With the podcast series أنا معاك /I’m Here With You launching this week and presented in D-CAF Festival (Egypt) Arab Arts Focus 2023 program, we had the opportunity to find out more about the creation of the episodes and ideas behind the project from the co-producers, Angham Mardi, writer and and Lauren Pepperell, translator, who have been working remotely on the series between Egypt and the UK in collaboration with Greenroom Podcast, Alleyway Radical Theatre, and el-Qaadah Theatre Collective.
أنا معاك /I’m Here With You is a four-episode theatrical podcast series exploring the stories of four different characters as they call a mental health helpline looking for support. Produced in Arabic and English translation, each episode acts as a momentary portal into the inner world of a person in crisis seeking support from a stranger.
How did the collaboration and the idea for the project come about?
For a few years now we, Angham and Lauren, have been experimenting with forms of storytelling and playing around with audio in Arabic and English translation. This New Conversations project was an opportunity for us to have the space, time and finances to develop a full audio fiction series and bring into the fold new collaborators with different skills in theatre and audio in both the UK and Egypt. Centering the stories around a mental health helpline was Angham's great idea and allowed us the framework to develop a series exploring difficult issues through different characters in a personal and intimate way. We came up with أنا معاك /I’m Here With You title in our first discussion about it. Developing the project idea came out of a mutual understanding between us, a meeting of ideas, and our ability to support each other. The project was a convergence of ideas and different skills and means for us develop and share stories that play with the real and unreal in sonically interesting ways.
Can you share any insights into the stories and soundscapes we will experience in the episodes?
We have just released a trailer as a teaser, available on Spotify,YouTube, Soundcloud. Each episode explores the story of a different character as they connect with the mental health line. If you don't like spoilers, skip the next bit... Layla is a dancer who calls the helpline after a life-changing event shatters her dreams. Joe is a regular caller struggling to make ends meet and trapped in an endless conflict with his wife. Sara isn’t sure who she’s calling, she was given the helpline number at her friend’s funeral and is scared she’ll meet a similar fate. Noah dedicates his life to listening to others but doesn’t find the support he’s looking for. One thing connects them all: a desire to be heard.
The full four-episode series, scripted by Angham Mardi in Arabic and reproduced in English translation by Lauren Pepperell, will be available on Spotify, SoundCloud, YouTube, and other podcasting platforms from Wed 01 November 2023. Special thanks to Mahmoud El Saghir who supported us on all aspects of sound, creating the Sound Design and Music, with support from Mo at AB Studios for the UK-based recordings. Our gratitude also to Eslam Mohamed Mikhemar, from el-Qaadah Theatre Collective, Alexandria, and Sara El Sheekh from Alleyway Radical Theatre, London, for their support bringing us voice actors from their respective theatre groups and for voice acting in the episodes as well.
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The project involves a number of collaborators, as you’ve mentioned, including voice actors and sound engineers. What have you learnt from the process of developing the work together through remote exchange?
It’s obvious, but organisation and good communication was really important in this type of project. We were a small core team and invited a dozen other collaborators to support the project in different roles. We worked online across different locations in the UK and Egypt,and had a lot of steps to do in a short period of time. We had a detailed work-flow schedule guiding the process: organising and finalising each step on time was important, as the English team were working in tandem behind the Arabic team. Only myself and Angham had oversight of all aspects of the project. We had regular online meetings, created working groups to develop the script, translation and sound as well as organise voice actors, recording sessions, artwork and distribution. Group chats were as important as the online meetings as a way to keep each other updated, share ideas, texts, sounds, and ask for comments and feedback. It helped us feel more connected to what was going on from each others locations.
Although it has its challenges, remote projects like this have a lot of benefits as they can bring together creatives who, due to geographical and financial barriers, would not normally be able to work together or spend an extended period of time exchanging practices. Podcasting is also an accessible and intimate medium for creative storytelling and can connect creatives and audiences across large distances, including those who do not have the means to travel, and saves on air miles for those who can.
With the increasing popularity of fiction podcasts, what is it about the audio-fiction genre that interests you, how do you see it developing generally and in terms of Arabic content, and what tips would you give to artists looking to venture into audio-drama?
We love audio because it's intimate and speaks to you directly, literally right into your ears. These days there’s a lot of focus on visuals and aesthetics, with a lot judged on appearances. Audio stories centre on the content of words and sounds and gives more space to the story itself, and your imagination. Fiction podcasts are also interesting to us because there’s still a lot of uncharted territory and possibilities for genre-bending and experimenting with sound. There are not a lot of people producing straight up fiction in podcast form in English, and even less in Arabic despite the popularity of Arabic short stories as a literary genre. It would be interesting to see more short stories adapted or scripted specifically for audio. Podcasting is also accessible: anyone can create, share and listen. The breadth of possibilities in terms of collaboration and audience has no borders. That's exciting to us. You can start with no budget and develop skills, equipment and collaborators over time. It's possible to self-teach through online tutorials, podcasts, blogs and when you're ready, start self-publishing. Building up skills, equipment and tools will improve the quality of what you produce, and improving takes time, practice, and often some patience. We're still on that journey. If you’re interested, we discussed how to start-up in audio production in an interview, available here, published earlier this year. Sowt also have a great how-to-create-a-podcast in Arabic here.
Through the collaboration and research for the scripts, have you discovered any interesting differences in language and culture for example around the topic of mental health between Egypt and the UK?
There are certainly differences in the language, ideas and contexts surrounding mental health in Egypt and the UK. We decided not to centre on these differences for this project, but instead highlight common threads that are relatable in some way to anyone in any location, even if the specifics of each individual’s story and context is very different. The stories were scripted in Egyptian Arabic, and although the focus was not on Egypt-specific issues, the original stories are created using everyday Egyptian expressions and language and, in places, do relate to Egypt-specific contexts. However, we aimed for the stories to have aspects that are familiar in translation to an English audience, and evoke issues present in their own lives. It is also interesting how translation, accents and the way words are expressed and interpreted in a new language, context, and with different voices, have a real impact on the story itself, even if the content is the same
What would you like audiences to take away from the series? ...and what will you be taking away from the project?
We want audiences to find the series thought-provoking and understand the characters and issues as complicated and human and imagine a space where people’s thoughts and problems were spoken about freely and honestly, and for every person to know they have the strength inside to look deeply at what is weighing on their hearts, speak about it, and support each other. We wanted the listeners to view the characters in these stories as responsible humans, not victims, and we poked at different personal and societal issues that may be present, in some form, in all our lives.
What we’ll take away from this project are the benefits of our own support for each other and the spirit of cooperation between us; developing this project together has been really positive experience for us. We all learned a lot and treated each other as if we were one and the same. We were supportive and patient with each other, and shared responsibilities between us. We are proud of each other’s work, our process and what we have made.