Interview: The Penumbra Podcast

Somewhere deep in the universe, there exists a fantastic hotel with winding, never-ending hallways that house a smaller infinity of doors. A nameless concierge guides us through this labyrinth of a hotel. Each door holds a new story. Listeners may encounter brave knights, sentient homes, and two-headed Janus beasts. Most often, we join Juno Steel, Martian detective, on his adventures opposite master thief and homme fatale Peter Nureyev. Here, everything you know about common tropes and plot devices from all of your favorite science fiction and noir stories will be turned on their heads.

Welcome, dear traveler, to the Penumbra.

Today, we join the writers, Sophie Kaner and Kevin Vibert, to talk about production, influences, and representation within the show.

Creating the Podcast

TWW: The Penumbra Podcast is a year old, and, to my understanding, started from a Facebook message. From there, how did you go about setting up the show?

Sophie Kaner: About a year ago, we listened to some old radio plays from the 40s–thriller and horror, for Halloween–and thought, “Let’s just write one.” Kevin is a writer, and I’m an actor, and we decided that we could find some recording equipment and just record for fun.

The first [episode] was Shaken, and the second one was Home. By the time we started writing the first Juno Steel story, we decided that we wanted to keep writing more. We wanted to put it under an umbrella, which is how we came up with the Penumbra Hotel. It seemed natural to put it on iTunes, and then, before we knew it, we just had everything.

TWW: Sophie, you’re the sound designer. Prior to working on The Penumbra Podcast, did you have any radio or podcast experience?

SK: No. None whatsoever, which is probably apparent from the first few episodes.

Kevin Vibert: I can’t believe how lucky we got, that [Sophie] had a real talent for sound design.

SK: Originally, I wasn’t really going to do it, and we just borrowed equipment from a friend. We didn’t realize how expensive sound design is, and we thought we could just throw together some sound effects. When a friend started looking into it, he told us that it would take so much time. Kevin started taking over, and got overwhelmed, so I stepped in. I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s hard, and very time consuming, but I’ve learned a lot.

TWW: What have you learned about recording or sound design since the show began?

SK:  We’ve learned a lot about recording, but honestly, recording stuff is not that interesting. It’s more about setup. Kevin runs the recording.

KV: I’m so brand new at this, and I’ve been learning about it as we go. Most of the things I’ve learned have been about how to hide mistakes, as well as how to hide background noise. We don’t spend time with video, so a lot of effort goes into making the outside world seem like it’s not there.

SK: I’ve gotten more into the music as the season has progressed, which really helped me, and which adds another dimension to the show. Ryan Vibert has contributed a lot of the music that we use.

I’ve also stuck less closely with the scripts than I used to. There are some moments on the show where I made a sound design addition that wasn’t in the script. In The Day that Wouldn’t Die, when the robot Annie explodes, that wasn’t a moment in the script. We used a lot of recordings from outtakes, and fused them together so that we could make it sound like the robot was breaking down.

Sometimes I’ll just add things. Other times, I’ll just let the dialogue tell me what to do. Obviously, we know the script pretty well, but at a certain point, I stop working with it and add what’s called for, regardless of what is actually written.

TWW: What has been most surprising about developments within the podcast within its first year?

KV: The whole structure of the show is currently very different from what we started with. Originally, our conception was an anthology show.

SK: Yes, something like Black Mirror or the Twilight Zone.

KV: Then, we went in the direction of the Juno Steel stories. The Murderous Mask was going to be a one-shot when we started, but within the creation of the first script, we knew that we wanted to expand on the story.

As we’ve grown more and more in love with serial works, as opposed to anthology works, we’ve decided that we wanted our podcast to be a series. It’s not that we don’t like writing short stories, but there are just so many ways that we can expand our writing with a longer series of episodes. At the moment, we’ve streamlined our show to the point where it’s somewhere between an anthology and a series.

SK: Also, with a series, the acting takes on a different dynamic. As you expand on the series, there are more chances to develop a character and to build on what they’ve already done. Getting an audience attached to a new character in the span of forty minutes is a daunting task. Audiences are always going to be more invested in characters that they see a a lot.

Influential Works

TWW: The Penumbra Podcast has a noir setting. What detective stories are you pulling from? What inspired you?

KV: The Maltese Falcon is really influential for me. I love that novel. There’s also something very ugly about reading things by Dashiell Hammett and similar authors. They have this very pure sense of heroism that I love, but they also have a lot of really hateful ideas about a lot of different kinds of people. I love the Maltese Falcon, but there’s also this very intense streak of homophobia throughout the whole novel that goes completely unquestioned.

It makes it so that I love the books, but I have to keep apologizing for them, which I don’t like.

It bothers me that there is this common archetype that creates an implicit limitation of what a hero looks like. A lot of our work is about busting out of that.

SK:  Joshua Ilon, who voices Juno Steel, said something very interesting about this. The kind of behavior that Juno often exhibits, where he uses this caustic humor, or pushes people away, or closes himself off from everyone, or wanders the streets at night, all fits right into your standard noir hero. We take that for granted because people think that not needing people is typical of masculinity. When you unpack all of those traits in a real person, they’re symptoms of a very real thing, which is depression.

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Official artwork by Mikaela Buckley

TWW: What do you love most about science fiction?

SK: Both of us love Ray Bradbury, and The Martian Chronicles, so much. I think that, in sci-fi, you get to grapple with very deep human questions in a fantastical context, which is what ends up happening in The Final Resting Place with the Martians. There are questions regarding how to relate to them, and how much they had in common with people and the way that people think. The question is touched on lightly, especially in relation to Juno’s apparent death wish. (Laughs). We did ask a few others, though. What is this society where everyone thinks the same? What if you truly think that the planet is better off without you?

I think that sci-fi is almost–this might be ridiculous to say–like a branch of philosophy. It’s a way of teasing out very pressing, human questions in a context that we don’t examine in normal life.

KV: Sci-fi and the future can be entirely optimistic. A lot of our worldbuilding decisions are based on the assumption of things generally getting better, and how people think of differences between one another.

SK: I really like the attitude behind science fiction in Star Trek, where, while the world is far from perfect in terms of representation, it really was trying to say that all of the racism and sexism we have today is just a product of our time. There will be a time where we’ll figure that out and move beyond it. Star Trek tries to divorce itself from its own time period and way of thinking.

We tried to do that [in TPP]. Hyperion City has problems, but sexism and homophobia aren’t part of them.

TWW: What do you find inspiring about noir detective stories?

KV: The sense of heroism. There is some kind of Sisyphean aspect of noir. There are individuals grappling with the world. There’s a quote by Raymond Chandler–“Down these mean streets a man must go…” which I feel very strongly about.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything…”

Raymond Chandler

SK: I really enjoy the aesthetic. I think it’s very classy and stylish. We really like the tropes, and try to play on them a lot [in TPP]. The concept of a femme fatale was the starting point for our creation of Peter Nureyev. We wanted to use the concept of the private eye and the femme fatale. Why should the character who is very sexy, and hiding something, and playing a sort of game be a woman? We wanted to make the character a guy instead.

KV: We’re drawn to genre stories with tropes, because a lot of our ideas have been about subverting them. Archetypes that represent certain types of people, for example, are often off-limits when describing others.

Representation

TWW: Was The Penumbra Podcast created with a specific audience in mind? Who are you hoping to reach?

SK: A lot of the people who listen to the show are probably in high school, and I think that’s because, when we were in high school, these are stories that would have been helpful to hear. So much of this is written out of anger, especially about a lack of representation and diversity, and how we want to be able to see ourselves in our stories. We have to write it ourselves.

KV: When we were first coming out, we were going to write a sci-fi noir story, and there was an initial question about whether our P.I. was going to be a woman or a man. A part of what we wanted to do was add a bisexual character.

I didn’t even figure out that I was bisexual until a few years ago. I didn’t come out until my friends and family until this last year. When I figured it out, I was very frustrated, because it explained a lot of anxieties and weird moments in my life that I couldn’t explain at the time. I remember feeling very much like I had gotten a raw deal. Part of it was because I hadn’t seen very many bisexual men represented in a way that one would want to be. It never seemed like an option.

SK: There are so few at all. How many bisexual characters can you think of in popular media? There was one day where we sat down and tried to list all of the bisexual male characters we could find in mainstream media. I racked my brain and posted on Facebook, and I think we got five. You could never name all of the straight male characters [in popular media], because there are so many.

There are more female bisexual characters in media, because it’s just more acceptable to be a bisexual woman for some reasons that are, unfortunately, gross. You almost never get a character who is a bisexual man, unless he’s shady or untrustworthy.

The time that we were writing this was also the time that Kevin was coming out. After we recorded The Murderous Mask, [Kevin] came out to the cast. We write for ourselves, and for the things we deeply feel are missing, but that we desperately want to see. We’re not the only ones who want to see this representation, either, and I think that really resonates with people.

TWW: A few characters in The Penumbra Podcast regularly deal with depression. Do you hope to explore mental illness in the future of the show? What message would you like to send to listeners who may be dealing with mental illness?

KV: Of the two of us, I’m the one with significant depressive tendencies. There is a certain way that Juno is heroic in his depression, that I felt I needed. The thing that I love to explore with Juno is the unsung heroism of depression.

Some days, you wake up, and you don’t want to get out of bed. He is working slowly, and perhaps not very efficiently, at figuring out how to deal with that. Even through that, he always gets up. His most powerful character trait is that, even when he feels awful, he gets up and does it anyway.

SK: This happens even when he feels hopeless.

KV: Exactly. Hopelessness is not a good enough reason for him to stop. The Sisyphean hero has always fascinated me for that reason. “It may not make a difference, but I’m going to do it anyway”.

In terms of the message we are creating for our fans, I think that [getting up again] is quite heroic. Even if you don’t necessarily get out of bed, even if every day, you wake up, and just feel awful, you’re fighting with that monster and winning. That is a kind of heroism that people don’t talk about. I feel very strongly about that.

Juno is not a great role model, though, because he is not great at asking for help. I think that our culture has this very strong taboo against therapy and mental health issues. That’s something I’m curious to explore through Juno’s character in the future. While he’s heroic in getting up again, I want people to remember that it’s totally okay to go and ask for help. You don’t have to fight by yourself.

penumbra-2

Official artwork by Mikaela Buckley

TWW: How much does personal experience factor into your storytelling?

SK: In terms of drawing from life, I think our personal experiences contribute to character temperaments. I’ll think of somebody I know in my life, and build that out of our existing universe in the story.

We haven’t introduced a lot of these ideas for characters into the story yet. I was working with someone I thought was very interesting because they do a lot of great things for people on a grand scale, but on a personal level, they can be very cruel. What goes into making a person like that? Kevin does a lot of the actual writing, though.

KV: On the level of the dialogue, a lot of my favorite moments are those that feel truest to me. The last scene of The Day That Wouldn’t Die is high on that list.

SK: The Day That Wouldn’t Die is very much Kevin having a conversation with himself.

KV: Whenever Juno does anything wrong, he has to say that it’s his fault. That is a tendency that I recognize in myself. It is extremely useful to me is storytelling and from a mental health standpoint, to put that into a character and compartmentalize it. This is a thing that happens to people, and even if it feels true, it really isn’t always.

A lot of the truest moments come from my experience. Some of our best moments, though, come away from that, when we explore how others see the world.

We see this in The Second Citadel. I have never experienced sexism in a world where women are consistently put down in specific ways. Getting past the empathetic barrier into something that felt honest creates something very nuanced and dynamic. Sometimes, just falling on my own experience is not enough.

TWW: Are there any other themes that you’d like to explore in future episodes?

SK: I think we’re definitely going to explore different types of relationships. In storytelling, we tend to get one type of relationship, which is romantic relationships between two people. We’ve certainly done plenty of that, and will continue to. I’m looking forward to exploring other relationships, like friendships or familial relationships. I’d like to explore non-traditional familial relationships and relationships that don’t involve sex or romance, or different types of human relationships that aren’t explored as much.

KV: In terms of big ideas that a season takes on, we have a general idea. What is a kind of person that we haven’t had, or had enough of? Very often, once we have our characters and plot set, the thematic questions in an episode come last.

In the end, The Day That Wouldn’t Die is about Juno’s tendency to blame himself. We weren’t set on that when we were outlining. What does that say about him, and how is that something we would want to explore?

The big ideas often come later. We’ll know when we get there.

SK: Above all, we want an interesting story.

Fan Interaction and Future Progress

TWW: What do you find most rewarding about interacting with fans of The Penumbra Podcast?

SK: It’s amazing that our stories speak to people. It’s kind of magic. It’s very interesting, because they often have totally different interpretations than ours. It’s cool that the stories speak to people in ways that we didn’t anticipate.

We’ve gotten some really wonderful outreach from people who have said that the show means a lot to them, and we’re extremely grateful.

penumbra-6

Fan interaction is an important part of this podcast. There is a lot of heart in what the writers do.

KV: One of my absolute favorite things is when a fan suggests an interpretation, and I completely disagree, but think that the way they got to their interpretation is super smart and well-founded. We subscribe to the belief that unless you know what we’re going to do in the future, there’s no way for us to police your interpretations.

I have as much evidence as you, the fan, and we can disagree. That’s great, and I love it. It implies this intense engagement, and it makes me think harder and in new ways about the story.

SK: Sometimes, people will really parse things out. “Well, this happened in this episode and this person said this, and… this is my theory.” And I think, “WOW! That’s a good theory!” That’s super cool. It’s such a shock to the ego, because it’s as if people are treating this like literature, which is terribly flattering.

TWW: What are some of your goals for episodes during the off-season?

SK: We’ll have a lot more art of Hyperion City, so fans will be able to see it. We’ll also have bonus episodes, including the bonus episode with the Concierge, which the audience voted on.

KV: Between our patrons and the bonus, we’ll have four bonus episodes during the off-season.

SK: It’s not set in stone yet, but we may release other things. We have mentioned before that we’re going to record The Murderous Mask during the off-season, as well. We’re very excited for it.

TWW: What other podcasts would you recommend listening to?

SK: We both started listening to the Thrilling Adventure Hour on the recommendation of Noah Simes, who plays Peter Nureyev. When he first read the script, it made him think of Sparks Nevada. That has also been a bit of an inspiration, because they have multiple continuous storylines, which is an unusual format. It made it okay for us to do the same.

I’ve recently been listening to The Orbiting Human Circus of the Air, which is the latest Night Vale production. I think it is so cool, and I find it really inspiring regarding sound design. Nonfiction-wise, I like The Allusionist, which talks about the background of different words and phrases. We’re English majors, so that’s appealing. (Laughs).

KV: Not just with podcasts, but also with books and TV and so on, I have a bad habit of getting halfway through things and then stopping. (Laughs). There are a bunch of things I’ve started, but haven’t gotten around to the second half of. I started listening to TANIS, and I really like what I’ve listened to from Wolf 359. Limetown is also good.

I like a lot of horror, for the most part. Besides that, there’s a podcast I really like that’s a Dungeons and Dragons show called Friends of the Table. I really adore it because they’re building the world as they go. The ways they talk about worldbuilding are so smart and so reflective that it helps me when I think about worldbuilding. They’re also great about representation as well. They’re high on my list.

The Penumbra Podcast has an official website, YouTube, and Twitter account. Each episode is also available on iTunes, Castbox, and anywhere podcasts are available.

Have you listened to this podcast or other podcasts before? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you enjoyed this, try:

Podcasts: Hidden Gems
Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor: Welcome to Night Vale

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