In Dialogue: Steal the Stars with Mac Rogers & Nat Cassidyby Clay McLeod Chapman
For those who frequent the seedy underbelly of Off-Off Broadway, the names Mac Rogers and Nat Cassidy will probably ring a bell. Rogers’ epic The Honeycomb Trilogy (2012) offered a breathtaking seven hours of sci-fi familial melodrama, while Cassidy’s The Temple, or, Lebensraum (2015), submerged its audience 200 meters underwater for a suffocating Lovecraftian odyssey. But through the power of podcasting, audiences the world over won’t have to make their way to the black boxes of the Big Apple to experience Rogers and Cassidy’s newest creation...
Tor Labs, in collaboration with Gideon Media, are now proudly offering your ears Steal the Stars, a massive serialized fourteen-episode podcast that, as Rogers puts it, follows “Dakota Prentiss, the Security Chief of a privatized military base that hides the apparently dead body of an extraterrestrial. When she falls deeply in love with Matt Salem, another soldier at the base, she knows they’ll need a lot of money to run away. So she comes up with the ultimate heist: they’re gonna steal an alien.” While Rogers—author of earlier podcasts The Message and LifeAfter—has penned every episode himself, Cassidy has a completely different mission: Bring Dakota and Matt’s tale to the printed page in a novelization version of Steal the Stars, compliments of Tor Books/Macmillan.
The Brooklyn Rail was fortunate enough to sit down with Mac and Nat to discuss the novel nature of their… well, novel and podcast.
Clay McLeod Chapman (Rail): What have been the key differences for you between writing a stage play versus an audio play? How do you approach one as opposed to the other in your writing, or are they similar?
Mac Rogers: I think the big difference between audio writing and stage writing is which tools you’re deploying. Your number one tool on stage is the human body. You’re trying to encourage cool images, movements, and interactions with whole bodies, so you write the dialogue and the plot to help catalyze those phenomena. With audio, you’re basically sitting in a dark basement with your friends, passing around the flashlight and telling scary stories. The whole interaction is built around feeding the listener a series of suggestive seed-images that hopefully will grow into striking and lovely and awful images in their minds. So with plays I sorta think about moving action figures around, and with audio I think about trying to tell the most evocative and messed-up story at the sleepover—the one that will keep my friends from sleeping.
Rail: Nat, when did the notion of adapting Steal the Stars into a novel come into the fold? How much of the podcast had been put together at that point? Were they parallel processes?
Nat Cassidy: We’d been meeting in [actor/producer] Sean and [director] Jordana Williams’s apartment every couple of weeks, reading episodes of new audio dramas that Mac, Sean, and I were all working on. When it came time to pitch ideas for this venture with Tor Labs, we all decided Steal the Stars was the slam-dunk, super exciting, best bet for our first podcast, and so Mac got to work on the rest of the story while the rest of us grabbed silverware and started digging into what he’d done already.
Tor Labs had this crazy idea to also come out with a novelization of the podcast. So this seemed too good a potential opportunity to not at least try. I sent Tor Labs an 8,000-something word “audition.” They liked what they read, and they hired me to write the whole damn thing. I had about a day to feel elated—and then, looking at the production schedule, panic set in. They wanted a 70,000-90,000 word novel. The whole point was that the book be released around the same time as the launch of the last episode, so they needed a final draft turned in in like three months. From a first-time novelist…
Rail: How much did Mac consult on such things as characters and their inner lives, or did you want him to stay the heck away?
Cassidy: By the time I caught up with Mac, a few weeks in, I was basically novelizing whatever episode he had just turned in to the group, in real time. And we started recording soon after that, too, so I’d be novelizing in the morning and then heading to the recording session to help record in the afternoon and evening. (I should mention I also play the role of Lloyd in the podcast.) It was a blessedly immersive experience. Honestly, there were very few moments where I had to ask Mac for clarification—and if I needed to, usually he was sitting right next to me in the control booth all night. The only real downside was we were all so busy with our various jobs that no one really had the time to read the novelization while it was being written. They’re pretty much going to experience it when the reading public does. Which is equal parts exciting, hilarious, and a little terrifying. But I think/hope I’ll have done them—especially Mac—proud.
Rail: Mac, knowing there was a novel on its way, I’m curious if there were elements to the story that didn’t make their way into the podcast that you wanted to root into the novel?
Rogers: Here’s the thing: I am as terrible at world-building as Nat is great with it. I’m afflicted with a terrible laziness in that I work just hard enough on the world-building to make the narrative the audience experiences hold together, but no more. I know there’s a world to Steal the Stars beyond the scenes in the radio drama itself, but I haven’t felt out its contours. Nat absolutely has, and I love reading what he’s discovered. It was enormously helpful to have Nat writing it as almost a dramaturgical challenge to the material. If there was a huge, glaring inconsistency or plot-hole, Nat was sure as hell gonna find it. As Jordana pointed out, “He is basically writing a several-hundred-page term paper on your script.” Lots of times Nat would email me and be like, “I’m having trouble figuring out your intentions on this part,” and I had to write back like, “Nope, nope, no intentions, you’ve just discovered a colossal screw-up on my part, and now we both have to rewrite: you’re welcome!”
Rail: Nat, were you able to steer away from the source material at all? When did Mac’s story and your story part ways?
Cassidy: I definitely had Mac’s blessing to go nuts wherever I saw fit, and, in fact, because the first draft of the novel was written while the scripts were coming in, there were moments when I didn’t have certain information but needed to make a choice in order to keep writing. So I’d just go with my gut. I think we also really lucked out in that Mac and I have very similar tastes as consumers and influences as writers. I think the biggest way the novelization diverts from the podcast is by virtue of it being a first person narrative. The podcast does have narration from Dak, the protagonist, but it’s a really reactive, descriptive voice. In the recording of it, we looked at it as, essentially, sitting next to Dak while watching the movie of her life together. However, for the novelization, we’re inside Dak’s head. Feelings are amplified, neuroses are more intense. Her inner thoughts are omnipresent, and it can’t help but color how certain characters and relationships come across. It’s a real deep dive into a fascinating character.
Rail: Mac, the podcast itself is serialized into fourteen episodes. Fourteen is no small number. That’s a lot of “tune in next week, kids...” How did this affect the story?
Rogers: I was terrified. When the Tor Labs/MacMillan folks approached us about this, they were thinking of a sixteen-part series. I remember gasping, calling for smelling-salts, sure it was impossible. You never want to have more episodes than you can properly honor. But Steal the Stars is a classic noir story and a heist story, right? And both of those forms need space for their traditions to be properly attended to. A classic crime noir needs illicit lovers who are drawn together dangerously, against all good judgment. So you need some episodes to build that, especially to convincingly build them to the point where they will commit an irreversible crime to be together. And if that crime is a heist? Oh, baby, all the fun of the heist is in the planning. Watching your master-thief move all the pieces into place—and not just for the crime, bear in mind, but also the getaway. Once I started making room for the essential pleasures of the genres involved in Steal the Stars, the pie cut very neatly into fourteen pieces. It’s not good enough to have a cliffhanger that makes people go, “Oh, man, I wonder what happens.” I want people to be livid that the episode ends there, I want them personally angry at me. That’s how you get people back for the next one.
Rail: Nat, given that readers won’t have to wait a week between chapters, how did the serialized nature of the podcast affect your writing of the novel?
Cassidy: The mechanics of “the button”—that moment that ends a given scene—are certainly different in book and podcast form. There are some killer endings to certain episodes that, when being told only through prose, are in fact the middle of the actual scene. Some of these rhythms are maintained with chapter breaks, and some become brand new moments. I think the thing Mac and I both wanted in our presentations of this story, though, is for it never to feel like there’s really time to catch your breath—that the tension mounts and mounts. I mean, that’s all storytelling for any medium ultimately is, right? Making your audience want to know what happens next. Whether it’s next week’s episode, or the next paragraph.
Rail: So you two have been born and raised in the downtown Off-Off Broadway scene, and yet here you both are, writing in mediums that take your theatrical sensibilities and put them to good use beyond the stage. Where does downtown theater stand in your hearts these days?
Rogers: The older I get, the harder it is to spend many months writing a play, and then many more months co-producing it, and then come out the other end to find yourself... totally broke. Once you get north of forty, that cycle gets ugly. Plus, also, you dream of your stuff reaching more people than can possibly come to the show. Every technological innovation makes theater feel more out of step, more onerous. On-demand viewing is the worst yet, because now everyone somewhat justifiably says, “My life is crazy—I need to be able to get my entertainment on my own schedule.” I get it. I’ve felt it too. I’ve noticed versions of this with everyone I know, artists or not. We hit a certain age where we just say, “You know what? My time’s worth something. My energy is worth something. I gotta have something to show for it when the dust settles.”
Having said that, I know at the same time, paradoxically, I also feel the opposite. I love theater. I wouldn’t trade even some of my most brutal self-producing experiences for anything. I know I can’t give it up, not entirely. I did a little two-person play earlier this year, and it reminded me that there’s no joy for me as basic to who I am as theater. It’s just—I can’t afford it like I used to.
Cassidy: I remember when I first told a friend I was shifting my attention from theater to radio dramas, he was like, “But isn’t that so old fashioned?” I had to stare at him a moment before reminding him, “Do you have any idea how old theater is?!” I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing for the stage, even if it’s not my main priority anymore. It’s a remarkably effective gym for a storyteller—especially downtown, you have to learn all sorts of ways to tell a dynamic, gripping tale with zero budget. And the theater will always adapt and be relevant and find the next generation of storytellers hungry to push it in all sorts of unexpected directions. I think podcast dramas like Steal the Stars are definitely part of that continuous evolution, just like web series were a few years ago. There will always be scrappy, independent artists trying to tell new and innovative stories in a black box, even if that black box is an apartment or on the internet or some other method we can’t even imagine yet.
Rail: Mac, your podcasts have been downloaded literally millions of times. When we think of a black box and the 99-seats it holds, how can it hold a candle to your newfound audience reach out? You can’t pace about the back of the house (with a podcast) any longer, eavesdropping on your audience’s reactions to your work. What’s your engagement with your podcast audience?
Rogers: Well that’s a genuinely terrifying aspect of audio: while you never know exactly how the audience will receive a play, you at least have a good notion of under what circumstances they will receive it. People consuming a podcast drama could be doing so under any number of circumstances: washing dishes, vacuuming, driving, riding the train, exercising, cleaning, puttering around in the morning, puttering around in the evening, on speakers, on headphones, over earbuds...the variables are crazy. So, honestly? I trawl social media a lot. I look for what strangers are saying. It’s a dizzying change from indie theater, where whatever you came across online, even if it was critical, it would be written by someone who I might run into somewhere in the next few months. So there’s some temperance. When you search your podcast? Beware.
Rail: Nat, in the same vein, your audience will be invisible. You may never know who they are. What’s the conversation between writer and reader for a playwright speaking to an audience they’ll never meet?
Cassidy: I love the question about the conversation between writer and reader. It’s something I actually think about a lot. In some respects, since I didn’t have to worry so much where the plot was going, I looked at this particular job as almost more of a directing or acting job. Since I’m, at heart, a horror writer, I love feeling like my relationship with my audience for any medium is really just swapping stories alone in the dark. Nothing beats that campfire intimacy. Nothing beats that connection, that dread of hearing whatever happens next, because it might go places you’re afraid to explore, but being able to go through with it because someone is there to guide you and pull you along. Swapping stories alone in the dark; thankfully, that’s an itch playwriting, novel writing, and radio dramas all can scratch.
Steal the Stars by Mac Rogers, directed by Jordana Williams, produced by Gideon Media in association with Tor Books & Tor Labs, will be released as fourteen episodes, airing weekly from August 2–November 1, 2017, available worldwide on all major podcast distributors including iTunes, Stitcher, and GooglePlay through the Macmillan Podcast Network. Visit the official website, http://tor-labs.com/steal-the-stars to subscribe.
The novelization of Steal the Stars, by Nat Cassidy, will be available in bookstores countrywide on November 7, 2017. It will also be available as an ebook: http://tor-labs.com/steal-the-stars-novelization
ContributorClay McLeod Chapman
Clay McLeod Chapman writes books, children’s books, comic books and film. Find him at www.claymcleodchapman.com.