Formats Unpacked: What I Love

How a podcast format fills an empty theatre space during lockdown

Hi All

This week’s format is a must-read (and listen) for theatre lovers. It’s been unpacked by the returning Phil Adams whose previous unpackings include Tim’s Twitter Listening Party and Top Trumps. Check them out, they’re fantastic!

Phil is a strategist, executive producer of Out of the Ruins, and is responsible for these fantastic love letters to lyrics. Go check out his website to find out more about his work.

Over to Phil…


What's it called?

What I Love (Podcast)

What’s the format?

It’s a podcast with a deceptively simple premise. Theatre director Ian Rickson has conversations with artists on stage in theatres that are empty because of Covid-19. They talk about three things that each guest loves - a song, a film, a piece of writing.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

These are proper conversations. They have nothing in common with a chat show. The guests have nothing to sell. There are no new films or shows or autobiographies to plug. There is no guardedness. No one is adopting a protective interview persona. You’re listening to theatre makers in theatre spaces, but no one is acting. Instead, there is trust. Rickson and his guests know each other well. Rickson’s job as a director is to draw performances out of actors that they don’t know they have in them. In What I Love he uses the same skills to stimulate non-performative dialogue that is vulnerable, revealing and sometimes painfully intimate.

Rickson does extensive research for each episode. He immerses himself in the three choices of each guest and, through his director’s eyes, examines the craft, the narrative structure and the philosophical and spiritual themes of each one. It means that he’s well prepared to work with his guests to get to the bottom of their choices, to explore the metaphysics of each artefact from both an artistic and a personal point of view. It’s no accident that Rickson refers to his guests’ choices as “offerings”.

The trust and the preparation create an environment in which the power of the format’s idea is realised. Rickson introduces each episode by talking about how we disclose ourselves through the things we love, what he calls the ventriloquism of revealing yourself when you talk about something else. He refers to the format as a kind of shadow play, an oblique approach to finding deep truth. “This podcast allows me to really hold you in mind… I see the world through your eyes, and I start making a story through the things you love.”

The conversations take place in a context of loss. Performers who can’t perform. Producers who can’t produce. A director who can’t direct. The loss is acknowledged but not discussed at length. But it’s always there. Early in their conversation Russell Brand says, “In a space that’s built for congregation, empty is curious isn’t it Ian?” Rickson replies, “Yeah, you understand that thing of theatres having a church-like quality, where people gather for the Word.” Producer Sonia Friedman reads Change by Kathleen Raine, and is deeply moved as Rickson says to her, “How do you feel after speaking it, because they’re the only words on the West End stage tonight?” These exchanges exist in a liminal space for the artists, between work that has been and work that will be. They have had time to consider both their relationships with art in general and the direction of their own artistry. And that reflection enriches the dialogue.

There are passages of language in each episode that are just exquisite. The significance of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song to Cush Jumbo. Rickson and Russell Brand discussing the “distilled truth” in Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant. Kae Tempest on Michael Jordan as a mythical being. Rickson thanks Chiwetel Ejiofor for his “dazzling riff” on Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Il Conformista.

It’s unusual for an audio medium to have such a vivid sense of place. It’s a sonic format, but a multi-sensory experience. You can hear the space. You’re there with them in these musty Victorian caverns. Olfactory memories are triggered. It is intensely atmospheric. These theatre spaces are yearning to be occupied once more. Each stage is a vacuum, exerting a negative pressure that will suck crowds of humanity back in off the streets when the doors are reopened. And all of these things are conveyed in the quality of the sound.

Favourite episode?

My favourite episode would probably be a greatest hits compilation from several of these conversations. But the Cush Jumbo episode perfectly epitomises the simple magic of this format. She reads Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60 and Rickson leaves a full five seconds of silence, which feels like an eternity, before asking, “How does it feel letting it speak you, and speaking it?” They are on the stage of the Young Vic theatre where, under normal circumstances, she would have been playing Hamlet that night. “I was really ready to have the words,” she says through her tears.

Rickson gently dictates the order in which each guest discusses their choices. He organises each conversation into a three-act narrative structure, which he only reveals at the end. For Cush Jumbo, Act 1 is Singing In The Rain, which is, “innocent, buoyant, childlike and ambitious. Act 2 is Sonnet 60, where they explore, “a contemplative inner space. Making meaning and reckoning with the reaper’s scythe.” Rickson quotes Saul Bellow: “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to fully see ourselves.” Act 3 is Redemption Song, which is about, “connection with soul, spirituality, and legacy and communion with the tribe.”

At the end she says, “You just gave me a prayer didn’t you, you just gave me a spell.” She is speaking for herself, but she could easily be talking on the audience’s behalf about the whole series.

Similar formats

Desert Island Discs is similar because each guest talks about art that is important to them.

I guess also Grounded with Louis Theroux, because it too is a podcast that explicitly draws on the context of the pandemic, and it too is elevated by the trust between Theroux and his guests.

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Thanks Phil.

One of the things I love about running Formats Unpacked is that it works in three very different ways. Each unpacking can deliver a great insight about formats, it can tickle the nostalgia parts of the brain, or it can serve as an excellent recommendation for a format you didn’t know existed. I’d never heard of this podcast before so I’m grateful to Phil not just for writing but for pointing me in the direction of something new.

We’ve had a lot of new subscribers over the last month - hello! Here are a few formats from the archive you may have missed.

Grand Designs unpacked by Matt Locke

The Langdon unpacked by Rob Alderson

A House Through Time unpacked by Lynsey Martenstyn

If you’d like to unpack a favourite format do get in touch. Or if you have any thoughts about formats you’d simply like to share, I’m all ears.

Until next time,

Hugh