Illustration by Ellen Budell of a truck as depicted in "Carrier"
Audio dramas are carrying theater through this pandemic. (Illustration by Ellen Budell, Benedictine College)

‘Carrier’ Demonstrates How Audio Dramas Can Help Fill Our Theater Void

The thrilling listening experience proves that the genre is our best chance at getting a taste of live theater during the pandemic.

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Illustration by Ellen Budell of a truck as depicted in "Carrier"

The thrilling listening experience proves that the genre is our best chance at getting a taste of live theater during the pandemic.

I really miss live theater. While digital theater productions have been doing an incredible job of keeping theater alive during the pandemic, there is still no way to recreate the experience of sitting in an audience and witnessing actors bring a story to life on stage.

While I’ve watched some great TV, movies and filmed theater productions over the past few months, my longing for live theater hasn’t disappeared. This ache for the art form, which has been incapacitated by the pandemic, inspired me to search for new ways to entertain myself that resemble live theater. Through this search, I came across the audio drama “Carrier.”

I had heard about audio dramas before, but I had never given them a try. I figured they were nothing more than glorified audiobooks in which actors simply read dialogue meant to be spoken and seen on a stage. To my pleasant surprise, “Carrier” proved me very wrong.

While there are plenty of audio versions of plays originally written for the stage, audio dramas are a genre designed for a podcast format. “Carrier” is one of these, and it demonstrated to me just how engaging an audio drama can be.

Created by Dan Blank, “Carrier” stars the award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo as Raylene, a truck driver who ends up getting a whole lot more than she bargained for when taking over the job for her sick father. Desperate to get home to her children, Raylene agrees to transport a mysterious sealed trailer to Chicago.

She quickly discovers that she is not hauling normal cargo, but rather some sort of dangerous, genetically modified creature. Raylene finds herself in the middle of an ethical and moral dilemma involving corporations, the government and powerful people who are attempting to “save the Earth” through perilous means.

Listening to “Carrier” was as detailed and intense of an experience as watching it live would have been. It was filled with disturbingly realistic sound effects, excellent acting and a compelling message about environmental ethics, particularly the power humans have to both save the Earth and destroy it. Here is what made listening to “Carrier” a thrilling and immersive adventure that rivaled some of my favorite live theater experiences.

1. Incredible Sound Design

The sound design in “Carrier” was so intricate that it made me feel as if I were witnessing the events happen alongside the characters. Since most of the story takes place on a highway, atmospheric sound effects make the listener feel like they really are on the interstate hearing cars and trucks whiz by.

The podcast instructs listeners to wear headphones, as many sounds are designed to be heard only through one ear or the other. This technical storytelling device in which sounds jump between your ears envelops listeners inside the story in both an unsettling and exciting way.

Other interesting sound effects include the genetically modified creature’s noises. While I had no idea what it looked like, the creature’s sounds were more than enough to inform me about just how terrifying, mysterious and dangerous it was. In fact, it was more effective that I could only hear the monster, as its sounds prompted my imagination to run wild, visualizing just how horrifying it might look.

These kinds of sound effects run the risk of sounding fake and distracting, but I found that was not the case. I was startled by how real everything sounded, and it took me a while to get used to the intensity of it all. The sound design in “Carrier” made it one of the most thrilling stories I have ever experienced.

2. Exceptional Acting

The actors who brought “Carrier” to life did an incredible job of using only their voices to tell a complicated story. Cynthia Erivo is one of the most talented actors alive today. A seasoned theater performer, she won a Tony Award in 2016 for her role in “The Color Purple.”  She was also nominated for two Academy Awards for playing Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.”

It was fascinating to listen to an esteemed actress bring the energy of a live performance right into my earbuds. As someone with astronomical talent in both theater and film acting, Erivo was the perfect person to play the story’s protagonist. Using just her voice, she portrayed this extraordinary character with as much depth and complexity as she would have if she were able to act with her entire body.

Through Erivo’s tone, tempo and specific use of breath, I could understand Raylene’s journey so clearly — hearing exactly how the character traveled through different states of confusion, fear, anger and exhaustion. Her acting kept me on the edge of my seat, and I felt immersed in the urgency of Raylene’s decisions as she navigated a life-threatening situation.

Other cast members, including Martin Starr, Lamorne Morris and Lance Reddick, also displayed fantastic acting talent. The audio drama would not have worked without cast members who knew how to use their voices to tell this gripping story. Had “Carrier” been a play, movie or TV show, visuals would have automatically made it thrilling to watch. Without being able to rely on images to help them out, the actors had to express every single emotion, desire and plot point using just their voices — and they absolutely succeeded.

3. Writing that Worked Perfectly for an Audio Format

“Carrier” was particularly effective because it was written to be an audio drama. Blank, the podcast’s creator, has discussed how “Carrier” was meant to be an audio drama from the start. He liked the way the format allowed him creative freedom with both the storyline and technical elements that other types of drama do not.

In theater, TV and movies, dialogue and sound effects are only one part of the equation; but in an audio drama, they are everything. Blank felt that the story and characters of “Carrier” were best served by allowing voices and sounds to do all the work. Thus, from day one, he developed “Carrier” as something that people would only hear and not see.

When you listen to a story that was originally written to be seen as well as heard, it can be confusing and lack depth. “Carrier” proves that stories created specifically to be an audio drama can be wildly captivating if they are intended for that format from the beginning.

4. Unique Idea that Sheds Light on a Pressing Issue

The content of “Carrier” was equally as good as its format. Plays, movies and TV shows about environmental ethics and climate change certainly exist, but they are not as common as they should be given the importance of these issues today. Look no further than the recent batch of California wildfires to understand just how dire the need to protect the Earth is in this moment.

In an entertaining and powerful way, “Carrier” addresses corporate greed’s responsibility for our dying Earth and the likelihood that the damage humans have already done to the environment is irreversible. It also forces listeners to confront the reality that, even if we can find a way to fix the Earth, the solution might very well have to be something so extreme that serious sacrifices must be made.

Ultimately, “Carrier” showed me how audio dramas can be exciting substitutes for live theater. The experience of listening to “Carrier” was so immersive that it reminded me more of theater than it did of watching TV or movies. The story kept me alert and infiltrated my senses in a way that I have only experienced sitting in the audience of a theater. Until I can do that again, I will definitely be searching for more audio dramas as thrilling as “Carrier.”

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