started putting characters and dialogue into the show, which was in about early 2014 or so, we had actually cast someone else we went to college with, someone I’d done theatre with a couple of times, as Jon Grissom. When that actor bailed (because, y’know, it’s not like we were paying anything) we took that as an opportunity to re-write the pilot for what must have been the 3rd or 4th time up to that point. And while we were doing that and looking for new actors, I said to Daniel, “Hey, what do you think about me auditioning women too?” And Daniel seized that idea, started writing with a woman in mind, which elevated the whole thing. And then I saw a posting on our college alumni Facebook group from Kristen: “Hey, I’m trying to get into voice acting, does anyone know of any classes or anything?” And I replied with, “Not even a little, but do you want to audition for the lead role in our weird fiction podcast project?” She was far and away the best person who auditioned, and we brought her up to Boston a couple months later to record the first batch of episodes.
DM: She slept on our couch, and I think we paid her in homemade chili.
KD: Did I sleep on your couch? I don’t remember that, but I do remember that fucking chili. Shit, that was so fucking good. Who made that? Did Dan make that? I mean, I was poor so that might have been my only meal of the day, but it remember it being so fucking good. Let’s do fun facts about that evening:
- You guys offered me a beer with dinner, and that’s when we discovered that I start slurring my words when I’m only one Guinness deep. The second half of that recording session took a lot longer since the word “tachyon” didn’t seem to fit in my mouth anymore.
- The recording setup was a laptop stacked on top of two milk crates stacked on top of something else in the corner of someone’s room, and it felt very guerrilla style.
- I was flirting with Mischa like the whole time and they didn’t notice. Because I’m very good at flirting.
- I wore a pleather jacket the whole time and I don’t know how those squeaks didn’t end up in the recording.
The casting process was very chill. After reading my Facebook post, Mischa and Dan sent me Sally’s opening monologue. I had no recording equipment aside from my built-in computer mic (I was living at my parent’s house after college). So we scheduled a Skype session, I put on real clothes and not pajamas, then we got on Skype and I just kind of . . . did the monologue at them. When I told my mom I was driving up to Boston to record “a voice acting thing,” she was very excited because I hadn’t left my room in maybe months.
WW: When was the decision made to bring on other writers? How were those new writers chosen?
TZ: Mischa and Dan can answer this better, but I need it noted for the record that I first started by asking to voice act, got told no, then got invited to write based on Facebook statuses 😛
MS: At the time we definitely needed more writers than voice actors. Little did we know each new writer we brought on would invent like 4 characters of their own . . . But that’s a later story.
During Season 1, it became clear to Dan and me that to do this story justice, it was too complicated for one-plus writer (Daniel did most of the heavy lifting in the first draft, and I would come in with a scalpel and rewrite sections in later drafts). We started out easy bringing Julian in. He’s been my very good friend since we were both pretty small, and we’ve been writing collaboratively in some fashion or another basically the entire time–he actually took a look at a lot of the earlier radio miniseries and some early drafts of the pilot, and for a little while he was gonna play Jon Grissom. So he was familiar with the world and the mechanics of it, which made it a no-brainer.
JM: I can’t speak to when Mischa and Daniel first considered me as a writer, of course, but I can say that I was more or less a bounce-board for a lot of the initial experiments with what would eventually become aP. I would talk with Mischa late at night all the time, and would hear about things like the pirate broadcast adventure, or how to implement the numbers stations and why. It would be fair to say that my on-boarding as a writer was smoothed out by knowing some of what was going on in it beforehand.
MS: Originally Zach Ehrlich, who played Jack Wyatt and who has been my friend since high school, was supposed to join our writing team, but our staff expansion unfortunately coincided with him moving out of state to work on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He introduced us to Eli, who sent in a few writing samples and then met me for coffee where we bonded over our love of a 2006 Sci-fi Channel backdoor pilot series that never went anywhere.
EB: I would like to note that not only was this meeting the weekend I ran a relay race from Huntington Beach to San Diego, but I also almost didn’t make it due to car issues and had my mom drop me off and yet Mischa was so cool and kind and put my immediately at ease with those Syfy references and the realization that we were this close to meeting so many times. That run on sentence was the vibe of my emotional state when we met.
One of the pieces I submitted was a cyclical surreal dreamscape of a short film script. I think it was Daniel who told me that was the one that got me the job.
MS: Danielle and Tau I knew from college, and I knew they were creative and industrious storytellers, but the Facebook posts were about finding the people who had viewpoints on history and Big Issues that we wanted to infuse into the show. Season 1 got a little white and a little straight and a little apolitical for our taste, and we wanted to course-correct in the second season. In fact, we still get a lot of 1-star reviews that say, “This show was great until they brought politics into it.” I’m very proud of those reviews, because it shows me that we did exactly what we set out to do!
I think I’d always planned on bringing on additional writers in later seasons, but we fell in love with that little group. And then when we started in on Season 3, it ended up being hyper-collaborative and also the last season, so we never did.
WW: Tau, Eli, Danielle, Julian, what was the process like first pitching, writing, and submitting an episode? Who thought up the concept for each, and what was the review process like?
JM: The writing and pitching process at the tail end of Season 1–and going into Season 2–was helped a lot by the fact that we started using a group-chat service. As far as my memory goes, who wanted to write or pitch a given character or plotline was often a communal thing. In getting the broad strokes of a season established, we became acquainted very quickly with who among us was best for a given episode, or who wanted it the most. Learning the psuedo-science and the rules of the Timepiece was what I struggled with the most early on, not being as avid a fan of time-travel fiction as I am of writers like Le Carré or Chandler. I know I needed some extra time to wrap my three-dimensional brain around a four-dimensional narrative, and that was usually what came up in revisions the most.
TZ: In a way, pitching was part of the negotiation process to hop onto the project at all: I’d mentioned to Mischa and Dan that while I loved the first season it was, yeah, very white and straight, and that I’d only be interested in coming aboard if I could shake that up. Dan and Mischa readily agreed. (The Whisperforge in general has been wonderful about giving me the space to bring up things I felt needed changing even when they were uncomfortable to hear, and I’m extremely grateful for their patience with me in that.) So my pitch for “Anchor” was basically, “A hand of god is gonna drop brown people right into this universe if that’s what it takes to get them on this show,” and so Nikhil Sharma was born. We also pitched our episodes in parallel, so at the time “Asset” (the introduction of the first canon POC) was slated to release after “Anchor” — ultimately it came before, and I’m more than fine with Nikhil ultimately not being the first POC on the show! That was the only episode I “pitched.” My next was “The Recorder of Dr. Nikhil Sharma,” which was supposed to be a minisode that just went too long. And as for the finale, “Dawn,” I was assigned to wrap up everyone’s plot threads that they’d set up in their own episodes, without really knowing what they were that early on in the process — or even the writers knowing each others’ threads, necessarily.
And by Season 3, we didn’t “pitch” so much as just “own” certain characters and arcs we were assigned to resolve, so naturally Nikhil and Sally’s relationship, and Mateo, and the numbers station fell to me, while Petra’s whole arc was written by Eli, the only person brilliant enough to create that character and pen that beautiful finale confrontation.
Lastly, the review process was delightful; everyone read every script and gave very thoughtful feedback about what works, what doesn’t make sense, what needs finessing, etc. What I liked about the review process is after getting all the notes, the writer would submit a final draft and that was it, irrespective of whether they honored all the suggestions or not. I really appreciated the agency to make the call on how the episode would turn out in the end.
EB: The initial pitching process for me was meeting Mischa in a Starbucks and telling them that they have a wonderful show, but what if I didn’t use any of the pre-existing characters and tried to “break” one of the most significant rules of the universe, Butterfly Syndrome? I’ve spoken a lot about how I pitched “Plasticity” from a place of fear and basically to avoid writing these beautiful main characters. The other reason was that I love looking at a rule (Butterfly Sydrome), figuring out how to break it (time travelling children) and then piecing out what the cost would be (lots of child death). I also spoke to my dad a lot about treating Butterfly Syndrome and what medication/ technology would be available at different times since he’s a pediatrician. I’ll skip over the esoteric details but he was the one who suggested lemondrops, which led to the Lemondrop Man, who was later combined with the one and only . . . Nikhil Sharma.
For later episodes, it was a toss up of pitching and being assigned. Julian and I worked closely together for “Gumshoe” and “Hitchhiker” since we needed to ensure the timeline matched up for Lou and June–a tall order, since there were a lot of details we needed to track. Danielle and I tackled “Riposte,” which entailed us sitting at my dining table, half improvising, half writing, all doing our best to do right by the characters. For “Grip,” I wasn’t even supposed to write an episode during that block because of my other show, The Far Meridian. I don’t remember what happened, but I was able to jump in and write the episode pretty quickly and tackle my biggest fear of writing an episode that heavily featured Sally Grissom (even if the focus was more on Petra).
Like Tau mentioned, the final part of the season was divided by character strengths for the writers. That process was definitely messy, keeping track of who was doing what when and where. There was a fair bit of notes and rewriting to streamline and maintain consistency. That was the thing about the writing process for this show, though: it was ever changing, ever evolving. We tried different things every season, within seasons. Some things didn’t work; some worked super well. To be honest, I loved how messy it all was because it was us trying to figure our shit out. Sure, there were plenty of frustrations, but ultimately, we learned so much and kicked some butt along the way.
DS: My experience, predictably, was somewhere between what Tau and Eli have both mentioned above. Everyone knew my political stances going in– and almost everyone knew/knows that my method of storytelling prior to aP was and remains, well, acting. I remember reaching out to Tau and asking if Misch and Dan were legit, and after that thumbs up, I set up a call with Mischa to talk about what coming on to the team would look like. It was, shall we say, one part headfirst dive and one part “dragged kicking and screaming . . . but happy about it” for me, honestly. I remember going into the meeting with my sketchbook and a bunch of pens, having listened to all of the episodes that had been released thus far, determined to get a grip on the world of this story that I was already entranced in. What I came away with was a veritable “red yarn conspiracy board” of a document and a kind of a stammering, “Wait, you want me to . . . write an episode . . . by myself? Like on my own? ARE YOU SURE?”
I know now that being a part of a writer’s room was everything that I could have wanted–and in that way, knowing I was a part of a group allowed me to do the work of writing on my own without the inherent suffocating solitude that I usually associate with the process of writing. I worked through my insecurities about writing other people’s characters by asking as many questions as I possibly could. I became a dramaturg–my red yarn conspiracy board grew. And in the places where I didn’t find my answers–in the dark corners of the aP universe that hadn’t been explored yet–I found my comfort in the questions, and that’s where my episode pitches came from.
We’d heard only a small bit about the things I was most fascinated with when I signed on to the team. The mundane questions of character and detail were the ones that kept me up at night . If I was going to be left to my own devices in this world, I wanted it to be spinning tales about those things that made science fiction/ high concept stories fascinating to me: what are the inner lives of these characters like? Does Sally Grissom have anyone looking for her back home? Who exactly is Esther Roberts? Luckily, these questions I was asking were ones that fascinated my collaborators, as well. They let me play in the space in the way that I always have, as an actor, and write out what I found there.
“Greenhouse” was just a result of my musing, “What exactly was in Sally’s pockets when she traveled back to ‘43–and . . . where exactly is that phone of hers?” I believe the rubber band ball that spawned “Boundary” and “The Life and Times of Archimedes the Cat” were both something I’d pitched into the slack initially, as well–mostly because I was curious about the science involved! “Dilemma” was a labor of love fueled by my need to carry Esther and the others through an impossible situation and shed light on their humanity in a way that so often genre fiction doesn’t allow for, but that I always admired aP for taking the time to do, and “Home” was me searching for just that. I didn’t get the chance to work directly on the final arc outside of our talks and plotting at Camp, but I did get to weigh in and story edit, which, since then, I’ve found suits me rather well. I’ve always been a connector-of-dots, and I think as we all learned about how best to work with one another, we’ve learned is an invaluable part of keeping a story this big contained and cohesive.
WW: To my knowledge, ars PARADOXICA is the only podcast that used a fight choreographer. Most fiction podcast creators don’t write stage direction, let alone choreograph fights–who came up with the idea to hire Danielle Shemaiah on for this role? Danielle, what was the process of choreographing invisible fights like?
MS: Season 2 was when that role really came together I think. I knew Dan had wanted to do a big Ocean’s Eleven-style heist episode somewhere (that ended up being “Episode 21: Jailbreak”; note the Clair de Lune reference during Petra’s Tower Takedown). And I’ve known Danielle had fight choreo experience since college, and that she kept up with that pretty regularly. And I thought, rather than have me wing it in design, wouldn’t it be nice to have a roadmap of the fight to design to?
DS: Absolutely. And as soon as the word “heist” was mentioned, my ears perked up as though my name had been called. I don’t think Mischa could’ve gotten me out of the room at that point if they’d tried. “Making Action You See With Your Ears!!!”, as Meesh says, was one of the most absolutely fascinating things about audio drama, to me, coming in as a listener and then as a writer–and with my background in swords and all things combat, I was actually quite surprised that most stories that call for that kind of choreography just kind of wing it. I’m in full admiration of Mischa and their ability to do that. But, that being said, going in and putting together a fight meant for audio is one of the most intriguing and exciting challenges I’ve ever faced as an artist.
It’s hard to write out what the process is like, because if we were in the same room, you’d see me wildly gesticulating with my hands in the exact way I do when I’m working on a scene.
It’s a lot of walking around with a metal serving spoon in my hand and drawing pictures of rooms and tapping objects of different materials against surfaces to see what sort of sound they emit. It’s where my detail-oriented mind really gets to shine, because suddenly, it’s quite important what kind of shoes the character’s wearing and what the floor’s made out of. It matters that Petra has to scale a guard tower and kind of vault herself over a railing and that she gets about two steps in before her mark her and turns around. Because if the timing doesn’t make sense, or if you don’t make an interesting, non-silent choice, the mental picture’s lost. Many thanks to my roommates, loved ones, friends, and Mischa, who all stood in for bodies while I did these strange dances, because for me, choreographing a fight for audio meant actually choreographing a fight, full stop. It meant creating an action sequence and then going back and paying close attention to which parts of that sequence had a sound, or how they might have.
MS: And then of course, I had to teach voice actors how to voice-act-fight! And since most of the big fight sequences ended up featuring Petra pretty heavily, that meant Lia Peros bore the brunt of that. I brought her into the show from community musical theatre, but just doing that first fight in “Jailbreak,” I knew she had a really great instinct for not just making general effort sounds, but really getting behind each specific action and making each of those efforts incredibly specific. That’s another cool thing about podcasts–I don’t think Lia ever expected to be an action star, but we got to make her one!
DS: I will say that I love working with actors. I’m an actor by trade–this is probably the most fun part for me. It’s why I was always elated when Mischa invited me to help direct. So naturally, doing this for the action sequences was the most fun! I got to teach Lia–and some of the others–some of the things that my Close Quarters Combat and Historical Weaponry Professor, Ted Hewlett, taught us about human anatomy and breath and sound. For example: how can you tell the difference between being kicked in the stomach or having someone step on your hand, using only your ears? Not to bore you with the not-quite-science, but the closer the impact is to the center of our bodies, the lower the sound, so the further out towards our extremities we get, the higher pitched our reaction tends to be. That’s where you get the oof for a gut punch versus an owwwiie[explitive] for slamming our fingers into a door.
The actors are, in a way, the first person you have to convince/draw into your action sequence, so it was fun getting Lia involved, explaining exactly what kind of badass havoc she was wreaking in any given scene. A lot of the time, it’s something a script might elect to gloss over. But once she had an idea of what was meant to be happening, she was invaluable in helping us to sell it. It made the whole endeavor even more fun for all of us–and I think that shows in the final product.
WW: And Danielle, a follow-up question. Tau, Eli, and Julian have all gone on to run their own podcasts since ars PARADOXICA. When are we getting you as a showrunner?
DS: As a showrunner? Well, that depends on when Julia Schifini’s Birdie Brogdon gets picked up. As a showrunner running a show that I also wrote? Not to sound intentionally ominous and prophetic, but when the Whisperforge no longer needs its Swiss Army Knife and all the New Collective Winds are settled . . . we’ll see. I don’t know about a solo venture–but I could definitely see myself as the Head Writer on Young Adult audio drama. It’s something I certainly want to explore.
WW: Were there any recurring arguments between the writers about characters, the plot, etc.?
MS: Well, a lot of my job during script-writing had to do with maintaining the sci-fi continuity, making sure the technology worked consistently, and making sure the time travel logic was followed through. Which was a problem because this show is, and was designed from inception to be, fucking complicated! And it’s not like we ever took the time to write a comprehensive show bible; Dan and I were too busy making the show itself. So even the writing staff didn’t fully comprehend some of the concepts, even as they were writing them. And I would go back to them with notes like, “We have to tear out the basic spine of these three major scenes because time travel doesn’t work like that,” which always took precedence over potential story moments. I was pretty brutal about it sometimes!
I do remember a huge argument during Ars ParadoxiCamp, where we wrote Season 3 together, about a major decision Esther Roberts would have to make if we wanted the story to move in a particular direction. I think it was about whether or not she would give up the Plasticity files to the Russians to prevent all-out war, if she was really the kind of person who would or could do that, knowing how utterly inhumane the Plasticity project was and why they’d locked it up tight. I remember being deadlocked on that for hours. And even though it had been up until that point a really democratic and open process, Dan and I ended up having to make an executive call so we could move forward and finish the season.
And of course, my personal headcanon about Esther’s upbringing and home life before she joined ODAR. Which is juicy, and controversial among the staff, but which I want to hold onto in case we ever end up revisiting it in the future. Esther’s kinda Danielle’s and my pet character. I love her a lot.
TZ: Y’all that was heated AF. I remember like, some of us (lol: me and Dany) were tearing up over how emotional we were over Esther’s fate and trajectory. I was very pro Esther handing over the Plasticity files, I think Danielle was very against, and ultimately we landed on Karla being of Esther’s shared heritage to make a compelling appeal that she’d use the reports better than ODAR would. Another tension was that Mischa and Dan were very clear they didn’t want forward time travel, which I hated, so I at least tried to dangle the prospect of it in “Anchor” to see what that could bring out of Sally before she decides to anchor herself to the past, and the mission fails. And then I used “The Recorder of Dr. Nikhil Sharma” as at least an opportunity to show how freakin’ cool a future ODAR at least could be.
EB: I remember that fight! I was very anti-handing over the Plasticity file to Karla because the thought was so vile to me, that more people would have this information. Not just have it, but improve upon and brainwash more children. I know “Plasticity” was my idea so really, I had it coming, but it was very difficult for me to set aside my feelings about the “reality” of continuing these experiments vs. what would actually serve the story. That said, once the decision was made, I was ready to move on. I can be absurdly stubborn, but once I know I’ve lost it’s like, “Alright, let’s move along, I will cede this hill rather than die on it.” I’m actually so happy to have lost that fight because it presented such a great opportunity for Petra to be that final antagonist and have that discussion with Sally at the end. We were able to further explore the show’s themes in a way that really struck an emotional place.
DM: I’m so glad we had all the plot arguments we had during ars. Every time a plot point had pushback, that was another opportunity to make it better. Things got difficult at times at Camp, but I wouldn’t give that up for the world. It got difficult because we cared, and we wanted the best for the story and the characters. I would like to think that one of my most valuable skills is to allow myself to be wrong, and I can’t stress enough how important that is when you’re working on a project. Thankfully, I had the chance to work with some incredible creators who will absolutely tell it straight to my face when I am.
DS: I have nothing to add. This fight definitely happened, and I definitely loved everyone that was a part of it all the more after it did–and I don’t think we ever would’ve gotten so passionate about something we didn’t feel so invested in and so strongly about. Nevermind that Esther Roberts and her character growth was, is, and always will be the hill I will set myself up to on; I think I only ceded any ground in that argument whatsoever under the condition that I be allowed to take the lead on those episodes leading up to and including those reports, in the end. I’m unwaveringly headstrong, even as a very unity-minded human. Those patient Hufflepuffs are true, and unafraid of toil, as the I think what’s important is that the answer this HALF A DAY (???) long fight gave us was the solution that ultimately wrapped up the series and gave us our antagonist, as Eli said. I think we stuck the landing, in the end.
WW: When do you think you all first saw signs of ars becoming a popular listen? Were there any moments that made that success feel really real?
MS: Richard Penner–AKA Timescanner, creator of the wonderful podcast THE INFINITE NOW–gave us our first boost right around November 2015. That was when our listenership broke 1,000. I remember because I was trying to do NaNoWriMo, and about halfway through that the podcast started getting a lot more responses on social media and our Patreon started kicking, and I ended up abandoning the novel in favor of the podcast. And then in January 2016, we dropped “Episode 08: Cage,” which is a real highlight of the first season in my mind. That started snowballing: April 2016 was when we started really getting into the fiction podcasting community on social media, and Marc [Sollinger] and Dan [Powell] at Dead Signals created #AudioDramaSunday, and then the crossover with The Bright Sessions in Sept 2016 just as The Bright Sessions was becoming “Best of iTunes” sorta cemented us as part of this new wave of audio fiction.
I think what made it feel real to me was when we started getting written up by BBC America and SYFYwire and stuff. My work on ars is basically my response to Doctor Who, so to be written up by the people who made Doctor Who and who make great sci-fi, and having them call us great sci-fi and great time travel, that meant a lot to me.
JM: I’m a simple guy. As soon as I see fanart starting to hit the internet, the urgency and scope of a project catches up with me. When you inspire someone to create something connected to your idea, that’s a unique feeling. We have a big crew and a sprawling ensemble, so I love how readily people will take a loose end in the aP universe and run with it. There’s a lot of rich material still waiting there to be played with.
TZ: I don’t think it ever really sunk in for me until just this year. Mischa can tell you the week leading up to PodCon I was crying on the phone to them while having a crisis of identity over CARAVAN not being out yet because I didn’t want to be one of a thousand people “just about to start a podcast” with nothing to show for it. It wasn’t until Misch said, “Tau, that’s not going to happen, you’re going to go to PodCon and people will know who you are based on the episodes you’ve written.” And then that’s what happened. It was really a wake up call that people pay attention to the credits? I’ve said this a thousand times, but I really can’t iterate enough how grateful I am to Mischa and Dan for bringing me onto this very special labor of love of theirs, long before I even had much concept of its significance to podcasting at large.
KD: During our recording sessions, Mischa would sometimes tell me how we were doing with listener numbers and stuff. It didn’t really click for me. They just kept being like, “No, Kristen. People like Sally. Like a lot of people like Sally.” And I’m the worst, so I literally didn’t believe it until I started looking stuff up on Tumblr and saw the fanart and fanblogs and stuff. I felt very late to the “Oh shit, people listen to podcasts” game. I remember when Mischa told me we hit 100K downloads, I lost my shit. I then continued to lose my shit at every big milestone after that. I still occasionally do.
EB: The write ups and download numbers and conventions definitely hit me on an intellectual level, but emotionally, it was TV Tropes and recognition by fellow creators. Seeing the TV Tropes page so filled out (“Plasticity” is a Wham! episode! So cool!) was wild because people took the time to compile it all when they didn’t have to. Like most of the creators in this space, I’m a big fan of so many other podcasts, so when those creators would post about episodes or I when I met them in person and they recognized my work, that was when I felt the success.
WW: What were some of your biggest takeaways from ars?
TZ: I think the biggest takeaway was learning how everyone else in the Whisperforge works on a deep level. What they’ll fight for, what hills they’ll die on, what parts of writing are really gratifying for them, and which parts of the show don’t appeal to them as much. Outside Whisperforge, just seeing the racism and homophobia leveled at Nikhil and Mateo when hardly anyone had a problem with Esther and Bridget kinda put into perspective for me who our listeners are. We presume podcast listeners to be widely progressive (at least, I do) but aP’s appeal really ran the gamut on the political spectrum despite being an intentional critique of American exceptionalism. We had one guy quit listening because he felt babied by the content warning we put before “Anchor,” which we were all producing like immediately during and after a shooting? Like . . .
MS: I mean . . . ars was and always will be that dumb prank I pulled in college. So I think my biggest takeaway is that some dumb shit you cook up in your living room at 3AM is just as valid a basis for a career as anything else.
EB: My biggest take away was the value of being wrong and how to handle that. This show was incredibly technical to write, so you could spend hours working on something only to have someone else on the team point out how it broke the show’s rules and needed to be scrapped. Being able to take a moment to mourn your work for and then jump back in was paramount to getting shit done. This was also huge when it came to character/ emotional arcs, like the pivotal Season 3 moment of handing over the Plasticity files we discussed earlier. Look, sometimes the humble pie tastes good in the end.
JM: ars feels like a balancing act that would be impossible to replicate. Not only do I feel as though we pulled off one of the best pieces of time travel fiction to date, we did it in such a way that the characters didn’t get lost in the plot. I attribute that to a fantastic critical intellect on the part of this team, and so many good eyes for detail. But that all comes last to the great sensitivity of this group, for whom intention has to match action, so I feel as though I came away content that we told a good story well. Time travel stories have a habit of being bleak, or exploiting and othering their characters. I’m just glad I got to know Sally, Esther, Lou, Petra, even Chet Whickman. Not Hank Cornish, though. Fuck that guy.
DS: I learned an invaluable amount about how I work best as a creative, and I learned how to collaborate with a group of friends and peers with wildly different personalities and styles. I learned that Love, for a person or an idea, for anything, really, is less about some sort of “magic” cohesion or inherent “chemistry” and more about the work you’re willing to put into a thing. Chemistry’s a myth. Physics, however, is very real.
DM: Time travel is really hard to write.
WW: Since ars, all of you have moved on to different projects. ars feels a little like the Second City of audio fiction, bringing together some of the biggest powerhouses in the industry before you set off on your own projects. What have you all been working on? What has it been like starting new things?
TZ: Working on keeping everyone in the CARAVAN happy. It’s extremely important to me that we make this show in a way that feels creatively fulfilling and professionally rewarding for everyone aboard. That means a lot of emotional labor and constantly trying to think one step ahead for what our pain points are going to be. Trying to build a culture from the ground up, making people feel valued and trusted akin to a family yet still professional and diligent—especially while hiring and managing your friends—it’s been a lot. As for what it’s like? I don’t know, like walking around with your exposed heart hanging out of your chest for everyone to listen to or stick a knife into.
MS: I’ve been trying to climb the ladder of higher-profile fiction and storytelling projects: The AM Archives on Luminary as an extension of my work on The Bright Sessions; I’ve done two seasons of LeVar Burton Reads, which is an insanely fun playground to play in; and now I’m in post-production for MARVELS, which I’m pretty sure I never could have dreamed of doing before making a show like ars. That show is just . . . “Huge” doesn’t begin to describe it. Plenty of action scenes with sprawling casts, just like ars Season 3. (And I can’t say much yet, but I think there are gonna be some Easter eggs in there for ars fans to find too.)
And then of course, up until this point I’ve been the sole sound designer on every Whisperforge show. Which to be quite honest has been exhausting, albeit very rewarding once the final product is complete. For upcoming new shows, I’m trying to transition myself into more of an Executive Producer role, giving notes on other people’s work as opposed to having my hands in every project up to my elbows all the time. My first project as an [Executive Producer] is Kristen’s Brimstone Valley Mall, which is SO funny and SO strong and I absolutely cannot wait for everyone to hear it because it’s gonna be so so good.
EB: I started working on The Far Meridian before ars ended which was a lot to juggle but like pretty much every creator, I’m convinced I thrive on the chaos (which is . . . not always true). Despite The Far Meridian being a hard pivot tonally from ars, I took so much of what I learned from that experience and applied it to how I run my own show. We’re prepping for the final season of The Far Meridian, which is bittersweet, but I’m so proud of how my team and I have evolved as creators, still eager to try new things and refine our process. I’ve also had the pleasure of moonlighting on other projects like The Bright Sessions, Outliers, and Marsfall. As much as I love spearheading my own projects, I’ve been really digging following someone else’s lead and experiencing how their process works. Working with the ars PARADOXICA team really instilled a sense of curiosity and, “Screw it, let’s try it!” mentality that’s been so healthy and helpful for my approach to creative projects, whether they be my own or someone else’s. Also spreadsheets, spreadsheets to keep track of everything from individual project breakdowns to a breakdown of all my projects (the latter being terrifying to look at, I think I have over 40 projects across several mediums in various stages at the moment?)
JM: I can’t say enough good things about the process of making StarTripper!! Season 1. To have Ian [McQuown] and Mischa as my co-producers, along with our incredible and patient fellow travelers, is a real joy that feels constantly reciprocated. Everyone is so goddamn happy when they listen, and then they tell me, and then I cry about it. The hiatus has been eating me up. I moved back across the country in September and found a new day job at IBM, ending a long and trying period of unemployment. Making StarTripper!! Season 2 happen is my top priority, but I admit I’ve been dying to do more voice work since playing some mall-goers in Brimstone Valley Mall, and being cast as Jack in the upcoming Lock-Ups. I’ve done some editing and design work recently for a fiction podcast being pitched to Rooster Teeth, and signed on as story editor for an actual-play podcast called Rated RPG, where the hosts play through 1980s genre films so bad, they could only be committed to podcast. It’s actually quite funny, with some excellent buddy movie set-ups. I’ve also been doing a whole lot of podcast art and design commissions – i.e. the cover for Sidequesting–as well as running the Patreon accounts for both my own personal artwork and ST!! I think that’s just about everything!
DM: I feel like the odd one out in the Whisperforge, because I don’t have my Next Big Project. Obviously, Remarkable Providences has launched, and I’m producing that, but I’m not telling that story, Kate is. Most of my expertise is in writing fiction, but now I’m producing a nonfiction series . . . since ars ended, most of my Podcast Energy has gone towards developing the Whisperforge, which I’ve had varying degrees of success with, based on my own crushingly high standards. I started a cursed Hallmark Christmas movie review podcast, as bad movie podcasts are a largely unexplored and totally-not unsaturated genre, and wrote a few scripts for podcast friends for scrapped projects. Right now, I’m focused on finishing this season of Remarkable Providences, and doing more nonfiction projects for The Whisperforge. I always love helping out other audio fiction people though, so if you need an extra eye or a spare pen, call me!
DS: Well Dan, we can’t both be the odd one out, and we’re already both Dans . . . anyhow, kind of ditto what they said. I’ve been working on making sure The Whisperforge is a place where stories like this can exist and be told–and where stories even further out than aP and Cold War Time Travel can thrive. I’ve been directing for The Far Meridian and acting in CARAVAN and helping with development for Birdie and getting back to my roots as a performer wherever I possibly can–but as for my “Next Big Project,” well . . . like I said before, I guess we’ll see. (Though If Disney decides to get into the podcasting game, they’ve got first dibs. Call me. I’ll make your Young Avengers Podcast. It’ll be Great. Promise.)