The idea of the fourth wall in theatre is a result, in part, of the writing of 18th century French critic and philosopher Denis Diderot - and the contribution his writing made to the rise of theatrical realism. Diderot advocated for a more natural style of acting - as if real events were happening in front of an audience that could be observed through a transparent fourth wall of the room in which they’re taking place. This notion led to the more ‘traditional’ set up of Western theatre we’re used to now - in which the fancifully termed proscenium arch is the frame through which a play is often observed, and there’s a clearly defined stage area emphasized by things like curtains and lighting.
Over time, the fourth wall has come to represent, metaphorically speaking, the line between fiction and non-fiction. The fourth wall is the barrier between our world and the world of wizards, zombies and time machines. When we forget about it, by our own choice or otherwise, these worlds can feel as close as the other side of a wardrobe. When we remember it, they’re as distant as a galaxy far, far away. The fourth wall simultaneously allows us to go wherever our minds can carry us, and reminds us that what we’re imagining isn’t real.
This is the difference between more and less realistic theatre in almost any format. Some podcasts thrive on reminding their audience that they are in no way meant to be believed (see for example, Wait, Wait, Don’t Kill Me), some relish a format which mimics realism as closely as possible whilst continuing to be definitively surreal (see Limetown). Ultimately, these are variations on a theme which can be used to create any number of results.
One of the many brilliant things about audio drama is that you do not need a Hollywood blockbuster's budget in order to take your listeners thousands of years into the future, into a different dimension, or into a world of magic. It is perhaps for this reason that science fiction and radio have enjoyed such a long and successful partnership, from The War of the Worlds and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Wolf 359 to Ars Paradoxica.
In podcasting, and radio in general, perhaps more so than in any other medium, it’s easy to ignore the fourth wall - or specifically, the need to constantly convince your listeners to suspend their disbelief.
First and foremost, this is because often the fourth wall as a physical framing device: whether it’s the edge of a stage or a television screen, simply isn’t there. If someone is listening to a radio, they do not need to keep physically interacting with the device through which they’re experiencing the fourth wall. It is, I would argue, easier in audio storytelling than in any other format to forget the physical barrier which reminds us that what we are experiencing is neither real nor immediate.
Furthermore, in audio you don’t have to think about what your audience is seeing - their imagination is doing the work for you. There is no CGI budget with which to contend, and you do not have to worry about whether your 3D-animated actor is falling into the uncanny valley whenever they share a screen with real people.
This gives audio storytellers something of an edge on surmounting the fourth wall against our colleagues in more visual media - like television, film and graphic novels. What, then, of books?
In a lot of ways, audio drama is deeply similar to prose. But unlike prose writers, you are not only reliant on your words: you have the luxury of sound cues to nudge your audience in the right direction. This allows, I would argue, for an almost infinite variety of creative possibilities, the boundaries of which shows like Archive 81, The Big Loop, and StarTripper!! continue to push.
Radio, and by extension podcasting, allows us to forget about where non-fiction ends and fiction begins. I have almost complete control over what I imagine a character looks like - but they do not exist inside my head. An actor’s voice, and their physical reality - from tears to laughter and, yes, even breathing, is external to me. This combination: of the very real and the categorically unreal, has an effect of intoxicating intimacy. It is, I believe, a strong reason for the enduring popularity of audio drama.
It is of course not the only reason for said popularity.
In August 2012, I started listening to Welcome to Night Vale. In this way, I’m fairly certain I’m like a lot of people in the audio drama community, whether they’re creators, fans, or both. Night Vale was, as anyone reading this likely already knows, an international cultural phenomenon. It’s hard to find any one factor which accounts for the show’s success.
We could cite things like its extraordinary and unapologetic diversity: in episode 1 we are introduced to a gay Jewish protagonist, a radio host who among other things is deeply disapproving of the racist embarrassment to the town that is the so-called ‘Apache Tracker’. In 131 episodes, Welcome to Night Vale has yet to concede any ground when it comes to telling diverse stories: and indeed one of the most beloved things about the show, in my opinion, is that it keeps learning, and growing, and getting better.
Sarah Rhea Werner of Girl In Space has written for Forbes about the widely held belief that diversity of representation is a huge part of independent podcast drama’s success. Indeed, it continues to be only in audio drama that if a story is set on a spaceship or in the sea, I am actively surprised if the commanding officer is not a woman.
Creative people from marginalized communities, whether those communities fall along lines of gender, race, disability or sexuality, often struggle to have their work accepted by mainstream audiences. In visual media especially, something as superficial as a writers’ appearance, or that of their characters, may cause audiences to turn away from a given product. These decisions are often motivated by subtle, and sometimes even unconscious prejudices. Their net impact on diverse creators and on the success of diverse stories is difficult to ignore.
But radio is invisible. By the time that someone’s decided that Cecil Palmer is the kind of person they want to have a drink with, they’re invested enough that they might stick around even after his open, public declaration of love for the handsome scientist in town. The fact that The Ghost Radio Project boasts a diverse cast of characters seems pretty secondary to the apocalyptic wasteland that is what’s left of America. Juno Steel of The Penumbra Podcast is a gender-fluid, half-blind, bisexual abuse survivor with depression - but by the time you figure this out you’ve probably joined the ranks of the dozens of people in his life hoping he’ll stop monologuing and get a good night’s rest for once.
Podcasts are not only radically accessible to creators: cheaper and easier to create than a great deal of media. They are radically accessible to their fans. They introduce a wide range of stories in exactly the way that we want to see them, as human narratives first.
Alice Isn’t Dead is a story about a black, queer woman with anxiety. And it would be doing that show the most profound disservice to say that it was only about those things. But the fact that those are elements of its plot is exciting in a world that can so often feel blind, and narrow, and violent. Alice makes her anxiety her superpower. So maybe that means you can too. Alice is one, among many shows, which takes an experience considered to be the preserve of a marginalised community and recontextualizes it in a way that makes it feel universal. When Alice is beset by the Thistle Man, a terrifying and monstrous serial killer, she’s able to use her fear as a source of strength. Even if you do not experience clinical anxiety: the feeling of fear, and overcoming that fear, is a visceral one which exists on both sides of the neurotypical boundary.
The fourth wall is invisible. But so are the walls between us - the social barriers which might lead us to pick one story over another, consciously or otherwise.
In podcasts, the first thing we notice about a person is not their wheelchair. In podcasts, we hear what someone has to say before we see the colour of their skin. In podcasts, we don’t try to scan someone for which gender they pass as - we listen for their pronouns and then we just use them. We don’t look at how expensive someone’s clothes are, or how much we think they weigh, or whether they’re wearing a hijab. These things can be included in the story if they’re relevant, but they don’t have to be. And that means that again, perhaps moreso than in any other medium, anyone is willing to give any character at least a chance.
From what I’ve heard of audio drama so far, there’s not one creator in our remarkable community who lets that chance go to waste.
We empathise, and we admire. We get angry and we get sad. We laugh with these characters, and we learn to understand the world from their perspective. To quote Alan Bennett, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met.”
I’d propose an amendment of this sentiment for podcasting, which is: “when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to people who look, or act, or sound, or speak, like you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, from a community that you have never known.”
Sometimes, it’s difficult to meet people who come from different walks of life to your own. Often, prejudice is less the result of willful villainy and instead the consequence of unconscious ignorance. It can be hard to imagine that somebody the world has spent your whole life telling you is so different to yourself could possibly be someone you could relate to. Someone who understands that there’s a specific window on which to butter toast - but also that death is absurd and comes to us all(Wooden Overcoats), that there’s no such thing as an easy shortcut to a broken heart (Kalila Stormfire’s Economical Magick Services) and that the outside world is often just plain scary - and we have to walk into it anyway (The Far Meridian).
In podcasting, audio’s invisible fourth wall not only gives us permission to suspend our disbelief, it enables us to suspend other beliefs as well. It allows us to open our hearts and minds to people different to ourselves. In audio drama, we do not have to see ourselves to feel reflected in fiction. Characters do not have to look, or act, or sound, or speak like us in order for us to understand them. Audio drama achieves what so much art can and should try to achieve. It tells us truths about ourselves and one another. The truths it tells us are often ones we might never have encountered, but they resonate, and they’re powerful, and they’re what we need to hear.