It’s all very well being inspired by the people’s stories you tell, but what of your own life you choose to live?
As Langston Hughes, 'Harlem' poet and friend of our Audio Drama protagonist, Ada, said:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Amanda Huxtable, Co-Director at Vanitas Arts, talks about her career, work, and inspiration.
I could no longer wait on a world to catch up on what I could or could not be. Having worked as a Theatre Director for over 25 years, using every opportunity given to advocate for social change in the cultural industries, my world like many others in the Covid lockdown years changed abruptly and forever.
Film, television and theatre journey
Truth be told, film and television was my first love. I directed theatre with film and television in mind. When I directed Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party at Hull Truck Theatre, it was because it was one of the very first pieces of theatre I had seen from off the telly. Me and my mum and dad, had enjoyed the character led story with the two couples, as they played out their messy lives, wrapped up in cling film, crisps and chaos.
As part of an audience workshop offer, we invited audiences to get on to the Abigail’s Party theatre set, to get to know the work in a deeper way. They saw the detail of the house lived in by Beverley and her husband, Laurence. On the marital dining table was a placemat set for one, for a reason. The fancy turquoise and gold St Moritz’s cigarette case made with research and precision by the Stage Manager showed us who Beverley thought she was, and served as an ode to my mother at the same time!
Many years before that main stage directing debut at Hull Truck Theatre, theatre had demanded my attention. I know the craft of theatre from many angles, as an actor, director and producer, I’m proud of all what I have achieved and all the plays and teams I ever led and collaborated with over the years.
Many of my past colleagues and new acquaintances have asked me over this last year if I’m still working in theatre, and the answer is:
“I work in story and the production of story and spirit willing I always will.”
Digital storytelling and immersive theatre
I am a Company Director at Vanitas Arts alongside Shirley Harris. Together we are building a Digital Storytelling Production Company. I am seizing every opportunity to deliver and learn every day.
We have produced, devised and written an immersive story experience creating a jazz club called Chez Bricktop, based on Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith’s real-life jazz club. We produced an R&D earlier this year with the support of Factory International and invited industry colleagues and friends to Sheffield Theatres to immerse in the experience and share their feedback.
The extracts of Chez Bricktop consisted of pushing the boundaries of storytelling. We travelled across time and countries. At one point, our guests were guests of Josephine Baker’s at her Dordogne Chateau De Milandes. Practically everyone in the room as guests helped set the table with fruit, bread, cheese and wine passed along a chain of people.
Guests were given refreshment in glass flutes to join in the glamour of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s life, set in the backdrop of London’s exclusive Embassy Club and followed by the Café De Paris which included a live jazz band, choregraphed company ensemble dances as well as social dancing with guests.
Our guests rode the wave of witnessing people seeking refuge and the bravery of Josephine Baker in distracting the soldiers from finding her guests hidden in her cellar. Listen here to the Audio Drama that inspired this version of the story written by myself and Shirley Harris.
Please let us know what you think, as we continue to build our plans towards the full immersive production.
Writing and producing Audio Drama
This brings me to the inspiration of our next and final episode of our Persons of Interest Audio Drama series ‘Brickie You’re The Top’, written by me as a reimagined story about Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith, a Jazz Club owner, entertainer and entrepreneur. An extraordinary woman of her time, she used her talent and connections to build her place in Jazz Society hosting one of the finest and most influential Jazz Clubs in the 20th Century, inspiring the likes of Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald and dearest of friends, the great poet, Langston Hughes. I referenced his poem about a dream deferred called Harlem in the opening of this blog.
The story opens with Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith concerned about the whereabouts of their mutual friend Josephine Baker. I imagined the frustration and sadness felt by Ada watching her closest friend and ally as she put it, ‘throw her life away’ on a hustler who Josephine eventfully enters the club with. Famous women in music have been the subject of predatory and unhappy relationships, from Billie Holiday to Mary J Blige, we all wanted better for them.
What intrigued me about telling this story is that Josephine Baker’s son Jean-Claude Baker shared years later that Ada had told him that she and Josephine had had a brief affair.
The times they were living in to be a free independent Black woman must have been hard enough, living as a free Black Queer independent woman would have been a challenge to say the least, and due to the social laws and prejudices at the time, near impossible. What has been written here leaves room for the debate to continue about what could have been.
Listen now to our latest Audio Drama series, Persons of Interest.
At Vanitas Arts we smash through expectations using our imaginations to power the stories we are compelled to tell. Despite all the rumours of change, people including ourselves continue to place limitations on what is possible based on who they think we are. It’s our job to push towards our own instincts and beyond the boundaries and barriers placed in our way.
There are still so few of us Black and White working-class women in charge of our own production companies in the creative industries, people are still looking for our boss at Vanitas Arts…
It’s us, we’re the boss, we run tings. Enjoy!
If you want to know more about what we do at Vanitas Arts, take a look at our infographic, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I first wrote at six months old. Apparently, my mother’s mother was ill. And momma, who was in Philadelphia, was writing a letter to her mother in Edgefield, South Carolina. Momma, wanting to send her something of her granddaughter, put a pencil in my little hand and had me make marks on that letter, which my grandmother was pleased as punch to receive. So yeah, I’ve been writing a long time. My mother and grandmother first taught me. They remain with me still, guiding my hand, pleased as punch.
October is Black History Month in the UK. As we celebrate the glorious colours of autumn, so we also celebrate the grandness of our history. The turning of the leaves echoes the passing of time, their brilliance and myriad colours reminding us of our need to recognise and honour our past, to live our lives boldly before the inevitable letting go.
In this year’s Black History Month theme, we salute our sisters.
As a Black woman I have been engaged in teaching, learning, performing, and writing about Black women all my life. I consider it an honour and a privilege, not to mention a huge responsibility, to be alive at this time in the world. Black women from many cultures and countries have shaped me. I have been nurtured by scholars and novelists. Taught by healers and singers. Mentored by theatre directors and poets. Sponsored by entrepreneurs and activists. I am held in a delicate network of communal love and respect.
We pause and salute our sisters because we are too often forgotten. Malcolm X once said that the Black woman is the most disrespected person in America. If you look at the statistics on health, wealth, employment, pay gaps and poverty in the US, this statement remains true. And for us in the UK, the parallels with America are strong. For Malcolm, the disrespect included these material realities but was not limited to them. Malcolm was also pointing to the symbolic fashioning of the Black woman in the west’s cultural landscape. The Black woman as harridan or hoe. The Black woman as an object needing no civil protection or consideration of her feminine vulnerabilities. These social constructions arise from slavery and have been reproduced and spread over generations. I hope that my contributions to education, storytelling, and community development challenge and resist the tired old tropes that still clog up our perceptions of Black womanhood.
People often ask me where do I get my ideas? How do I write?
For me there is no shortage of ideas. I have always loved history and research into past lives and events. My writing allows me to indulge these passions. I also find that characters will come to me if I give myself the space to listen. I will hear in my mind, a bit of dialogue, or see in my mind a particular setting or landscape. I have learned to honour these sounds and images and see where they take me. I always study my craft as well. look to be a better writer than the last time I wrote a piece, and this is what I treasure about Vanitas Arts. They have helped me to improve my writing, my performance skills, and my confidence in myself as a creative. Through the mentorship of Amanda Huxtable and Shirley Harris of Vanitas Arts I have learned how to think as a digital storyteller, to write immersively, and perform with greater grace and precision than before. Vanitas Arts is a safe space to be both held safely and pushed artistically. A place to be nurtured, yet challenged in ways that is consistent with true art.
My first writing for Vanitas Arts was an Audio Drama titled I Leave You Love, the life and legacy of Mary MacLeod Bethune. An educator, the founder of Bethune Cookman college - one of the most famous of the historically black colleges in the US, I found myself compelled to write about her life and ideas, to articulate how she balanced ideas of Black self-sufficiency alongside ideas of racial integration. In addition to writing the work I was given the opportunity to perform the role of Mary in a podcast. Subsequently, I was asked to write about Drag King Gladys Bentley as part of a series of Audio Dramas called Persons of Interest which showcase the little-known stories of Black queer jazz musicians from the Harlem Renaissance through to WWII. In You’re Somethin’ Else, Gladys, I had the pleasure once again of not only writing the script but also performing the role of Gladys. These two women of the same generation, the same race, same nation, couldn’t be more different.
Mary MacLeod Bethune helped lay the foundations for the civil rights movement in America and advised presidents. Gladys Bentley was a singer, pianist and Drag King persecuted for being a lesbian during the McCarthy era. Both broke the boundaries of convention. Both have left a legacy of resistance and resilience in the face of oppression. I’m grateful for the opportunity to remember these women and re-tell their stories in ways that make you curious to know more. I hope, too, that they inspire you to reach for freedom.
Whether we are scholars like Kimberley Crenshaw, or Isabel Wilkinson, or novelists like Toni Morrison, Andrea Levy, Desiree Reynolds - we seek to define and claim freedom for ourselves and others. Maybe we write for children, like Malorie Blackman, or we are poets, like Jean Binta Breeze or Jackie Kay. Then there are playwrights like Lynn Nottage and Suzi Lori Parks in the US, and others, like debbie tucker green and Natasha Gordon in the UK. Our writing always demonstrates the unique energy we inhabit by being black and female in a world that, would rather we just shut up, give up and labour for free.
Our perspective allows us to see from outside the citadels of power. We watch as some succumb to the demands of what the citadel insists, we must leave behind before entering.
For some of us the price of entry into the citadel is too high. Not because we are virtue signalling, but because we know that whatever gift we have, it is not ours. It is our ancestors’.
Listen to You’re Somethin’ Else, Gladys and the Persons of Interest Audio Drama series here.
Top tips on writing for audio drama
Writing and producing audio dramas to reach audiences was a natural development for Vanitas Arts, an idea born out of a need to reach and build our audiences and reinforce our position as a digital story telling company.
At the onset of the pandemic, we pivoted from planning a full-scale live immersive work, to considering how we could reach out to audiences in a different way, engage with them and offer new stories accessed through the pocket size technology that so many people routinely use – their phones, as well as desktop devices.
The podcast form
We arrived at the podcast form: downloads, streaming, drawing on the renaissance of audio drama as our medium to engage with audiences, as the world went into lockdown. The opportunity to write with a limitless freedom of expression remains with us as we recover and reach our audiences in other ways.
In developing audio drama, the questions we asked ourselves then and still ask now are - how can we tailor stories for listening that feel expansive and cinematic? That are relatable and contain characters that have complex needs and wants?
Using this starting point, we began crafting stories in audio for audiences who were ready to access cinematic worlds and characters, essentially without pictures; where we offer a unique and personal experience to each listener and give the widest scope to each person’s imagination, including us as writers. – knowing we need to tap into imaginations and evoke environments where audiences can create the pictures in their imaginations, using the tools of audio drama – voices, music, and sounds.
We draw on several principles in our work:
3 and 5-act dramas
Developing 3 and 5-act dramas in an economical way with the potential for chapters and breaks to enable the listener to pause and to pick up where they left off at their convenience.
Clear protagonists and antagonists
Developing protagonists and antagonists to drive the story along, following both establishing (the set up) and then the inciting incident (the thing that occurs where there is no going back from).
Establishing the essential components of action whilst keeping the number of characters to a minimum.
Every compelling audio drama needs to create a unique and personal picture in the mind of the listener. Creating story worlds full of atmospheric sounds help to paint the picture for audiences to ‘see’ as they listen is at the core of crafting powerful audio dramas.
Focussed and intimate writing
Keeping the writing lean and focussed and essentially intimate is important to us, as unlike live drama which people experience together in crowds, we are speaking directly to the listener, building a singular experience between the listener and their headphones/ear pods.
Allowing characters to develop and be identified through their distinct voices is key. We want our audiences to be able to identify each character in the story and connect to their journey; we know this isn’t always easy when asking voice actors to play several characters to stay economical and dialogue can make or break the story and the characters, so they have to be plausible and talented!
Telling untold stories
Researching and developing characters and telling stories of people who are often underrepresented in audio dramas.
Find out more
If you want to find out more about writing audio drama and would like to read more, a search online will highlight scripts from good radio plays and audio dramas across different genres and curated BBC Sounds offers streaming of its curated showcase dramas. All are available to listen to on the BBC Sounds App.
As we have continued to develop audio dramas as part of our digital storytelling practice, we have released 3 episodes from the audio drama carousel ‘Persons of Interest’ which reimagine a moment in the lives of prominent jazz artists who which explores prominent jazz artists who influenced the political and artistic landscape over the decades.
Sitting down to write The Chatelaine, episode 2 of our Persons of Interest audio dramas with co-writer Amanda Huxtable, we had one purpose – to create characters that sparked our listeners’ imaginations. This was a comfortable place to start, we’d written together before and had carved out our best writing journey. Laptops on knees, notebooks ready, we agreed a five-act structure, dialogue, peppered with songs and great sound effects.
In The Chatelaine, we reimagine Josephine Baker delivering the performance of her life to possibly the smallest audience she could ever imagine, as she fights to save her guests; a group of Jewish refugees in danger of being forced out of the safety of Josephine’s home in 1940’s occupied France, where Josephine has offered up as a safe harbour to those in need.
We knew Josephine Baker’s shoes would be large ones to fill and we wanted her to be a compelling and complex character who held her own, regardless of what danger she was in. We knew she was no-nonsense and could get things done.
Josephine needed to go on her own journey in the story, and to finally recognise the mistakes she was in danger of making and use her talent, wits and charm to win over the hearts and minds of the German officers. Meanwhile, her confidante and maid, Etta keeps her cool with the escape party who are starting to unravel within the confines of her the cellar nestled in the Dordogne. During a very tense time, the soldiers patrol right outside the door where Josephine’s guests are hiding. Soldiers who can break down the door at any moment.
Fundamentally, the story revolves around the trust and bravity between the two friends, Etta and Josephine. Exposing moments of honesty and confrontation between the pair whilst Josephine’s partner Abtey tries to keep his head, as the soldiers close in on the truth.
We wrote Josephine away from the glamour of the clubs she performed in and her usual adoring audiences. This is a story set in her own refuge, her beloved chateau, in the Dordogne with only two companions. Paris has fallen and the Resistance is faltering. She is exposed, unprotected and in possession of state secrets that she is passing on to the French Resistance. As the stakes get higher, trapped in just one room, we create the tension of hide and seek. Josephine versus the German army, who have descended unannounced.
Writing in sound
An audio-drama with no visuals, we had the task of writing in sound, imagining the conversations and actions as a film running in our minds. Discussions are hushed as not to alert the soldiers to the whereabouts of the ‘guests’. The contrast of the urgent escape, set against Josephine’s muffled singing in the upstairs chateau drawing room, capturing the performance to save her guests. Here, with only a piano to accompany her, she distracts the soldiers sent to search the Chateau. We use the sound effect of a faint cry of an unsettled baby to nearly give the game away. Throughout the episode, the voices and characters are brought to life by the talented voice actors and singers who helped us to tell this story.
BBC Writers Room tells us that ‘an audio drama script lives or dies by the strength of the writing’. It’s an exposing true statement, but also liberating, as for the writer there is no hiding place.
Understanding the context
While writing The Chatelaine, I realised that the less work the audience had to do to recognise what they are listening to, the more chance they have of being comfortable listening.
In this story, we give the audience the pieces that they need to assemble the scenes in their own imaginations, like writing only half a conversation and using what the listener already knows to shortcut filling the details that time constraints cannot afford us. The context in which the conversations flow helps the listener to understand the real meaning behind the words and enables the words and sounds to achieve their impact.
Writing The Chatelaine allowed us to delve more deeply into the story of an incredible woman, showing a different side to the person who, as readers and listeners, we all feel we know from popular culture. The process of writing an audio drama is one we find ourselves in more and more, enjoying the opportunities that using sound and space essential in this writing form to create exciting work and endless potential.
We invite you to listen to our audio dramas, The Chatelaine and You’re Somethin’ Else, Gladys, available on our website. We hope you are inspired to listen and start your own journey writing for audio drama.
Writing about Josephine Baker - The Chatelaine - episode 2 in our Persons of Interest audio drama series
Amanda Huxtable, Co-Director of Vanitas Arts, reflects on co-writing The Chatelaine with Shirley Harris.
Josephine Baker is a well-loved artist and respected activist who lived her life freely and as she saw fit. She used her talent and tenacity to break free from the constraints placed on many of her fellow Black citizens of the world and fought racism and prejudice throughout her life, using her intelligence and privilege of fame.
As writers at Vanitas Arts, our Persons of Interest audio drama gave us the opportunity to reimagine another part of Josephine’s life, away from the feathers and the iconic banana dance that made her so famous.
Chérie Taylor Battiste shared an idea about Josephine Baker’s life, and from there we developed the idea as a writing team and worked intensely with the characters.
Devising late into the night, we found the heart and peril of the story and built from there. Our primary focus, to delve deeper, navigating aspects of a life often neglected and possibly forgotten. We reimagined conversations that might have taken place between Josephine’s guests, admirers and those who knew who her best. Breathing life into a story, culminating in The Chatelaine, which shows Josephine using every ounce of talent she possesses to distract the unwelcome guests in her home.
Throughout The Chatelaine, Sharon Ballard’s musical rendition of Josephine evokes the power of Josephine’s voice and belief in herself, despite the obstacles put in her way, whilst in the direct face of adversity.
The story is set at the time of refugees having to flee to safety as Nazi soldiers occupy France. It is a question of what happens when safe havens are breached and how each individual must choose a pathway to survival if they can.
Josephine didn’t walk this path alone, and in the episode we hear from her maid Etta, played by Anita Franklin. Etta’s character is written in honour of women who worked in the hidden spaces, sometimes putting their own lives at risk in order to save others.
But what is risk? Josephine took a calculated risk in the audio drama that we share with you, our audiences. You will hear for yourself questions asked by Etta and Josephine’s companion, Jacques Abtey, on the risks worth taking.
Life continued even in the thick of war, young lives being born in the midst of horror are now our elders, My own father was born in 1944 with the middle name of ‘Gladstone’ to show for it. That same year, women in France were granted the right to vote. The impact of this worldwide war was felt globally, with many fighting for a more fair and just future for all.
Years later, Josephine Baker was recognised for her bravery by the French Government who recognised her contribution as a member of the French resistance awarding Josephine the legion of honour, The Croix de Guerre.
Josephine one of the most famous Black artists of our time.
Josephine, with heartfelt gratitude, we salute you.
Josephine Baker - Sharon Ballard
Etta – Anita Franklin
Jacques Abtey – Karl Haynes
Francois – Dave McClelland
Madeleine - Yasmine Plews
Introducing Anita Franklin, writer of 'You're Somethin' Else, Gladys', episode 1 in our audio drama series.
We asked Dr Anita Franklin to share her thoughts about writing the first episode in our Persons of Interest series. Here is a transcription of what she said...