An Interview with Eli McIlveen & Sean Howard

Today we have with us Eli McIlveen and Sean Howard, creators of the interconnected audio fiction series Alba SalixThe Axe and Crown, and The End of Time and Other Bothers. We discussed the challenges of juggling multiple shows, how to maximize income through Patreon, and Sean teases a super secret new project…


Hello and welcome to the Inn! First of all, how are you both and how have you been?

Sean: We are good and super thrilled to be interviewed by The Fantasy Inn! I won’t lie, though, creating a series of audio fiction shows in our free time is super challenging and we go through a lot of emotional ups and downs. But today is a great day!

Eli: Same! There’s so much to do, but we’re definitely never bored.

Could you tell us a bit about yourselves, your creative journeys so far, and how you got into audio dramas?

Eli: I’ve been listening to audio drama all my life, whether it was on CBC Radio or in my mum’s record collection. And I’ve been experimenting with sound for nearly as long, starting with cassettes and tape loops and moving up from there. In high school, a couple of friends and I started making our own comedy sketches and serials, and I kept at it when I got into university radio. At that time, I was mostly doing production work and didn’t have the first clue how to write a story — that part took me years longer to get a handle on!

Sean: I started as a producer on Alba, coordinating our recording sessions and assisted with directing talent. It led to me re-kindling my love for the stage, comedy improvisation and role-playing games. These days, in addition to writing for Alba and The Axe & Crown, I have my own show and we’re working on a new one as well. I’m also a founding member of an improv troupe called Executive Indecision.

How would you describe the three shows that take place in the world of Alba Salix to new listeners?

Eli: Alba Salix, Royal Physician is our first show: it’s a half-hour comedy about a witch who runs a clinic called the House of Healing, along with her bothersome apprentice and her fairy herbalist. We’ve also done a spinoff called The Axe & Crown, set at a tavern in a bad part of town that’s rapidly gentrifying. There’s a definite Pratchett-esque satirical bent to both shows.

The newest show is The End of Time and Other Bothers, which is an improvised actual play using the Dungeon World game engine and comedy improvisers. Our main characters are three ordinary people from the future who end up pulled back in time (to the era of Alba Salix) and told it’s up to them to save the world. Which of course they are terrible at.

Farloria seems like a fascinating place. How did this shared universe come about, and are there parts of it we haven’t seen yet?

Eli: It all grew out of the idea of a fairy-tale medical show. Alba and The Axe & Crown are set in the same town (so far!) but as the story’s gone on, we’ve started to get a glimpse of the surrounding kingdoms and countries. And especially in more recent episodes, we’ve added more details about Farlorian society, like a boom in the magical energy sector, or the government shakeup that starts off Season 2.

When we started Other Bothers, Sean started thinking on a much grander scale. We wanted our players’ characters to come from a somewhat recognizable “modern” world, so we built out their home era, and I did a ton of work thinking up the little town in Farloria that would become their home base. And after all that world-building, we’ve used almost none of it.

Sean: I often question if placing this new show into our existing world was the smartest choice or not. It gives us some amazing history and some super fun crossover opportunities (that I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t listened yet). But it also means we had to spend a lot of time working on fleshing out the larger history of the Alba Salix world. Combine that with the fact that our show is made up of comedy improvisers and it’s dangerous.

Eli: Like when we crossed over a major character from Alba into Other Bothers just as we were about to go into the studio to record the second season of Alba. Would one story completely invalidate the other? Luckily it all worked out in the end. We’ve got the sort of fictional universe that can handle a few good continuity tangles.

Sean: Or anachronisms. Our group won’t hesitate to introduce something anachronistic to the world. And we’d never want to stop them! It’s one of our favourite things about Other Bothers.

Eli: Plus we trust them to make it fit in. Our players aren’t whipping out cell phones or what-have-you. Even when they come up with an off-the-wall suggestion, it’s usually something we can make sense of within the fiction of the world. It’s made for a lot of wild new additions to the canon, especially its mythology.

Season 2 of Alba Salix seemed to move away from the more episodic nature of the first season and toward a more overarching narrative. What drove this decision and do you foresee this as the future direction of the story?

Eli: We wrote the first season pretty much piecemeal, and recorded it an episode or two at a time over the course of about three years. As well, I was still learning to balance multiple plotlines in my storytelling.

And I learned a lot from doing The Axe & Crown. It was like going from novels to short stories: small cast, few scene changes and less than half the length. It forced me to work in a more linear way, developing a given situation for much longer rather than just tossing in a brand new idea to spice things up.

When we went back to do the second season of Alba, we wanted to get all the scripts done well before we hit the studio, which gave us the chance to break down all our episodes as though we were in a TV writers’ room. And from the start, Sean was pushing for a deeper, more dramatic plot to power the new season. We also wanted to bring in a new antagonist who would slowly become an ally. Those two elements made the season stand up much better as a whole.

And yes, this will all continue in future seasons!

What have been the biggest differences between making an actual play podcast and scripted audio dramas?

Sean: Pre-production. Nailing the story structure and scripts for the next six episodes of Alba Salix can take us most of a year, keeping in mind that we aren’t yet doing this full time. On the other hand, prepping for a two-episode session of The End of Time and Other Bothers only takes us a few hours, now that the major world-building has been done.

But then the differences start to blur. We wanted to create an actual play that was more immersive in format. And while Eli can’t apply the level of sound design that you are going to hear in an Alba or Axe & Crown episode, it is still multiple days of work in sound design and custom music for each episode of The End of Time and Other Bothers.

Eli: That has been fun. Having the story co-created by Sean and our players means that I never know what music and sound design challenges are coming. On a scripted show, doing both writing and post-production, I can often shape a story to fit what we can achieve technically. But on Other Bothers, I’ve had to stretch my abilities to create unexpected things like weaponry sounds and voice effects, and compose music in a number of styles.

Sean: One thing I didn’t expect was that doing Other Bothers would actually improve my skills as a writer. Using comedy improvisation has changed so much for me and given me a lot more confidence in myself as a creator, across the board.

What’s it like working with your partner on these creative projects?

Sean: It’s not easy. I tend to not communicate and that can be difficult. And giving notes on an episode at midnight that is supposed to have already been released an hour ago is not a recipe for a lovely night in. But it’s also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Seeing Eli start to gain the confidence in himself and the respect of other producers in the industry just fills my heart with joy.

Eli: I’ll echo that — Sean took up improv in a big way around the time we decided to start Other Bothers, and already he’s formed a troupe. It’s been amazing to watch, and it’s really informed the way we both look at story.

We’re lucky in that our skills and outlooks complement each other: Sean is a big-picture thinker, and I like to concentrate on the details. I’ll happily spend days tweaking and polishing a script or a sound design, and he often has to nudge me out of that endless cycle so I can actually finish and move on.

He’s also driven our social media presence, which I’m immensely grateful for. I’ll fret for half an hour about a single tweet, and in that time he’s answered a dozen, and drafted a brand-new article and commissioned a T-shirt design.

Can you give us a little insight into your production process? I noticed that Alba Salix and The Axe & Crown alternate seasons, and longer breaks between seasons are often followed by a rapid release schedule.

Eli: Alba is a huge endeavour at every stage. There’s a few months of pre-planning, outlining, writing and revising scripts, and we get some feedback from other writing friends as well. For Season 2, we recorded all six episodes over the course of two weekends, so the run-up to that was a nightmare of spreadsheets, actor scheduling, and triple-checking 150 pages of recording scripts to make sure we hadn’t forgotten any scenes.

It’s a big cast, too, so we rent a studio for the recording, and bring a ton of food for the cast and crew. Sean and I have taken up a kind of tag-team directing style, with one or both of us listening in the control room and giving notes.

When that’s all done, we have several hours of audio to sift through and sort by episode and scene. Once I’ve got everything catalogued, I’ll do a rough dialogue edit of each scene in turn, and assemble them into voice-only versions to get the timing and performances right. Sound design takes several days per episode, so we try to get as many finished as we can before our season launches.

All of which is why we created The Axe & Crown. The intent was to make something shorter, simpler and easier to produce. That difference wasn’t quite so evident on the first season, but we keep learning with every series, so with luck the next season will be just as entertaining with far less burnout!

It’s fascinating to listen to the “behind the scenes” episodes, such as the commentary on the first episode of season 2 and the breakdown of sound effects.

Eli: Thanks! I’ve always loved making-of pieces, so it felt good to start offering them to our fans.

Sean: Yeah. About a year ago, we decided to start rewarding our Patreon supporters with weekly content. We call it #FarlorianFriday and we release bonus scenes, unaired scripts, plus those commentaries and breakdowns. We didn’t know how people would like them, but they now get as many likes and comments as our regular shows, sometimes more.

Eli: That’s been really rewarding, especially when someone tells us that we’ve motivated them to try something like sound design themselves. Being able to inspire other creators is one of the best parts of this whole job.

One thing you do that I absolutely love is your Patreon Growth Experiment. What sparked the idea to analyze your Patreon and share the results with others? Have you found any key factors that can make or break a creator’s Patreon success?

Sean: Thank you. I am seriously proud of that little beast. It began out of frustration. Our Patreon was doing diddly — it existed and that was about it. And it hit me that we’d become resigned, even comfortable with the fact that our Patreon would never fund the life we wanted to live. And frankly, the same was true of most of the audio creators around us. Most of the people we knew did not have a successful Patreon.

And that’s when the marketer and strategist within me woke up. I began to look at the people who DID have successful Patreons. And I began to ask some key questions, most importantly: what would it take for us to have a Patreon that could fund us as artists?

The idea to open it to the world came because a lot of what was holding us back was received wisdom. I had to unlearn everything I had learned from other creators like us, who weren’t able to make a living off their crowdfunding efforts. And I also wanted to be held accountable, because otherwise I wouldn’t commit to this project. With all the demands on my time, I needed to make this a real priority.

So we now share real data on the growth of our Patreon, complete with screenshots of our earnings, in order to document what we’ve learned, but also to help show that it is possible to grow from under $20 a month to a healthy crowdfunding platform that I can now see generating enough for us to live on within the next twelve months.

Looking forward, are there any projects on the horizon that you can talk about? Should we be expecting a return to Farloria or something different?

Eli: Next up is more Axe & Crown. We’ve got scripts underway now and we’re hoping to record this spring. And we’ve got some outlining done for Alba Season 3! Sean, meanwhile…

Sean: Sean meanwhile is workshopping something super secret. It’s a sci-fi comedy podcast that is completely improvised. And we are SUPER psyched about it. It will be the first show we have produced that won’t take place in Farloria.

Eli: And I get to do more period sci-fi music.

What are you reading or listening to these days?

Sean: SO MUCH! I’m going to keep myself to just five podcasts otherwise I will just never stop shouting shows at you. Unwell is just stunning. It’s from the people who brought us Our Fair City which was the show that first brought me into the audio fiction world.

Eli: Full disclosure, I’m sound designing three episodes this season. But yes, it’s so dang good.

Sean: And then I would have to give a shout out to Fate and the Fablemaidens, The Amelia Project, 1994, and Janus Descending. As to books, I just devoured all of A Gathering of Magic by V.E. Schwab in one sitting. And I’m also still buzzing about N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series!

Eli: For podcasts, I’ll add Arcs; Moonbase Theta, Out and Point Mystic. And a lot of fancasts, like Verity! (Doctor Who) and The Quad (Killjoys) and Pratchat (Terry Pratchett). Listening to smart people get excited about their favourite things is very therapeutic.


Sean & Eli Headshot

About Eli McIlveen & Sean Howard

Eli McIlveen is the creator, co-director, composer and sound designer for Alba Salix and its spinoffs. He’s also been a sound designer for Unwell, interviews producer for Radio Drama Revival, dialogue editor for Aural Stage Studios, and has appeared in several other shows playing a variety of humans and invertebrates.

Sean Howard is the producer and co‐director of Alba Salix and The Axe & Crown, and the Game Master of The End of Time and Other Bothers. He is a recovering juggler and has dabbled in theatre as both a performer and a lighting designer. He also brings his 20+ years of marketing and advertising experience to the Alba Salix family of shows.

Follow Eli (@forgeryleague) and Sean (@passitalong) on Twitter or learn more at the Alba Salix website: albasalix.com

You can support Eli and Sean’s work through Patreon: patreon.com/albasalix

 

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