A Science Fiction Tale to Steal Your Heart: A Peek Behind the Scenes of "Steal the Stars"

11/07/2017 01:00 pm ET

With smartphones making podcasts a click away, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a renaissance in the audio drama. Tor Labs’s debut podcast offering, Steal the Stars, is operatic in its intensity, sensitively acted, and taut with suspense. And now as an additional perk, Tor has released Steal the Stars in novel form.

Steal the Stars is a heady brew of science fiction, forbidden love, and a suicidal heist, set in a dystopian world all too like our own. As the suspense builds to a fever pitch, it is impossible to stop listening—and now, to stop turning pages.

I reached out to Mac Rogers, writer of the podcast Steal the Stars; Nat Cassidy, author of the novelization; Jordana Williams, director of the podcast; and actor Ashlie Atkinson, who plays the tortured and hyper-competent protagonist, Dakota Prentiss. Together they give an insight into what goes into the making of an audio drama, how the element of science fiction gives it that extra twist, and how this collaborative artform is pushing the boundaries of storytelling.

What was the division of labor on this project? Mac, did you write all the episodes, with Nat doing the novelization, or was it more complex than that?

Mac Rogers: That's exactly right - I came up with the story/characters and wrote the audio episodes. Then as I finished each first draft of each episode, I emailed them out to Sean (the producer), Jordana, and Nat. Given the time constraints we were working under, it wasn't possible for Nat to wait for me to go through multiple drafts before he started adapting. He jumped right in working with my initial drafts, and then incorporated some of the changes I made as I went back and rewrote the audio scripts. This is, to put it mildly, a crazily accelerated process of adaptation, and it is to Nat's enormous credit that he rolled with so many changes, handily added his own style and viewpoint, and came out with a novel that stands on its own beside the podcast drama. 

Nat Cassidy: It’s pretty much that simple, actually! Mac came up with the idea and wrote the scripts, Jordana Williams directed every episode, Bart Fasbender did all our sound design, Sean Williams produced and edited everything, I wrote the novelization (and did some light audio editing, like putting the episode bumpers together and stuff), and then all five of us basically offered structured feedback on each other's work as it was in process. We were all at every recording session, listening for different things; we all gave notes on various rough cuts and drafts--but at the same time everyone's bailiwick was respected and nurtured. It was actually a really constructive, supportive dynamic, which I think is evident in the quality of this rather complicated project we were able to put together in such a short amount of time. 

An audio play is different from a stage play, but it’s also different from an audio book. It’s very much its own thing. What would you say are some of the creative opportunities of the medium?

Mac: I definitely enjoy audiobooks and always have a new one on my phone to listen to, but NOTHING beats an audio drama. On one level it's elemental: nothing beats two or more human voices clashing over competing agendas, or unexpectedly coming together (as you see happen with Dak and Matt in STEAL THE STARS).  But you can add so much else as well: scoring, sound effects, room tone, ambience. And you can make basically anything happen. On TV and film, you have to find or build a location, or render a complex visual effect. With podcast audio drama, you can make anything happen as long as it sounds like that thing is happening. As an audio drama writer, your job is to partner with the imagination of the listener. You're giving them just enough description - not too much, because that would be boring - but just enough of a sense of what's happening that the rest of the visuals form in their own minds. You start the imagery in the writing, whisper it in the listener's ear via headphones/earbuds, and they complete the image with their imagination. 

Nat: Personally, I'm a huge fan of the scope audio drama can give you. Even more so than film. I think audio drama is second only to the written word in its ability to traverse landscapes, create worlds, etc. You can basically make any given circumstances a reality in audio, with no need to worry about the visual aspects. And since you can't really have nonverbal, action-only scenes, it also forces you to still think from a very interactive, dialogue-driven place, like a stage play, which I think leads to more dramatic scenarios anyway. Plus, similar to literature, audio drama requires of its audience a certain amount of creative contribution, which I also love. The listener has to meet the material halfway and conjure up all the visuals, which can't help but forge a deeper bond with the story. It's actually something I was mindful of while writing the novelization; I even mention in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book that anyone who's listened to the podcast is part owner of this material. They've spent 7 hours picturing everything in their heads, they've got their own unique visualizations that are just as valid as anything I put into the novel--ultimately mine is just one more interpretation to live alongside theirs.

Jordana Williams: Directing for audio drama versus live theater differs primarily in terms of the audience interaction. I've watched plays I directed change perceptibly from performance to performance based the audience's energy, and I've watched actors go off the rails chasing after last night's laugh. With audio drama, we can select the take, or even splice together a couple of takes, to lock in the exact performance we're looking for. In that way, a play's audience has greater ownership of the overall experience. On the other hand, every podcast listener has full latitude to visualize the world of Steal the Stars however they like. Dak's narration and the sound effects provide some guidance, and we have a few renderings up on our website, but I've had several fans tell me they'd rather leave it up to their imagination. 

Ashlie Atkinson: This is my very first experience with a solely auditory medium, and man, it's really, really freeing. Theatre is so visual, you go *see* a play, and ultimately the play presented to the audience is limited by all sorts of physical things -- not just the bodies and capabilities of the actors, but by money and space and prep time and all this stuff that helps or hinders your storytelling, but isn't actually the story. And when you're going out on a limb and making a new work, which to me is really the most rewarding thing to do, it's often the case that your skillsets outpace your resources. I mean, I'm not saying Mac couldn't have found a way to tell this story as a play, but it wouldn't exactly be this story anymore. The cavernous depths of Hangar 11, the unearthly qualities of Object E, the fact that a 7 foot alien is present for most of the story -- these things would be near-impossible to present onstage as we do in the podcast.

More personally, as a female character actor whose 30s are in the rearview mirror, it's so liberating and awesome to rid yourself of some really crappy beauty expectations that the entertainment industry perpetrates. Dak is older than Matt, she's sturdy and quick, she prizes her body for what it can do, how it executes endeavors, and how it leads. To not have to worry about how I the actor look while I'm doing these things only makes my focus on the character that much stronger. And it really helps tell the story of Dak being not just gifted, but born to do what she does. The listener is left to imagine the specifics of what makes Dak the best Security Chief Quill could ever have.

  One element of this audio play is that we’re entirely reliant on Dak’s voice as a guide, even for visual descriptions. For that reason, it takes time for us to understand her insecurities in the romantic relationship—we don’t entirely get that Matt is that movie-star handsome until later on. It’s an interesting use of the medium to reveal the relationship dynamic by degrees. 

Mac: You're absolutely right, this is another exhilarating freedom of audio, you have so much more control over how you drop each reveal. Generally I try to avoid hiding any necessary information for a listener to feel oriented and invested - and in a love story they really need to be invested - but sometimes a carefully-chosen bit of concealment can pay big storytelling dividends. With STEAL THE STARS, the crucial revelation I had early in is that Dak and Matt aren't co-protagonists - this is Dak's story through and through, seen entirely through her eyes. It's not so much a conventional romance as one person's experience of a romance, with all the euphoria and terror and insecurities that come with that. The early days of a romance are always heightened and exciting, but they're also lonely in a way, because you don't know the person that well yet, you don't know how their feelings work, and you don't know what you can trust. I wanted listeners to be just as off-balance as Dak is the love department, because that's her Achilles heel, that's what creates the suspense. She's good at everything else, but sudden overwhelming love knocks her for a loop. 

Nat: The novelization is also written in first person from Dak's perspective, so it's really a deep dive into her thoughts and fears, and we still have to rely on her impressions and biases and neuroses-colored glasses. I also gave the narrative voice a little bit of a twist by having the entire book be addressed *to* Matt. Anytime Dak is talking to or about Matt in the novelization, it's actually to "you." It gives the whole thing an almost confessional vibe, which I think/hope heightens the intimacy for the reader and makes them really feel a part of this doomed romance.

Ashlie, your character begins as smart and funny and above all, competent. She has a New York toughness and streetwise humor. When the action and romance heat up, the character begins to show a more raw, emotional side. What was it like tapping into so many different facets for this performance? 

Ashlie: Mac gave me this enormous gift in writing Dak. Dak talks like me if I was way cooler, if I had nerves of steel and tactical knowledge beyond my wildest dreams. I found a hammer in the recording room and whenever I had to be super duper badass, I held the hammer in my hand as I talked. It grounded me, made me start thinking of things as weaponized, as tactical. It was fun as hell to play a character who runs her entire little corner of the world, who is so unquestionably good at what she does, and who kinda thinks she knows everything at the start of the story. And just as soon as that's been established, the rug starts getting tugged out from underneath her. Truth be told, I am someone who accesses her emotions pretty easily (read: I'm a big ole crybaby a lot of the time), so it's been really delightful to start this journey as "How little can i show emotionally and still tell the story?" and then travel all the way to these moments of love and fear that are huge, and raw, and just stratospheric in terms of stakes. I mean, some of this stuff, it's not just life and death. Dak can handle life and death pretty easily, she does it all the time. It's all the things that actually make life worth living that she has no processing mechanism for. It was so great to work with Jordana on demolishing Dak's competence bit by bit by bit, letting her surrender to love, and then have to stack all those bricks back up in order to save herself and Matt. And as listeners, my hope is you're staring at this janky-ass wall of brick going "shiiiiiiit, I hope that thing doesn't collapse!"

 If not for the science fiction element, much of Steal the Stars feels like corporate satire—the office-as-hellscape taken to its most extreme. Is this just my bias as a former office peon, or was it in the back of your mind somewhere?

Mac: Definitely. I've worked in several offices over my adult life, and I've had the chance to see a lot of different kinds of office dynamics in process. I'm certainly not the first person to notice the weird intimacy of the office, which is what always happens when you spend that much time around certain people. On workdays you see your co-workers more than you see the people you're living with. It's just human nature that even if you don't like your co-workers, bonds will form, weird versions of friendship, enmity, occasionally even romance (as ill-advised as that often can be). And those bonds have to bump up against the restrictions of office life: the (normally appropriate) rules of conduct, the need to get work done. Part of STEAL THE STARS is exploring what it's like when those restrictions go incredibly far, with the penalty's being life-ruiningly high. Everyone finds ways to survive that. Dak throws herself into excelling at her job in every way. Harrison drinks alone in his office. Lloyd keeps trying to form these surrogate dad-son relationships with the security people guarding him while he works. Shel and Von risk having a relationship anyway. And it's not just romance that's thwarted by Sierra's anti-fraternization policies; there's a scene early on where Dak and Patty talk about how they can't go drinking together. In situations like that, something's gotta give big-time, and when the dam breaks with Dakota Prentiss, it's epic. 

Jordana: It's funny that you should say that because Mac actually wrote a play some years ago called Hail Satan, in which the actual Antichrist is spawned and raised in a corporate communications office. Mac is brilliant at leavening his sci-fi/horror/fantasy with a health dose of (often hilarious) banality. It's part of our company's overall ethos of grounding fantastical events in a living, breathing emotional reality for the characters, which is particularly important for a medium as intimate as audio drama. If anything rings false, it can really pull the listener out of the experience. And if there's one thing that rings true, it's office-as-hellscape!

Can you talk about the choice to tell this story about love and loyalty through the prism of science fiction? 

Mac: For me it started with the heist angle. I've wanted to write a heist story for a long time - I love the planning, I love the suspense, I love the terror when things start going wrong. I was thinking to myself: what have I never seen be stolen in a caper before? And then it hit me: I've never seen anyone try to rob Area 51 where the alien bodies are. That thought naturally led to: well, who would rob Area 51? It would have to be someone who knows where it is in the first place. It would have to be someone who works there. So, next question: why would they do it? Love's always the best, most root-able motivation. So, next question: what's keeping them from having the love they want? From there the fraternization policy and the overall Sierra-controlled dystopia formed in my mind. I hoped that the idea of someone stealing an alien in order to be with the person they love might just be bonkers enough to get podcast listeners - who have a gazillion new choices every day - to give our story a chance. 

There's also the final episode, where (without going into spoilers), the science fiction aspect of the story and the love-and-loyalty aspect merge in a surprising way. That was the ultimate reason for bringing the two genres together, so they would pay off on each other at the end.  

Nat: One of our mission statements with Gideon Media--and it's true of pretty much all of our independent stage work, too--is finding the human, humane elements of genre fiction. I think all genre trappings work best when they're used in service of a story that's actually about more elemental, universal human experiences like love, loyalty, need, loss, pain, healing, and so on. Sci-fi, horror, fantasy tropes, they're really like thematic fertilizer: they allow the deeper meaning of the piece to grow past what you might get with a less ornamented story. So, like, how you know Mac really nailed Steal the Stars: even if you take away the alien, the interstellar travel, the secret bunker, the energy-sapping megaweapon, you've still got a story about alienation, loneliness, need, the travails of love, trauma, secrets, etc. But WITH those elements, you get the added bonus of unpredictability and novelty and all sorts of other goodies us nerds crave. When genre fiction is done honestly and intelligently, I think it's a real, rare cake-and-eat-it situation. And I think it's also why some of the most lasting, universal stories we have as a species are all basically early-template genre fiction.

When it came to translating the written word to audio, did the actors have any influence on character development? Ashlie’s interpretation of Dak is so very much hers, that it’s hard to tell how much of the character comes from the writing, and how much from the actor.

Ashlie: I feel like I read the first script and was like "ohhhh, yeah, I think I get her." But the best thing, the very best thing, is when you get into the room with other actors, and you find yourself changing and calibrating because you're receiving what they're giving you. You can't answer the question you read on the paper, you have to answer the question the other actor is asking, y'know? Does that make sense? So to take the first episode as an example, to meet Neimah and receive his wide open, really honest energy as Matt, that's gotta do something to Dak, she doesn't quite know how to navigate it. And the way Patty greets Dak, Becky Comtois is so hilarious and rowdy and blunt as Patty, it makes me know more about Dak because these two have been existing shoulder-to-shoulder for years now. Rosh, Lauren, Lloyd, all these folks, the way the actors inhabit those characters and the way they treat Dak tells me a great deal about who my character is. And I think one of the great things Mac does is that he introduces characters further down the line who make Dak confront exactly how she is changing and whether she's passed the point of no return. 

Mac: Before Gideon Media (that's my company with Sean, Jordana, and Nat) had an official agreement with Tor, we decided to make a quick-and-dirty pilot of STEAL THE STARS to help market it to potential partners. We recorded it all in a single evening with just the mics Sean already owned, just to give people a sense of what we were going for. Ashlie agreed to come by and record Dak's part, and hearing her read the lines was a revelation. She snapped into character right in front of our eyes. I'd only written that first episode at the time, so when I wrote the remaining thirteen, it was so much easier to write Dak because all I had to do was imagine what the character Ashlie created that night would say next. Several other actors joined us for that prototype pilot as well, including Neimah Djourabchi who plays Matt, Rebecca Comtois who plays Patty, Kelley Rae O'Donnell who plays Lauren, Brian Silliman who plays Rosh, and Brittany Williams who plays Janey, and their voices were similarly influential on subsequent episodes as well. And of course while you're recording, actors naturally have questions and input, and we definitely tweaked dialogue every session based on discussions we were having. 

Nat: I can certainly add that, in the novelization, the actors' performances were hugely influential in how they characters are envisioned and described. There are just so many line readings you can't unhear. And even beyond their specific performances, I found myself taking inspiration from questions actors were asking Jordana during sessions, or little side conversations I'd overhear in between takes--even the actors' stray observations about their characters influenced the way they're portrayed in the book. But speaking as a playwright, I think it's one of the great joys of writing characters that are so defined by their dialogue--I mean, a big part of being a playwright is learning how to write dialogue that can ideally be passed off like a baton from actor to actor over the years, used and mined and manipulated by different individuals without ever getting stale or rote. The unique things that an actor brings to your script is one of the most exhilarating things.

Jordana: We cast most of the roles before the scripts were finalized and, since Mac has worked with nearly all of the actors before, he was able to infuse the characters with some of their speech patterns and overall energy. Dak, for instance, is way funnier than she might have been if someone other than Ashlie were playing her. Abe Goldfarb, the actor who plays Trip, is a lovely, caring person, but he also has a pretty outrageous burlesque MC persona: Bastard Keith. So, Mac knew he could dispense brutal little cruelty bombs with casual verve. 

Question for Nat: Do you get into more of Dak’s past in the novelization? What other “Easter eggs” does the novel have for people who have listened to the podcast?

Nat: We do get more of her past in the novelization--not a gigantic amount, but definitely some foundational anecdotes and experiences of hers are peppered throughout the text. We even get a little taste of her relationship with her family, and some of her earlier experiences at Quill, as well as what life is like for her outside of Quill. Because I'm a sucker for these sort of things, too, there are a few subtle references to other stories by Mac, as well as by me--but Mac and I have both ended the world in so many of our other scripts so there's only so much I could logically tie in. I was also able to repurpose some scenes from earlier drafts of Steal the Stars that had to be cut, usually out of flow/pacing concerns. It's funny: when I first approached writing this manuscript I was mentally preparing myself to have to invent a lot of material--maybe even entire scenes in order to get it to the ideal word count. I was thinking of other novelizations I'd read which had to create elaborate backstories and mythologies to really be a book-length experience. But about 1/3rd of the way through writing it I realized, most of those novelizations were expanding upon, like, a 90-120 minute screenplay. This is essentially a 7-HOUR screenplay and it gave me more than enough to work with as it is.

Mac Rogers is an award-winning audio dramatist and playwright based in New York City. His audio/podcast dramas STEAL THE STARS, THE MESSAGE and LIFEAFTER have been downloaded over six million times, and his TORCHWOOD audio thriller “A Kill To A View” was released through Big Finish and features actors from the acclaimed original television series. His stageplays include THE HONEYCOMB TRILOGY (3-time New York Times Critic’s Pick, Time Out New York Critic’s Pick, Backstage Critic’s Pick, one of The Guardian’s top 10 New York shows of 2015, and winner of the New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Premiere Production), FRANKENSTEIN UPSTAIRS (featured in the New York Magazine Approval Matrix and nominated for the NYIT Award for Best Premier Production), GOD OF OBSIDIAN (CityBeat Critic’s Pick), LIGATURE MARKS (CityBeat Critic’s Pick), ASYMMETRIC (Time Out New York Critic’s Pick), VIRAL (winner of Outstanding Play at FringeNYC 2009), UNIVERSAL ROBOTS (nominated for four New York Innovative Theatre awards), HAIL SATAN (Outstanding Playwriting Winner at FringeNYC 2007), and FLEET WEEK: THE MUSICAL (co-written with Sean and Jordana Williams; winner of Outstanding Musical at FringeNYC 2005).

Nat Cassidy is an actor, playwright, screenwriter, novelist and musician. He can be seen on shows such as "Blue Bloods" (CBS), "Bull" (CBS), "The Following" (Fox), "The Affair" (Showtime), "Red Oaks" (Amazon) "High Maintenance" (HBO), "Law & Order: SVU" (NBC), as well as on stage in numerous productions and workshops both Off- and Off-Off-Broadway. He's the author of award-winning horror plays such as The Temple, or, Lebensraum, Any Day Now, Tenants, The Reckoning of Kit & Little Boots, The Demon Hunter, I Am Providence, Pierce, Old Familiar Faces, Goldsboro, and many others, which have been produced and developed across the country and published by Samuel French, Broadway Play Publishing, Smith & Kraus, NYTE, and Applause Books. In New York, his plays have been nominated for a combined total of 17 New York Innovative Theatre Awards, including 3 times for Outstanding Full-Length Script (which he won in 2009, and in 2011 for Outstanding Solo Performance for his one man show about H.P. Lovecraft) and he was commissioned by The Kennedy Center to write the libretto for a world-premiere opera (about the end of the world, natch). He is also thrilled to have written the novelization of the hit podcast Steal the Stars, which will be published by Tor Books in November 2017. www.natcassidy.com

Jordana Williams is the director of Steal the Stars. She has also directed many of Mac Rogers' plays, including The Honeycomb TrilogyGod of Obsidian, Universal Robots, AsymmetricLigature Marks, Frankenstein UpstairsViralHail Satan, and three seasons with the Vampire Cowboys’ genre-bending Saturday Night Saloon. Other favorite directing credits include Kill Shakespeare at HERE and NY Comic Con and The Particulars with The Bridge Theatre Company. She is also the lyricist of the musicals Fleet Week, Air Guitar, and The First Annual St. Ignatius Chanukah Pageant

Ashlie Atkinson was a 2017 Connecticut Critics Circle nominee for originating the role of Imogen in the Yale Rep world premiere of IMOGEN SAYS NOTHING. Ashlie previously won a Theatre World Award as well as Lortel and Outer Critics Circle nominations for originating the role of Helen in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig.  Other New York theatre credits include Steve (The New Group); The Ritz (Roundabout Theatre Company); The Butcher of Baraboo (Second Stage Theatre); PsychomachiaMaking Marilyn (Bridge Theatre Company); and Sam Mendes’s world-spanning Bridge Project productions of As You Like It and The Tempest. Regional productions include the original casts of Imogen Says Nothing (Yale Rep), The Forgotten Woman (Bay Street Theater), and January Joiner (Long Wharf Theatre) as well as productions of Love, Loss, and What I Wore (Rubicon Theatre Company), The Book Club Play (Arena Stage), and Fat Pig (Geffen Playhouse). Her film credits include The Wolf of Wall StreetBridge of Spies,Certain WomenInside ManComplianceAll Good ThingsThe Invention of LyingEat Pray LoveBlood StripeThe Lennon ReportMy Best Day, and the upcoming films JUANITA and ADAM; tv roles include work on t he HBO series Crashing, as well as Jessica Jones, DivorceOdd Mom OutBlue BloodsHigh MaintenanceThe Good WifeNurse JackieElementary30 RockBoardwalk EmpireYour Pretty Face Is Going to HellBored to DeathLouieRescue MeLaw & Order, SVU, and Criminal Intent. Ashlie plays the villain Lenni in the Ubisoft video game Watchdogs_2.

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Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and other places. Her epic fantasy debut, Last Song Before Night, was released by Tor/Macmillan in 2015 under the pen name Ilana C. Myer. The sequel, Fire Dance, is forthcoming in 2018.

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