With the first three episodes of the “Port Ludlow Project” already broadcast over KPTZ, creator and director Susan Solley hopes the serial will become an addictive experience for radio listeners.
“It is a total soap opera,” Solley said. “That's what it is. These are all women criminals who are in a witness protection program and they meet in group therapy. A lot of shenanigans will happen. All of them are based in East Jefferson County. They eat a lot at the Chimacum Cafe and they are great cohorts with Big Edna, the waitress.”
The cast often visits real-world locations in and around Port Townsend to both add realism to the show and to highlight local businesses, Solley said.
“I am hoping what we are doing here will enhance their business and the community and these people will in turn donate to the radio station because it is a great value for the community.”
The five or more core characters, including Big Edna, are all fictional, Solley said.
“You might recognize somebody, in which case I would like to meet them because I want to go drinking with them,” Solley joked.
The first episode was, “Who's dead behind the couch, and Max, bring your kit,” followed by “Diet pills are not speed and other myths to be exploited.” The most recent episode, “You never know who you are dealing with....and then you do,” aired on March 12, and will reair at 5:35 p.m. March 21. Episode four will air at 12:40 p.m. on March 26.
New episodes premiere every other Tuesday at 12:40 p.m., with an encore broadcast at 5:35 p.m. on the Thursday of the following week.
The shows also are available for streaming online for those who have missed the first few episodes and want to get caught up with the story’s arc. “If people miss one, they don’t have to slit their wrists,” Solley said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Each episode runs about 10 minutes.
“They are not too long and I did that on purpose because nobody has an attention span much longer than that,” she said. “The other thing is you can get to Safeway from any place in Port Townsend in 10 minutes. It can drive you crazy just sitting in a car waiting for it to wrap up.” Public radio producers call that “a driveway moment” and brag to advertisers when the content is so good that it rivets people in their cars.
Creating the series
Solley created the series after taking playwriting classes.
“I had been an actor all my life, but I had never written a play or a script, although I had read a ton of them,” she said. “I knew the structure, how it needs to evolve. You’ve got to have stakes. I kind of knew what I was doing without knowing I knew what I was doing.”
After creating the characters in the show, Solley set about choosing actors to fill the roles.
“I pretty much knew who I wanted in the show. Erin Lamb, who plays Suki, and Amanda Steurer-Zamora, who plays four different parts, they were in the first play I ever produced,” Solley said. “Erin and I met in the first play I ever acted in, in Port Townsend, and that was about 30 years ago.”
Is portraying a potentially “bad” character enjoyable for the voice actresses? “Always,” Steurer-Zamora said, incredulously. “These characters are fun and the sisterhood is fun to explore also.”
Even more fun for Steurer-Zamora is figuring out how to portray each of three triplet sisters uniquely, as well as Big Edna, whom she also voices.
“One of the three is in the (witness protection) program, so we have to figure out what to do with the other two,” Steurer-Zamora said. “It is interesting because triplets. How do you do voices for three different people? It is very subtle, but I know the difference. I don’t know if the audience will.”
Solley was noncommittal when asked if the characters were completely evil.
“They are probably nicer than a lot of women,” Solley said. “I play a woman named Blythe, and she is an attorney, and her side job is as a hitwoman.”
Improvisation and collaboration
Although Solley writes each script, there are inevitably changes made when the cast gets together a few times a month for a reading and taping.
“Sometimes I just like to go through and maybe switch around some lines because maybe they are easier,” Solley said. “People don’t give actors the credit they deserve, but they are really smart. If an actor tells you your line is not working, it is not working.”
As the voice actresses better learn the unique personalities of the characters they are portraying, they begin to make changes in tune with that understanding, Steurer-Zamora said.
“There are moments when we will think, ‘I (the character) wouldn’t say that.’”
One example was when Suki was scripted to eat a blackberry pie. The actress who portrays Suki, Erin Lamb, said “I don’t think Suki eats blackberry pie.”
Solley then had to work with Lamb to figure what Suki would eat. Tune in for the menu.
After the drama is recorded, the process of fine tuning it for broadcast begins.
Solley works hand in hand with Taylor Clark, the producer, to knock out the final product.
“It is my first time doing drama stuff,” Clark said. “I find it pretty interesting because it is different than the normal radio music that we do. It is not an interview.”
So far, the learning curve has been steep, Clark said.
“We can hear the differences between the first show and now,” he said. “We are producing number nine now. The difference between number one and nine is pretty tremendous.”
A major hurdle was learning how to use sound effects, Clark said.
“The first time we did a readthrough, Susan had stage directions. We can’t use stage directions. We had the narrator reading stage directions, but it sounded silly, so we realized you don’t need much.”
Instead, Clark began using a sounds effect or bridge music to make transitions.
“Then, you can separate one scene from the next,” he said. “I think we have gotten better at that. So far, we have had only minimal sound effects, but we put them in and it gives an ambience to it. It takes time.”
The sounds effects are sourced from free sources online, or from recordings made at area cafes or businesses, Clark said.
“There are a bunch of people that go to coffee houses with (a recorder) and record. They get the ambient noise and you bring that up underneath.”
Another challenge was making scripted phone calls sound real, Clark said.
“Susan uses phone calls a lot, and sometimes you will will just hear one side of it. Sometimes you hear both sides. There is some compressing we can do in Audacity, the editing program, where we can give it a telephone sound.”
Another challenge was figuring out how to separate the characters voiced by Steurer-Zamora so that they sound like one person talking to another, Clark said.
“When I get in here with Susan I can pull them together or overlap them if needed.”
The last challenge is to get the comedic delivery just right, Clark said.“She (Solley) sits right with me and she will actually adjust the timing to get it correct, the pause for effect.”
Solley and the rest of the cast are very pleased when they hear the final product air over the radio waves.
“This project is one of the funnest things I have done in my life, and I feel so blessed to live in a town with this opportunity,” Solley said. “Who would think that in a town of less than 10,000 people would offer so much as far as the arts go?”
The show is open-ended, without a definite end, Solley said, and likely will continue on into the foreseeable future -- plenty of twists included.
“It is pretty fun that we can be adding and subtracting, because one of my characters got killed off, but did she really?” Steurer-Zamora said.