Podcasts have been around for over a decade, but the last few years have seen a boom in popularity. It’s truly amazing what someone can do with a couple of microphones and an idea. Lauren Shippen, an actress and singer, took it upon herself to write and produce a narrative podcast, complete with a cast, foley, and score. This podcast, The Bright Sessions, has garnered much praise from fans and critics alike.
The Bright Sessions is a sci-fi podcast that follows a mysterious therapist and her unique set of patients, each struggling with a supernatural ability. Created and written by Lauren Shippen, the acclaimed podcast has been downloaded over 6 million times.
And now, Universal Cable Productions is currently developing a TV adaptation of The Bright Sessions. Gabrielle G. Stanton (Grey’s Anatomy, The Flash) and Shippen are penning the TV adaptation.
You can listen to The Bright Sessions podcast from the very beginning on iTunes, SoundCloud, and other podcast streaming services. New episodes will begin airing in October.
Monkeys Fighting Robots had the chance to ask Lauren Shippen a few questions about The Bright Sessions, and making her own path to success. You can read the full interview below:
MFR: When did you contract the “acting/writing bug?” What was it that made you realize, ‘this is what I’ll be doing the rest of my life?’
Lauren Shippen: I grew up in a really creative family – I’m the only one who actually works in entertainment, but my parents were always exposing my sister and me to all sorts of art and we were performing musicals in our living room from a very young age. So it was always somewhat on my radar as a thing to do. But I think it was seeing Sutton Foster in Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway in 2001. I was 10 years old and here was this young woman commanding a stage in a way that was completely mesmerizing. She was singing, tap-dancing, acting – the whole nine yards. I remember sitting in the theatre thinking, “This. I want to do this.” That show really spurred my interest in pursuing musical theatre as a craft, which eventually led me to my love of acting overall.
Writing was always one of those things that I did sort of secretly. Along with theatre, reading was a really big part of my upbringing and after reading The Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron, I became obsessed with fantasy. From the moment I could, I started writing little fantasy stories. Coming up with worlds and characters was so fun for me, but it never occurred to me to share any of those things with anyone. I don’t know if it’s that I never had any finished product to show or that I didn’t think I was any good (and, having dug up those old stories, I wasn’t any good), but talking about it or sharing it seemed too scary. I wish I had, regardless of how bad those stories were, because sharing your work is such an important piece of becoming a better writer.
MFR: Who are your major influences?
Lauren Shippen: T.A. Barron is definitely one of the earliest big influences – reading his Merlin series primed me to love Harry Potter when my sister handed it to me and both series sent me down the fantasy rabbit hole. That eventually led to my love of sci-fi, which got me into watching all of Joss Whedon’s shows, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, etc. Those shows along with mystery (Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars) that really made me love TV and think about film/television as a potential career path. Whether or not I realized it at the time, I learned a lot from those shows about how to structure a story, what makes compelling character dynamics, and how to write dialogue.
My major overall influence is Stephen Sondheim. I grew up on his musicals and still listen to them obsessively. You can find words of wisdom about literally any topic in his shows and there are very few people that understand and craft language as well as he does. About half my brain is Sondheim. Another thirty percent belongs to Phillip Pullman, who absolutely destroyed me with the His Dark Materials series. Those books had such a major affect on who I am in a way that not even Harry Potter did.
MFR: When and how did you stumble upon using the Podcast medium to tell The Bright Sessions?
Lauren Shippen: By the time I was thinking about telling this story, I’d been listening to podcasts
for quite a while. But in 2014, I started listening to Welcome to Night Vale
and that was the first time that telling a fiction story in podcast form seemed like a possibility. I knew I wanted to make something
and had this character of a girl with anxiety who can travel to other dimensions for a while and when I heard WTNV
, podcasting seemed like the perfect answer. It’s inexpensive, I could do everything on my own, and I didn’t have to worry about visuals.
MFR: What was your biggest challenge in the production of The Bright Sessions Podcast? How have you been able to overcome that challenge?
Lauren Shippen: This answer has changed so much in the course of two years. In the beginning the whole thing was a challenge. I wasn’t an expert at any aspect of production – I knew a little about writing, a little about recording, and a little about sound editing. So I spent a lot of time watching YouTube tutorials and just winging it. Then when I made the thing and wanted to get it out there, finding an audience was the challenge. Many, many hours on twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit later, we started to get listeners.
Since then, the challenge has been keeping up with production and handling what feels like a rapid expansion. While I don’t have to spend hours on the internet asking people to listen, we now have people to respond to, more actors to schedule, a merch store to run, a Patreon to maintain, and so on. Somewhere in there, the scripts have to be written and that’s where the challenge stays the same. Finding a balance between staying true to the characters and the story and keeping things fresh and interesting was tough in the beginning and it’s tough now. I always worry about jumping the shark or letting things grow stale or disappointing the amazing listeners we have. My only way of dealing with this kind of doubt is to always bring it back to the characters. When I take some time away from all the nitty-gritty production stuff to just have a conversation with my characters (sometimes a literal, out loud conversation – I almost never work in coffee shops for this reason), things usually become clear.
MFR: Was a TV show something you thought about when initially creating the concept?
Lauren Shippen: It was definitely something I thought about it the way that, when I was 16, I thought about what my Tony Awards acceptance speech would be. It was a total fantasy. There was definitely a thought in the back of my mind that, if the podcast did really, really well, maybe ten years down the line I could try to adapt it for television. There are so many characters and stories within the podcast story that I haven’t been able to tell because of the constraints of our production – when those things came up, I would always think about how fun it would be to play in a bigger sandbox.
MFR: Will there be any changes to The Bright Sessions story when being adapted from a Podcast to TV series?
Lauren Shippen: Yes. Those stories and characters that have been sidelined because of the limits of the podcast will hopefully get some attention in the TV show. Then there are things that I want to change because I won’t be limited by recording with two mics in my bedroom – we can get out of the therapy room from the start, have characters interact more rather than refer to those interactions. This is also an amazing opportunity to get a second chance at aspects of my story that I wasn’t happy with. Hindsight is 20/20 and I think a TV adaptation will benefit from that and from the fact that I have Gabrielle Stanton bringing a new perspective. I think with any kind of adaptation, you can’t do a direct translation, especially when considering the differences in medium. But at the end of the day, the central things – who the characters are and how they relate – will be true to what the audience already knows and loves.
MFR: What advice can you give any creative/artist/entertainer – be it in podcasting or acting or any arts/entertainment medium – trying to break into their respective industry?
Lauren Shippen: No one likes networking, but get to know people that are in your industry. Reach out to people you admire, work on friend’s projects, surround yourself with other passionate, creative people. “Working for exposure” is a really dangerous trend in the industry, especially for actors, but I think when you’re starting out, it can be helpful to learn on the job by volunteering to help out with projects. Take classes and stretch outside your comfort zone. I think all actors should try writing, all writers and directors should take an acting class and everyone can benefit from taking an improv class. Find new ways to challenge yourself.
The best hard advice I’ve ever gotten about this industry came from my uncles who are both in musical theatre. When I started to get serious about acting, they told me, “If there’s anything else that makes you just as happy, do that instead”. It’s a tough thing to hear, but so vital. This is not an easy industry and, in my opinion, not worth pursuing unless you really, really love it. While I ultimately discovered it wasn’t just acting that made me happy, my need to tell stories has kept me plugging away even when things are tough. I can’t imagine doing anything else. If you don’t feel that way, there are so many other fields to feel lukewarm about that you can actually earn a living in.
Related to that (but on a positive note), if you discover that this is your passion, follow it. “Follow your dreams” sounds like dumb, trite advice, but I think it’s important to focus on projects that you’re passionate about. That doesn’t mean you can do it 100% of the time (we all work on things that we enjoy but don’t occupy our minds 24/7) but if there’s something that you absolutely cannot shake – a story, a new way of doing something, a character – do what you can to bring that to fruition. It doesn’t matter if you think you can’t (you can) or if you think the story has been told before; it hasn’t been told by you. if you’re passionate about it, it is worth doing. I’ll cheat here and use words from Stephen Sondheim that everyone who knows me is probably sick of hearing at this point because I quote it constantly. But it’s the best piece of artistic advice that I’ve ever encountered: “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see”.