Shining a Bright Light: Lauren Shippen Discusses Diversity

"It's just about treating the character as a person, rather than a box to be checked."

The process of creating Unwritten has meant grappling with difficult and often uncommon themes including gender, sexuality, and mental health within the bounds of an audio drama. As we plunge further into the world of podcasts, we find that these themes, not often addressed in mainstream entertainment, are welcomed and explored through audio dramas.

The Bright Sessions, written and produced by Lauren Shippen, stands out as not only an exciting and binge-worthy storyline with complex characters and talented voice performers but as a show that is unafraid to explore the more difficult topics. With admiration for the intelligence and poise she displays in her work, we reached out to Shippen to gain insight on her handling of the issues that have become so important to us in our podcast.

 

Dayton Writer’s Movement (DWM): It is uncommon in many forms of entertainment to have a female protagonist, let alone a cast of many women. Did you intentionally seek to develop a story to highlight complex female characters, or was this more an organic byproduct of your process?

Lauren Shippen (LS): This was absolutely 100% intentional. One of the big reasons I started writing the show was because I was acting in LA and the roles available to a twenty-something female person were…lacking. To read so many scripts that had female characters as props and know so many talented female actors who weren’t getting roles they could sink their teeth into was really frustrating. I decided to try and take matters into my own hands.

 

DWM: Being a performer, writer, producer, and director, why did you choose audio drama as your medium?

LS: Two reasons, one practical and one philosophical. The practical reason is that it was inexpensive and I could do all the non-acting work on my own. Thankfully we now have an amazing sound designer and composer, but being able to do everything by myself was crucial in the beginning.

The broader artistic reason was that I love the intimacy and imagination that audio encourages. It feels so personal and it gives you the freedom to personalize it further by imagining the world and the characters to look however you want them to. In my wildest dreams, I hoped that people would make fanart and I’d get to see different versions of my characters and I feel beyond lucky that that has happened.

 

DWM: Do you think there is greater gender parity within podcasts—i.e. Bright Sessions, Black Tapes, Unwritten—than other media? If yes, why do you think that is the case?

LS: I do think that podcasts are generally better about diversifying their casts and characters than mainstream media. Podcasts have a lower barrier of entry than most other entertainment – you can produce one without much experience or any money. All you need is a microphone and some actors. This means that a lot of creators who don’t get an opportunity in traditional media are able to tell the stories they want in podcasts. So you get a lot of women, POCs, and LGBT people making shows.

I also think a part of it is that it isn’t necessary to have a big network or studio behind you to make a podcast. With bigger budgets and a bigger platform (the kind that you get in TV and film) come more people who have opinions and bottom lines to meet. Traditional media is restricted because it needs to reach a larger audience and therefore isn’t able to take as many ‘risks’. Of course, I personally don’t think there’s anything particularly risky about having majority female leads or a bunch of LGBT characters or a diverse cast, but many forms of media are still stuck in this ancient mode of thinking, though we are moving forward all the time.

 

DWM: We appreciate how you represent all of the characters in The Bright Sessions as complex individuals to whom sexual orientation is just one facet. Caleb, for example, certainly isn’t solely defined by the adjective “gay.” What’s your process for ensuring honest depictions of underrepresented groups? How have the respective communities responded?

LS: To be honest, I don’t think Caleb can necessarily be defined at all by the adjective “gay”. He’s never been identified as such and, while that’s what most people will assume based on his boyfriend, I don’t know if that’s how he’d identify himself if asked. Labels can be incredibly useful and I fully support their use for people who want to use them, but I don’t think Caleb has spent a lot of time thinking about what label would apply to him.

In terms of writing these characters, I just try to draw from personal experience – whether it is from my own life or influenced by people I know who have had experiences different from my own. And then it’s just about treating the character as a person, rather than a box to be checked. For instance, while Adam does identify as gay, that’s not all he is in the same way that Sam’s anxiety doesn’t define her. When writing any of my characters, I’m not really thinking about the fact that they might be part of an underrepresented group. I’m focused on making them whole, real people. As far as the response, I’ll answer that in the next question!

 

DWM: How do you handle negative comments about your representations of LGBT+ characters and themes?

LS: I’m actually pretty happy to say that we’ve had very few negative comments, and they’ve been fairly evenly distributed over both sides. Meaning, we get the occasional homophobic, “why are you pushing an agenda” comments but we also get the occasional negative feedback from the LGBT+ community. With both, I honestly don’t pay much mind. I’m always open to constructive criticism, especially when it comes to identities, but these kinds of comments don’t tend to fall into that category.

The first type – the homophobic comments – are just ignorance and intolerance. I have no patience for that. The second type – the comments from the LGBT+ community – tend to be about how I’m defining certain characters’ sexualities. Some people want me to use certain words: bisexual, gay, demisexual, etc. I completely understand this desire – with bi characters especially, there’s a real trend in mainstream media of the “I don’t like labels” thing. It is important to use specific language when aiming to represent a group. And I do use specific words, when they apply. We’ve used gay, bisexual, and asexual in the podcast when those labels apply. Most of the comments we get from the LGBT+ community about using specific language are in reference to Caleb and those comments inherently assume that Caleb has a certain sexuality. I absolutely want people to relate to Caleb and to headcanon him however they wish, but I don’t give much attention to the “you need to do this with your character” commentary. It isn’t helpful for me or the person giving the feedback, and it definitely isn’t helpful to the character.

All that said, I’m always very happy to have conversations with our listeners about sexuality or any other topic they want to discuss. I am far from perfect and I’m still learning how to approach certain topics in my writing so I see the importance in keeping an open dialogue. When a few people gave me some feedback about a character being asexual, I listened really carefully to their criticisms and, while most of it was a failure of my writing rather than an out-and-out misrepresentation, it helped me focus on being clearer next time the subject came up.

 

DWM: Mental health is the underpinning of your podcast series (the titular Bright sessions). While she is working with atypical humans, how much does Joan’s profession play into the stories you are creating? Is the therapy just a vehicle for deep character studies, or do you see mental health playing a larger thematic role?

LS: It is definitely both a vehicle and a larger theme. When the idea first popped into my head to structure the show around therapy it seemed like the perfect solution for someone who had never written a script before (which I hadn’t). As an actor, I knew dialogue and character motivations far better than structure or plot. Therapy was a great fit – everyone knows what to expect going into a fictional therapy session, so I didn’t have to do a lot of set-up to establish a world or format and, as you say, it is a great vehicle for character study.

But it also became very clear to me as I was writing the first season that many of these abilities shared qualities or worked in tandem with real mental illnesses (or worked against). I never want to suggest that my characters are clear-cut representations of certain mental health issues and Dr. Bright is certainly not an ideal therapist, but there are a lot of character arcs and themes that tie in well with mental health.

The most important thing for me in writing a therapy show was proving that, even with a sketchy therapist, therapy is a good thing to do. I’ve never wanted to demonize mental issues but I also don’t want to romanticize it. Having a mental illness doesn’t mean someone can’t be happy and it doesn’t excuse any bad actions they take, but it does need to be managed and therapy can be a great way to do that. The messages I receive from listeners saying that the show encouraged them to go to therapy are the ones that mean the most to me.

But at the end of the day, I’m making a show about time travelers and mind readers so I take a lot of liberties.

 

DWM: The protagonist of Unwritten, Elaine, is an anxious introvert with people issues not unlike Sam. Of all the issues we cover in our show, the feedback we hear the most centers on how much people enjoy seeing anxiety and introversion take the spotlight. Have you received similar feedback? What challenges and opportunities do you find come from writing (and portraying) such an internal character?

LS: I have received similar feedback! Listener comments about Sam are some of my favorite because she is me in so many ways that those kinds of notes make me feel less alone. I think everyone struggles with anxiety and loneliness at some point in their life (and for some people, for most of their lives) but those are topics that a lot of entertainment doesn’t dig into. Sure, we have the loner and nerd types – the introverted weirdos – but those tend to be broad stereotypes rather than a representation of what it actually feels like to be socially anxious or to find socializing draining.

I wish I could say that I face many challenges in writing Sam, but I don’t. It is frighteningly easy to get into her head space. Someone asked me once what kind of research I did to make Sam’s anxiety so real and the answer is that I’ve struggled with an anxiety disorder for most of my life. The way Sam feels is drawn directly from my own experiences. It’s actually been extremely cathartic to write and play Sam – she’s taken on a lot of my anxiety and as I’ve grown over the past few years, she’s grown with me. Sometimes in acting or writing her I get a little too into it and find myself on the verge of a panic attack, but having the other characters there for her to lean on helps a great deal.

 

DWM: We’ve seen in other interviews that your writing process involves carrying on verbal conversations with your characters. As this ties in with a central conceit of Unwritten, could you elaborate a bit on how these imagined conversations translate to the written words on your pages?

Most of the scripts are written from top to bottom in a few sittings with me just sitting on my couch speaking aloud to myself. I’ll find each of the characters voices and have both sides of the conversation out loud. There’s really not much more to it – I talk aloud and type as I talk.

 

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Learn more about and listen to The Bright Sessions.

To keep the conversation going, support audio dramas and entertainment that address important social issues. Share with us your favorite audio dramas by commenting here or tagging us on Twitter @dwmpresents with your recommendations!

If you or someone you know is in crisis or in need, check out our resources page for links to peers and experts willing to help.

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