What It Takes to Create the Podcast Drama ‘Solar’

When I listened to the first episode of the new dramatic podcast, Solar, I put on my headphones and went out for a morning run in my neighborhood. Outside, the neighborhood was quiet, but inside my head, chaos was happening. It was a crazy, immersive experience with sounds all around me. Despite the lack of visuals, it’s an exciting show to take. CurtCo Media, who produces the show, likes to call it “media for your mind.”

Starring Stephanie Beatriz, Alan Cumming, Helen Hunt and Jonathan Bangs, Solar is throwback to the old radio show days of the 1940’s and something completely new at the same time. It is a “journey to the heart of the solar system and an exploration of the vastness of the human spirit” says CurtCo. The show was written by Chris Porter who, when not writing has done work as a composer and sound designer of concert works, film and theater. For Solar, Chris also sat in the director’s chair alongside fellow director Jenny Curtis, who also plays a character role on the show as well.

(CurtCo Media)

The Start of Solar

Recently I interviewed Curtis and actor Jonathan Bangs to find out more about this production which started in 2019, just before the pandemic took our own world hostage. I got right into it asking the pair how this show came together. As it turns out, Chris, Jenny and Jonathan, all knew each other working together on projects for L.A.’s immersive theater company known as The Speakeasy Society.

When CurtCo Media made the jump from magazines into podcasting, the idea of moving into scripted fiction was always on the forefront of the company’s mind, but those projects would have to come later after the release of their talk shows. However, when CEO Bill Curtis was looking into bringing Chris into the fold, Bill asked him if he had any ideas for the company to which Chris replied, “Well, what if you could tell a story set in space?” and the show concepts went from there.

“How were you able to attract talents of Stephanie Beatriz, Alan Cumming, and Helen Hunt?” I asked.

“Helen and Stephanie were all direct offers. With Alan, I wrote him a letter.” Says Jenny laughing. “I basically fan-girled to him and said that ‘I love your work.’ I had seen him on Broadway in his one-man show of Macbeth and it was just stunning watching him go from character to character so seamlessly. And I think that I said, ‘Your love for your characters is the same as our love for our characters and we would be honored if you would be in this show.’ I was so surprised when he said yes.

Jenny Curtis, Chris Porter and Jonathan Bangs (CurtCo Media)

Recording the Show

Unlike many traditional radio theater shows where the whole cast recites their lines together at the same time, the cast of Solar recorded all of their lines separately. Well, almost all.

“For one thing, it was during the pandemic, so safety-wise, everybody recorded separately, but it is also the easiest way to get “clean” audio,” says Jenny. “We were able to record at a studio called Shane Salk Productions, a SAG approved studio in North Hollywood, so even during the height of COVID, and we were able to record in studio with full COVID gear. Nobody ever came into contact with each other. I was able to be on the other side of the glass from the performers, so I would perform the scenes with the actors so that they would have someone to play off of.”

Everything that was written, designed and scored for the show was created with the same goal in mind: how to make this the best possible audio experience. I asked how recording Solar was different from acting in front of a camera or in front of a live audience.

“For this project specifically, it had a lot of theatrical similarities,” says Jonathan. “The whole process was very much in that vein of a theater rehearsal. The only thing that was different was that we were recording all of the time.”

“For me, being sensitive to performance, I feel like there are times I have heard shows where people are overacting with their voice because they’re worried that people won’t ‘get it’ without visuals. I truly believe that it is not necessary,” says Jenny. “We had one actor at one of our sessions and she was saying, ‘If I had the use of my face, if I had a camera on me I could give you what you are asking for. Without it, I’m not sure how to do that.’ And I said to her, ‘Just do like there was a camera on you and I promise you, you will hear it. And they did.’

Together but Separate

All but one scene was recorded with the actors working separately Jonathan tells me. Stephanie Beatriz and Jonathan, who have many scenes together in the show, only got to record one scene together even though they had to do it separate rooms.

“It was pretty reminiscent of the first workshops that we did in an apartment where I said my lines upstairs in a closet and a woman reading another character’s lines was downstairs,” says Jonathan. “That helped to build the world of being isolated and orbiting in space. Skip half a year later recording it with Stephanie, and everything that had happened during COVID, it was almost the perfect vehicle to deliver the truth for what was needed in that scene.”

“That was an incredibly special day having the two of them being able to play off each other,” adds Jenny.

Me, Myself and ALI

In addition to directing the actors, Jenny also plays ALI, a computer-ized voice similar to Seri, Cortana and other A.I. computer voices. This led to some unique challenges.

“I agreed to play ALI, because, why not? It seems like a fun role to play. I had no concept of how often the ship’s computer speaks in this show. She has the most lines,” says Jenny.

“Did you record any throwaway lines in case they needed to be inserted into the show here and there?” I ask.

“That would have been smart,” says Jenny. “We had so many recording sessions and it would have been really smart if we had just grabbed some extra lines just in case. But no, every time we had to make new stuff up we wrote everything out very specifically. We knew exactly what we wanted and we would go in and record and if we had missed something, we would have to go back and do it again. But it helps that Shane Salk Productions is about a mile from my house and they were very good to us.”

All by Myself

I asked Jonathan if he had any favorite memories while working on the show. He told me that the most meaningful to him when his character, Jamal was giving a monologue that is featured in the very first episode of the show. Jamal is looking back at all that has happened to him up in that space station.

“I kind of forgot just how detailed [the scene] was until a couple of weeks ago. It took four different sessions and we dedicated one whole day session to just that one monologue,” he says. “I feel like the extensiveness and the extremity of going over it over and over it again kind of helped the frustration that Jamal is dealing with. Especially with him talking about his mother.  

“And so, it kind of put me in a place of fatigue and that is almost the best spot to be in as an actor because you’re not thinking. You don’t have that ability. You have the words in front of you and you’re present and you’re being a vessel for this script. It’s almost Shakespearian in that way. If you are able to get on top of the thought, it will serve you so magically. It will impact you as an artist.

“I was in a very topsy turvy time [in my life during these recordings] and I understood where Jamal was. It took a lot of effort and it took a lot out of me having to go back to it to get that elevated language. The minute that you’re not there, it will fall and drop and it won’t have any meaning. It won’t resonate with others.”

Jenny explains why that first scene was so important to go over and over again.

“Jon did a fantastic top job every time that we recorded it,” Jenny says. “It was just the opening of our show and we had to get it right. And so, none of us would let it go until we knew that we got it right.” She goes on to say about another day that was special to her.

“There was one day…one episode that deals with Jamal struggling physically and in order to get the performance that we wanted out of Jonathan, we had him sit in a ball against the wall in the corner of the room. We brought the microphone to him and he performed the whole scene feeling this physical pain. It was so much fun to be able to play in that world and really live through it. So, that was one of my favorite days seeing Jon curled in pain on the floor.”

“Just bleeding my heart out,” adds Jonathan.

Stephanie Beatriz, Helen Hunt and Alan Cumming (CurtCo Media)

Technically Speaking

I told the pair just how impressed I was with all of the technical concepts talked about during the show. Much of this goes over my head and at times, I have no idea what the actors are talking about. Jenny tells me that years ago they began talking to people who worked at NASA.

“We got some feedback like, ‘That’s a great idea’ and ‘that sounds like a lot of fun’ and some feedback like ‘that would never happen. Why would people fly to the sun?’ and we would be like, ‘It’s a fiction show. Just go with it.’” says Jenny who also says she’s not one to let anything go.

“I must know everything,” she says. “The script was well thought out. Chris did an amazing job of researching. He has family and friends who worked in various spaces in their careers that helped him with the proper terminology. In addition, years ago, But we did a ton of research for this thing and it was important to us to be as grounded and realistic as we could be in this crazy atmosphere space.”

I asked Jonathan if he was surprised by the reaction of people listening to Solar for the first time. He quickly told me no.

“I knew that people would gravitate to [Solar], but I didn’t think that it would be so quick. I think that is just a testament to how much time and quality was put into it. It takes an immense amount of effort to make something substantial. I have given the podcast to a few people who aren’t necessarily like radio narrative connoisseurs [to see what they thought of it]. Every person had an appreciation for the immersive element of it. How you become one with this world and you’re able to come up with your own nuances based on the same sounds that we’re all hearing because we have different imaginations and different thoughts.

“It is very reminiscent to a hundred years ago with Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds [radio broadcast]. I think that is really full circle after this large experiment with film and TV we’re coming back as a society to what was like the starting point.”

To Infinity and Beyond

“Where do you go from here,” I ask the two of them.

“We’re just gonna keep on rocketing,” Jenny says pun intended. We are all in love with radio drama. We want to make more of it. We want to live in the Solar world as well, so without saying anything official, we hope to come back to this world and continue playing in it. I love all of this. This has been a blast.”

She adds, “We encourage people to go back and listen again. We’ve put a lot of energy and thought into every single little sound. Every blip means something. Every side story could be a clue, so there is a lot to be mined. I do think that it is an enjoyable listen if you are listening passively, but I think you get a lot more of it if you dive in and try to figure out this world with us because there is a lot to figure out.”

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