Getting to Know the What It Is Podcast

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog how much I love the What It Is Podcast. Recorded in Edmonton by theatre artists Taylor Chadwick and Chris Cook, the podcast is an intimate and hilarious look at what’s going on in Edmonton’s arts community. For a while now, I’ve wanted to meet up with the people behind the podcast for a deeper look at the podcast, and I finally got a chance to do so last week.

The podcast came about from Chris and Taylor’s mutual love of podcasts, having been longtime fans of the medium although they say podcasts have been slow to catch on in Edmonton. So much so that they regularly have to explain what a podcast actually is before they can talk about what their show is about. However, the driving force behind getting the What It Is Podcast going, Taylor says, was that, “We also wanted to do something about the people we know and the community we’re a part of. At the time there wasn’t a lot of coverage on who the artists are, it was just like ‘this is their work’. For example, someone like Jon Lachlan Stewart, he’s behind Surreal SoReal Theatre and everyone knows him for his work, but we don’t know the actual guy at all. We wanted to bring people on in an environment where we’ll talk about the work, but we also just want to goof around and make people feel relaxed and get to know them a little bit.”

It’s that casual atmosphere and feeling of being a fly on the wall that I love so much about the What It Is Podcast. I learnt about interviewing from Michael MacDonald, founder of Sound + Noise and popular music professor. What I remember most about his interviewing advice is to just let people talk and once you’ve gotten over all the bullshit you get to this place where you can have an intense, real conversation. And that’s exactly what the podcast lets us listen in on – those conversations that are happening about theatre across the city in living rooms, bars, and dressing rooms. Chris says, “Because we have a podcast, we can invite them over to our sound guy’s house and sit and talk instead of just being like, ‘hey, want to come over and talk?’ ”

The thing the What It Is Podcast does really well is allow listeners to get a more relaxed look at the people behind the art we see in Edmonton. The show has two segments – the first half where, for the most part, the focus is on the art and exploring whatever show the guests have coming up in the near future. This section allows us to get to know the creator or performer in context of the upcoming (or current) show. The second section though, is where the listener really gets to know who the artist is – what experiences have they had that have brought them here, what is important to them as creators of art, and what’s influenced them. To me, this is the most important part of the podcast. If we’re going to understand the art as the artist intended us to, we need to know where they’re coming from.

Chris agrees saying, “I think that getting to know that these artists are people is the most important thing.” Taylor adds, “Sometimes we put them in a scenario where we have characters. We wanted to bring in people to show them that you can play and you can take yourself seriously all at the same time. That’s what we like to do. We like to goof off… There’s such a want for more accessibility in terms of getting to know people. The artists we’ve had on it… the ones that have good interviews are the ones that talk to us. They’re not just waiting to be asked a question.”

The characters and the sketches in the second half of the podcast add, as Taylor says, “a totally different energy of play and absurdity to the mix,” which allows us to see how the guest reacts to unexpected situations.  For Chris the characters also help get to know the guest as a person, not only from the perspective of their art. “It breaks down barriers, I think. There’s a lot of people we’ve interviewed that I’ve held up to this esteem and I’ve always respected them artistically, but I’ve always felt that there is a divide, that I couldn’t stand on equal ground with them. Having them on the podcast has really shown that no matter how successful or well-known someone is artistically, everyone is still just people.”

Taylor says one of the most intimidating interviews for him was Episode 24: In the Moment where Brad Fraser was one of the guests. “He’s a very well-known playwright and theatre artist in the country so that was kind of intimidating, but then we sat down to talk to him, it became very loose. I’ve gotten better over time at not putting someone way up there and trying to just talk to them as a person. As soon as you do that, it breaks down the wall. I think halfway through the interview with Brad, he realized ‘oh, these guys just want to talk to me. They don’t want to interview me, they just want to talk to me.’ ”

While having more established artists on the show allows them to explore the perspectives of those who have been thinking about and practicing theatre for many years, independent theatre remains the podcast’s main focus. Taylor says, “We love having the pros on the show, but I always love when we get people like Garrett Spelliscy and Byron Martin and these people who are doing really cool work that deserves to be talked about. Because these are people who in 10-15 years who are going to be running the theatres.”

On that note, the What It Is Podcast will be camped out in the Roxy Theatre’s lobby during NextFest (June 5 – 15) as the #nxtfst Podcast, interviewing artists and audience members alike. In the meantime, check out their website or find them on iTunes.

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