This New Pot of Money for Audio Plays is Good News for Playwrights

Grantmaking in the theater space tends to be predicated on the premise that commissioned work should be staged in a theater. But what if that premise is too limiting?

It's a question worth pondering since the digital audiobook company Audible announced it would create a $5 million fund to commission new audio plays from emerging playwrights "not for the stage, but for people’s headphones and speakers."

Playwrights can apply for grants to cover both “industry standards” for new commissions of one- or two-person play and the cost of production, said Donald R. Katz, Audible’s chief executive and a former journalist and author. These audio plays will be available to the public beginning late this year.

Add it all up, and the announcement represents the next logical step in the evolution of storytelling-related grantmaking across the arts space.

We've devoted a lot of effort here on Inside Philanthropy to looking at funders supporting storytelling, particularly in the visual arts and film vectors. In 2016, the Ford Foundation boldly proclaimed: "We believe creative visual storytelling is vital to the pursuit of justice and equity in the 21st century." And the past year has seen storytelling gifts flow to recipients as diverse as high schools to socially conscious photographers. 

And yet, we hadn't seen serious money flow to audio storytelling, much less within the theater space. In retrospect, this seems strange, given Audible's simple approach, coupled with the fact that, to quote Katz, “theater is an art medium that is primarily driven by language." But unlike the visual arts and film sector—two mediums most conducive to the conventional idea of storytelling—audio fiction, to quote Amanda Hess in the New York Times, is still finding its footing.

Consider the demands of the form. "Most nonfiction podcasts," Hass said, "are convenient for workouts or commutes, where tuning out for 15 seconds to direct attention elsewhere is no big deal. But in a densely plotted fiction series, 15 seconds can mean missing a central plot point."

In addition, fiction podcasts, replete with actors and realistic sound effects, can cost more to produce than nonfiction work with a single narrator. I imagine this reality factored into Audible's decision to commission more manageable one- or two-person plays.

Hass calls this "new wave of ambitious audio fiction" nothing less than a "renaissance." But the European Renaissance had patrons cutting checks, which is why Audible's $5 million foray into the field is so telling. If there's any entity that can attest to audio fiction's maturity, it's the Newark, New Jersey-based Audible.

Katz founded Audible in 1995. Two years later, the company commercialized the first portable digital audio player, four years before the introduction of the iPod. Amazon purchased Audible in 2008, and since then, it has become the largest audio book producer and retailer in the U.S.

Given Audible's omnipotent parent company, I can't help but view its new fund as another example of savvy Bezosesque market synergies. After all, we're living in the midst of a digital content goldrush, with everyone from television networks and cable companies to upstarts like Netflix, Hulu, and Facebook commissioning original content across various delivery channels. As audio fiction continues to grow in popularity, Audible's new fund establishes a reliable pipeline of original content as far as the eye can see.

Audible's new program also casts a very wide net, which is important in an arts philanthropy space where funders remain focused on maximizing engagement, both in terms of the audience and content creators. Mr. Katz said he hoped that Audible’s format would widen the reach of emerging playwrights, who might otherwise be writing for Off- (or even Off-Off) Broadway theaters. "I’m hoping that people just come out of the woodwork," he said.

All of which brings me to a more prosaic reason why audio fiction has matured at a slower rate when compared to the nonfiction field: Audio fiction and theater simply lacked the requisite amount of start-up funding to fast-track its maturation. By allocating $5 million—a very large amount of money for new work in the theater space—Audible's new fund should help fictional storytelling make up for lost time.