Last year I become involved with an unusual New York theatre troupe as an actor, Fireside Mystery Theatre (FSMT). The company presents a monthly live show of old style radio drama, generally leaning heavily towards the macabre, at the intimate and atmospheric The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side. For an audience member (as I had been many times over several years before joining FSMT on stage) there's a real sense of witnessing what happens behind the microphone when radio drama is brought to life, as well as getting to watch an engaging performance. With their scripts in hand, the cast take on various roles throughout the evening, either in one long play or more usually four shorter pieces. There's a live improvised score and of course the all-important sound effects. For anyone who can't attend in person, the show is available to listen to as a weekly podcast, which has now been downloaded over two million times on various platforms.
I spoke to Fireside Mystery Theatre co-creators Ali Silva and Gustavo Rodriguez for Phacemag about the origins and evolution of their endeavour.
Photograph by 'Eric Hathaway'
What initially inspired you to form Fireside Mystery Theatre? Gus: It all happened back in 2011 at a moment when Ali and I were looking for something more interesting to do with both our time and underutilised talents! We're good friends with a shared passion for storytelling, theatre and radio. I have a leaning towards the macabre and the mysterious. Ali lives and breathes the classics in drama and literature and has tremendous skill as an actor, so I wanted to put her to work! Ali: We wanted to build an artistic residence for ourselves and be our own bosses so to speak. How has it evolved over the years? Gus: We always say that we started out as a cover band. We didn't perform any original material for a stretch at the beginning. It was just Ali and myself. She did all the performing. I ran sound effects and music through an iPod. At first we did readings of short stories and then performances of old time radio scripts from a classic American show called Suspense which was really popular in the 1940s and ‘50s. It helped us cut our teeth and gradually gave us the confidence to try our hand at original material. We also started to sprout a cast of regular players. Nowadays we feature up to ten actors in a show. Ali: We performed our show in the back room of our local bar in Queens, beside an actual fireplace. Then in 2014 a friend and fan of the show, Daniel Graves, pushed us to record the show and release it as a podcast. We were a little slow in getting there, but we did pretty well once we became podcasters. The monthly live show at The Slipper Room includes techs and a sound effects engineer and musicians, it’s quite a little operation for us to manage!
What do you enjoy about performing audio drama? Ali: There are so many things to relish as an actor when performing audio drama. The medium allows the actor to step beyond the confines of casting based on physicality. I have had great opportunities to play a vast range of characters from mischievous little boys to wise old crones and all that’s in between. I adore being able to stretch my range and flex my vocal performance muscles. There is great intimacy that you can have with an audience that is special and unique. It requires technical skill as well, not just with the voice but also with an understanding of how to work with the microphone to create a dynamic performance. I am continually learning with each new season, each new show. I absolutely adore that. How do you go about sourcing the plays, is it mainly new writing? Gus: Apart from the occasional adaptation, it's all new writing. I lead in that area and I feel bad for my friends and family since they have to listen to me constantly whine about how hard it is to do! We have to generate enough content to be able to release something new each week and I'd be lying if I said it had become easier over the years, it hasn’t. But somehow it always gets done! I've worked with some co-writers who have been excellent and have helped relieve the burden, but most of the time it's on me to get it done. Ali: The plays are spun off themes we come up with at the beginning of the season. To kindle inspiration, we read and research as much as we can for a given subject, watching films, listening to other radio plays to get into that zone.
Do you have ensemble of actors? Gus: Yes. Besides Ali, the fabulous James Rieser was the first actor we brought in, and over time we've established a little stock company of talented actors who regularly perform in our ensemble such as Mary Murphy, Michael Pate, Kacie and Alain LaForest, and Eirik Davey-Gislason. And also this fantastic chap named James Kleinmann. How has the emergence and evolution of podcasting changed things for both creators and listeners of audio drama? Gus: It's been nothing short of a gift. When we started out we assumed our show and concept would be a niche thing, but we've been delightfully surprised by how many young people are into this kind of entertainment. Ali: It's still sometimes hard to believe that something we've produced has been downloaded now well over two million times! Now that the podcast is so popular, why do you continue with the live shows rather than just recording material in a booth? Gus: One of Ali's great passions is the stage. We actually go through a lot of pains to keep the live show going primarily because of that passion. The live element also helps set our show apart from other audio drama podcasts, as most tend to be studio-bound. Ali: I personally enjoy the live show very much but would also like to explore more of what we can do in the studio creatively. Also, it's as a live show where we've made our bones. We've done a few things in the studio, and I tend to like the greater control over the process and not having to rely on a single take as we do with audio from the live shows. With a little more time and money I think we could satisfy both desires.
Fireside Mystery Theatre - Radio Player Link! and pictured: Ali and Gus, The Wonderful marvellous - beautiful -
Creators of The Fireside Mystery Theatre XX
Tell us about the venue you where you perform, why is it a good fit for the show? Gus: We are blessed with a number of things one of them is The Slipper Room and the wonderful relationship we have with the owner, James Habacker, and his marvellous staff. Ali: We couldn't have designed a more perfect little theatre for ourselves. It's dark and reddish and richly atmospheric in a vintage sort of way. And a velvet curtain, we actually have a beautiful velvet curtain! How would you sum up what you offer your audience? Gus: We offer our listeners a pretty full palette of darkly hued entertainment; theatre, wonderful voice acting, rich storytelling, engaging characters, drama, tension, suspense, comedy, beautiful musical performances, and the excitement of a live recording. Those who get to see the live show get a few extra treats seeing how the ear candy is made. Ali: We wanted to create a show like "The Twilight Zone” that, while dark, can be enjoyed by folks of all ages. What’s been your proudest or most memorable FSMT moment? Gus: It's hard to pick just one, but for me it was probably our performance at the Morris Jumel Mansion, New York’s oldest standing residence, at the end of last year. Ali: Yes that was a real highlight. It was a thrill to perform our play about the fascinating lady of the manor, Madame Eliza Jumel, live in her own home as her portrait stared down upon us! Fireside Mystery Theatre will return to New York’s The Slipper Room in October 2018. In the meantime a wealth of audio drama can be enjoyed by searching for Fireside Mystery Theatre podcast on Stitcher, Audioboom or iTunes. For more information visit the Fireside Mystery Theatre website. (https://www.firesidemysterytheatre.com/)