Part One: Playwrights’ Circle with Sarah Emtage & Shannon Kingston
Sarah Emtage is a poet, playwright, sculptor, and library technician in Kingston. She is the author of the radio play The Sound Castle (2020) and its two-part sequel, Jabberwocky and The Listeners (2022), which were produced for the Shortwave Theatre Festival.
Shannon Kingston is a Kingston-born playwright currently studying children’s media at Centennial College. Her radio play Garden Of Edith (2022) was produced for the Shortwave Festival, and her previous audio work includes writing and performing in Through The Fairy Circle with the First Ditch Collective, which recently won the Deacon Award for Best Show by a Young Producer at the UK International Festival of Audio Drama (2023).
Sarah, Shannon, and I each wrote radio plays that were featured in Cellar Door Project and CFRC’s Shortwave Theatre Festival last November. While our paths have overlapped at times, we’ve never had a chance to sit down for an uninterrupted conversation—until now.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What got you into playwriting? Was there another art form that came first?
Sarah: It was definitely not the first thing. This one story that I wanted to tell [The Sound Castle] happened to fit in an audio drama format. Then I saw the call for scripts for the 2020 Shortwave Radio Theatre Festival, and was like, “Oh, okay, here’s the opportunity, I’ve got to do it now.” I’d never written a play before.
Shannon: I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid. I wanted to write novels, because that’s what I was voraciously reading, as you do when you’re a child. Then, when I was in high school, I was introduced to community theatre in Kingston… At that point, I was interested in doing everything that there was to do in theatre. Then I studied playwriting at university in addition to performing and directing… I was able to work from home during the pandemic, and I actually moved back to Kingston at that time, so I had a lot more energy—social energy, creative energy—from not having to go to the office every day… Then the [Storefront] Fringe Festival came along, and James Hyett, and I wrote Through The Fairy Circle.
Sarah: I find it interesting hearing from people who have this full background in theatre. I think that’s really cool. I’ve always enjoyed watching theatre, but I’ve never really taken part, apart from doing plays with my sisters as a kid… I’m wondering if there are things I need to learn from that perspective as I go forward writing for this space… In one sense, I do have the imposter syndrome—like, I don’t feel qualified—but I do feel very bold, and like I’m allowed to do it anyway.
When writing for radio, how do you tether the listener to your story? Are there certain senses you engage, or other tricks and techniques that you find yourselves using?
Shannon: This was something I thought about a lot when I was transitioning from writing for stage to writing for sound. Writing for stage, I feel that physicality is really important. So I had to get over the description of the spaces—I love describing spaces, which is why I have narrators… The dialogue is really the most important part, the dialogue and the pauses. That’s what you have in radio, so you kind of have all you need.
Sarah: When it comes to radio theatre, you’re taking something that was so essential already to theatre, to storytelling, and isolating it… So you have to pay attention, and maybe in a sense involve the audience more and make them visualize it for themselves. They’re helping to build the story on an extra level.
What’s it been like, hearing your writing performed and sound designed by others [through Shortwave]? I know that there’s been a different extent of this for each of you—Sarah, you had a cameo in your [most recent] play, whereas Shannon, you’ve been involved as an actor. But still, how has it felt hearing something you’ve written brought to life by others?
Sarah: When I heard the first episode for the first time, and they go into the tower to open the sound boxes… the sound of opening a sound box sounds like opening a window. And I’d never thought of it that way. Especially with Sound Castle, there’s just so much that Jeremy [Kerr] as the sound designer did to bring [it] to life.
Shannon: As a writer and a director, I really believe in the power of collaboration. Everyone you’re working with is an artist. And so I really believe in trusting the other artists to bring what they’re going to bring to the piece and bring it to life. Like Sarah said, oftentimes it won’t be like how you imagined it in your head. But it’ll be even better… Maybe better isn’t even the word, because it’ll just be different. But it’ll be true, because it’s what’s true for that person and that artist.
I’m interested in the time delay that comes with making pre-recorded audio theatre. It reminds me of preserving food in the summer and eating it in the winter. The time away gives it a different flavour. But it’s still a reminder of the original raw components. This is something that I said to an interviewer who interviewed me about [my play] Half Past Lunchtime. I was like, “IT’S PICKLES.” It can be this long process. You’ve nearly forgotten the work, and by the time it comes out, you get to taste it anew. How does that feel? Thoughts?
Sarah: It’s so good. I remember when I listened to the most recent Sound Castle episodes, I was with some friends and we rushed back so we could hear it when it aired on the radio… I’m writing an ongoing series, and at least so far, I haven’t continued writing during the time—which is lengthy—that it’s in production. It feels like a kind of gap where I’m not thinking of it, and then as soon as it comes out, I’m like, “oh, I have another cliffhanger.” I guess I have to keep writing. So there’s that relatively peaceful, forgetting-about-the-project time.
Shannon: Haley, I think that your use of metaphor is lovely and beautiful. It is like a pickle. Because also you don’t, to some degree, know what it’s going to taste like. Sometimes pickles are sour, and you’re like, (sour expression) “What?” (laughs)
Who put this much vinegar in the brine? Oh, it was me.
Shannon: It was me, I did that! Oh, no!
I usually don’t let my family listen to stuff until after I’ve listened to it. With Garden of Edith, it was airing on the radio… I was visiting my mother at the time, and I put the radio on her phone and left her in the living room with it. And then I put my headphones on, and I went for a walk around the block for a while. Just walking around aimlessly listening to it on my headphones. I was like, I cannot be in the house while you’re listening to this. I can’t. And then I came back. And I was like, wasn’t that lovely? Two separate experiences.
Sarah: Yes, interesting. Because it’s very weird to sit and watch someone take in something that you made. It’s a very strange experience. It’s very surreal. And it’s both agonizing and slightly delightful, but maybe mostly agonizing.
This is the first installment of a two-part interview. Read Part two of this conversation in a week’s time. Sarah, Shannon, and Haley’s plays in the Shortwave Theatre Festival can be found on the CFRC Podcast Network, on Spotify, and Apple Podcasts. To keep up with Sarah, visit Scribblore Poetry. To keep up with Shannon, visit the First Ditch Collective.
This article was edited on December 1st, 2023 to update formatting.