UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 11 Winter 19 Library
Voice actors recording The Perfectly Circular Rock at WTJU. Photo Credit: Nathan Moore

The Perfectly Circular Rock

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Sometimes as an actor, you find yourself between a rock and a podcast. Or at least that is where a group of UVA Drama MFA students found themselves last spring and summer when they took part in a special podcast project launched by WTJU. The project, supported by a Faculty Research Grant for the Arts initiated by WTJU General Manager Nathan Moore, came about in part because of a resurgence in podcasting that can be traced to commercial podcast networks like Audible, who are sinking millions into new audio dramas. New dramas like Welcome to Nightvale and Limetown, which borrow from the popular public radio show Serial and others, have built strong followings. The format, however, has not yet found a major foothold in the academic world –- until now. This innovative partnership takes advantage of the talents and experience of UVA playwriting professor Doug Grissom. Grissom, with the support of then-chair Colleen Kelly, met with students for an independent study in the Fall of 2018 and taught a 3-credit course last Spring centered around directing, producing, acting and distributing the podcasting series. 

Grissom, who will produce the series along with Lewis Reining of WTJU, MFA and upper-division undergraduate students in Drama, and members of WTJU's podcast network Teej.fm, encouraged students to pull a story out of thin air. One day, while discussing some options and with the group finding themselves at an inspiration roadblock, a member for the class offered a helpful suggestion “Somebody said that we just needed something, anything, to write plays and vignettes around. We just needed to choose one central thing. Someone else said, ‘It could be about anything. It could be about a perfectly circular rock.’ I said, ‘yup, that is what it is going to be.’ The plot became about a huge, perfectly spherical, smooth rock that just appeared in the middle of this small town. And people didn’t know what to make of it. So, it became this series of vignettes clustered around the idea of how the town is going to react to this. We started writing random vignettes in the fall. I had the actors for two hours a week, and we would do these random writing exercises where I would suggest improv scenarios.” By semester's end, Grissom took those scenarios and began to build them around a story, albeit a loose one. The result, after a summer of recording, is ten episodes, each 10-15 minutes in length. 

The title? Well, of course, it is The Perfectly Circular Rock. The dramatic podcast is reviving the old-time radio show tradition, Grissom said, a format he has long enjoyed. "I love listening to radio drama," he said, "and I have really loved working on this. It is another outlet, and I love its simplicity; you are just working with dialogue and sound editing, and it gives you a lot of freedom to shape things in the post-production process." The students, he said, did a remarkable job of pulling stories from the simple premise. "A lot of the vignettes are about a bunch of other issues. Some of the connections the actual rock might not be all about the rock. In one, a young couple meets there because it has become a tradition to lose your virginity at the rock. So, it becomes about the relationships the rock inspires. In another, a son has heard that if he stares at the rock, he will see his dead mother's face. What transpires is a conversation with his father about his mother, so the rock becomes this jumping-off point for the most part, and it creates all of this variety in the scenes."

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