Could each of you introduce yourselves and tell us what you do at Strong Branch Productions?
(Alex) Hi I’m Alex Kingsley, I use they/them pronouns, and I am the head writer and director at Strong Branch. I’m also the head game designer, so a lot of the games are primarily my work with a lot of play testing and input from the rest of the team. I’m also the primary sound editor.
(Clare) Hello I’m Clare, I also use they/them pronouns and I am the public relations manager for Strong Branch. So I handle all the social media, I make cool little graphics, then I have my hands in a lot of other things as well. I help out with editing sometimes, you can see me on “Strong Branching Out” our actual play podcast. So yeah I’m doing lots of different things,
(Alex) A lot of graphic design and formatting for the games as well.
(Grace) I’m Grace I use she/her pronouns, I’m the co-founder of Strong Branch Productions and also a voice actress and producer.
So tell us how ‘Strong Branch Productions’ was created?
(Alex) When the pandemic started I was really thirsting for the artistic fulfilment that I had gotten when I was in school. I was a senior in Undergrad and I had lost my last semester and I was working with a lot of really cool people, because I was a theatre major working on all these exciting projects, that could no longer happen. I knew that all of these other people felt like me, like we were in this really difficult place because it felt like the world was ending for everyone.
I thought it would be nice if we could all get together and do something artistic for ourselves, and if it has a product that’s great, but let's get together and build something. So I originally texted Grace and was like “Hey, I think I want to make a production company so we can continue to do this work, and make people happy and ourselves happy even remotely, what do you think?” and Grace was immediately onboard so we started building this out. We slowly brought in more people, later on in the process I had actually just been talking to Clare about it and they were like “I could help you out with that”. Then it became this process of them slowly morphing into the core production team, thus creating the trio we have today.
The name “Strong Branch” I didn’t even have to brainstorm a name. I knew it’s what I wanted to go with immediately, because it is the English translation of my Grandmother's Italian last name Branciforte. My Grandmother is a huge inspiration to me, she’s the one who taught me how to work hard on the things I love and to let go of the things that are not important.
You have members in different parts of the world, how did all of you connect with each other and decide to work together?
(Alex) Good question, one thing I will say first is that one of our core values as a company is “Inclusivity and Community”. So we are always functioning on this belief of ‘if you want to be a part of us, you can be a part of us’. Join us, if you’re interested we’ll figure out something for you to do as much as we possibly can, bringing in as many people as possible.
So that’s part of the reason we’re so big, we think of ourselves more as a community than a production company and that people can have as large or as little a role that they want. So that’s one reason.
The way that most of us met, the original group of us were classmates, fellow theatre students at the same college. Some of us also met online, through various circles. One actor I met playing Roblox online which I think is the funniest story, and one actor I met at a board games party of a mutual friend. Clare and I went to high school together.
(Clare) Yeah Alex and I went to school together then reconnected over the pandemic. On the social media side of things, what's really cool is that we can find a lot of collaborators, and find ways to work together. Like Alex was saying about how one of the company goals is community and inclusivity, we can really do that across social media and collaborate with a bunch of different companies and different production studios.
(Grace) I think a big thing that makes us kind of different is that we have an actor database, so once you audition for us once we have all of your stuff on file, and we’ll reach out to you whenever we come up with future projects.
We all come from a theatre background and found that a lot of theatre can be very toxic in its environment of ‘audition, rejection, audition, rejection etc.’ So we like to think of it that when we reject someone it’s not like “It’s over, you're not involved with us at all” but instead “ Not for this project, but we’ll keep you in mind for this and this”. So we have a huge base of people to pull from, and we want to continue to grow that.
(Alex) We have this notion, like Grace said coming from a theatre background, we have grown up with this rhetoric of professionalism and being professional, that the most important thing is to be professional. What does it mean to be professional? That is very defined by the capitalist, product oriented society that we live in.
We said okay, what if we hold ourselves to a different standard, it’s not going to be about professionalism it’s just going to be about being good. A lot of times when people are in the theatre world and they're getting constantly rejected, and then they're in a position of power where they can reject people, it then feels good to reject people in turn because they can feel like they’re on top.
We want to do as much as we can to fight any of the negative, nasty feelings that end up happening in the arts, and hold ourselves to a standard higher than professionalism. Which is just kindness.
How did you all feel as a group of artists trying to deal with all the changes to the creative industry brought on by the pandemic?
(Alex) For me I think the biggest change kind of ended up being a positive one, which was that the pandemic opened up for me the possibilities of the arts. I was very stuck in “Okay this is what theatre is, this is what I’m doing”. Then when that was no longer possible, I had to ask myself “Okay, what else is out there?”.
I did not know I was going to have any interest in podcasts or game design, but those are two different, diverging methods of collective storytelling that sometimes do come together, we have a tabletop game podcast and plenty of people do, but those were two methods of storytelling that were cracked open for me by the limitations.
I think it was Stephen Colbert, I remember hearing a quote when I was little who said something like “I believe that creativity comes from limitations”, and obviously the pandemic was and still is a terrible trauma for everyone. It is kind of amazing to find these strange little silver linings, and I think that was one of them.
(Clare) Yeah and I can expand on that, I think the silver lining for me personally as a creator and I think a lot of other creators too, was confidence. Before the pandemic I wanted to be involved in the arts but I didn't think it could happen, I was like “I’m not going to get a job as an actor in a big thing, I’m not going to become a hit writer”. Then through the pandemic I realised I don’t need to do that, I don’t need to be famous, this doesn’t even need to be my job. It can just be a really fulfilling amazing thing that I can do.
I think it’s also given me the confidence to reach out to other creators. With the pandemic I think people are a lot more open to doing things virtually, and finding new ways to connect. I find it so much easier now to reach out to a bigger production company or reach out to a pod-caster who I really like and maybe even idolise, I feel a lot more comfortable with that communication and more comfortable just putting myself out there as a creator even though that’s not my full time job.
(Grace) I think as we mentioned before, community has been a huge thing, over the pandemic it was really easy to feel very isolated, because we were all stuck in our homes and didn’t know what to do.
Strong Branch Productions brought about a really good sense of community, something we did with our recording sessions is that we do them live and in the same format. So we are all there together recording at the same time, and we’re laughing together, messing up our lines and just having a lot of fun overall. That was a really big important part of what helped me through the pandemic, knowing I had this group of people that I could work with and have fun with.
That’s something we’ve continued even now, of course we’re still in a pandemic but people can go to their jobs and go out and be busy again, but we still try our best to find a recording session so it’s not just recording alone the sending it to people.
(Alex) I think in general we learned to make better use of the tools that we had available to us. Specifically in the form of social media or Zoom, I never really used Discord or TikTok and now suddenly we are using them not just as social media, but as community building tools.
You produce Podcasts, Games and Web Series. How easy or difficult was it as theatre students, which is a more practical art form, to transfer those skills into a different medium?
(Alex) laughs. I laugh because the answer is; hard.
The web series I should say existed before Strong Branch existed, but I decided that this was a thing we just did and got cut short because of the pandemic, let's put it under this umbrella. If you compare the quality of that to the podcast we’re producing, it’s significantly worse. I don’t say that to be disparaging, I say that because we were college students and it was very clearly made by college students. We were very used to live performance, a lot of times working with designers, sometimes even professional designers in the case of a college with resources. So there are all these technical aspects, part of it is the digital aspect of how am I going to learn this editing programme? Part of it is also just practical, like “How do I make the lighting in a college apartment look good?”, “How do I direct for screen versus for stage?”. So the web series itself was a huge learning process, I realised there were so many technical aspects, that I would enjoy it more and make a better product if I really only focused on one aspect.
I had been surprised at how much I had enjoyed sound, the previous summer I had done an internship at Red Hook post, which is a sound house in New York. I did it because I thought I wanted to go into film, and sound is an aspect of film, I didn’t really realise I was going to fall in love with sound while working at this sound house. So that’s why I came back to “Okay, I really like this particular aspect, maybe a podcast is the way to go. That way maybe we can have more control over the different elements that are present here.” Once I made that decision and had the learning process of the web series, it was much easier to go from that to a podcast which was much more limited. I already had the directing experience from theatre, and I already had the sound experience.
(Clare) Yeah definitely a big learning curve. For me it was really interesting because I did theatre in high school, I did a little bit of theatre at the beginning of college but not much. So Strong Branch was my re-introduction to a lot of the creative arts, and really I have a whole community, and Alex and Grace specifically, to thank for teaching me a lot about how to get back into the podcasting world. Giving me feedback on things like my writing, graphic design, audio editing etc. So it goes back to community and I was really relying on community as I went back into the arts and became a creator again.
Also similar to Alex with sound design and audio editing, for me that was graphic design. I didn’t realise it was the thing I really enjoy, but I hopped on Canvas one day which isn’t the best programme ever but I started to learn about how you can best convey your message through pictures and fonts and colours. How that all works together and it was interesting to me, now it’s something I want to pursue further and learn more about.
(Grace) Sound and voice acting was a really big transition and definitely a learning curve, because we’re all spread out all over the place. We all have different rooms which means different levels of reverb, we all had different microphones, so there was a whole bunch of things where we had to learn to like not blow out the mic here, whenever we say our “P’s” we have to make sure they don’t pop on the mic and all these different little things.
Thankfully because we have such a good community we were able to do some crowdfunding, so we were able to not only pay our actors but get them better equipment. To make the podcast sound a bit more professional in itself, and that was really helpful. Yeah definitely learned a lot, even about my setup and how I need to be in a small little room. I actually record in my closet because it helps the sound a lot.
(Alex) Learning to use the tools that we have available to us was definitely something that happened. I did not know until Clare said community, so I went to my creator friends and asked what sound design software do you recommend. Then using things like online tutorials, I took a Coursera course on audio engineering. All these tools that were always there, that in the absence of everything suddenly became more important.
Following on, how important do you think it is now that people use their “transferable skills” to widen what they know so they can have a more sustainable career in this industry? Do you think that’s the future?
(Alex) I think it depends on what exactly it is in the arts that you want to do. I think of things like Broadway, I think of musicals that have been running for years and years, I think that’s always going to exist.
People always say “Theatre is dying, books are dying, Movies are dying etc.”, but it never really is. There’s always going to be a space for people who are just going to stay in their niche interests and say I like musical theatre, I want to be a musical theatre actor and do that. I think there’s also going to be a space for people who are constantly trying to innovate, to do new things, to say “Hey how can we combine tabletop games with theatre” and make something completely new. “How can we combine devised theatre with podcasts” and make something completely new.
It just so happens that is what we are more interested in. It’s the; how do we synthesise the things that we already know and go someplace different. That’s why our company slogan is “Betraying Theatre Everyday” because we are looking for ways to betray theatre, some people want to stay loyal to theatre and I think that's fine. Personally, in terms of career I can’t speak to what’s more profitable, I’m doing this and also an English teacher at the same time. Obviously I can’t speak in terms of what will make you the most profits, I can only speak about what brings me the most fulfilment and it’s constantly trying to find new and exciting ways to do things.
(Clare) I think what’s really cool about the moment we’re living in right now is that, we don’t dream of labour and we don’t have a dream job. We don’t need this to be our career, we don’t need to say “I’m going to get a masters in musical theatre and just focus on that”, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
It’s really freeing to know that we have the opportunity to pursue what we want outside of our regular jobs, and find community and ways to be fulfilled outside of a career.
(Grace) I think that’s a big thing that we all learned through this production company. From a very young age you're taught “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”, it was very instilled in us and it wasn’t until recently where we learnt how toxic that can be. It really sucks the joy out of it sometimes, doing something you love and trying to profit off of it.
It’s okay to just have a job that makes you money, and also have something that fulfils you creatively or artistically. So that’s something we all learned through Strong Branch, again nothing wrong with doing what you love and being able to make money from it. Obviously that’d be great but it’s also okay and good that there’s the alternative.
Is there anything we should be looking out for in the near future from Strong Branch Productions?
(Alex) Yes, well I want to start by saying something that we’re doing right now is that we’re currently in the midst of season 2 of our sci-fi comedy podcast “The Stench of Adventure”. You can look forward to the season finale which is coming up in June.
We are about to announce a new project, it will be formally announced on the day of the season 2 finale. What I can say about it is that it’s another total experiment, another us betraying theatre. It is a method of us taking our theatre training and everything we’ve learned about the podcast process and putting those two things together in a way that I personally at least have never seen done before. At least from my perspective it’s going to be a completely new experiment.
There are also other projects that we’re working on, Clare do you want to talk about yours?
(Clare) Sure! Actually before I talk about mine I want to mention that for “Strong Branching Out” our actual play podcast, after we finish our current run of episodes we’re going to be doing a little re-invention of it. I’m very excited for it and I think it’ll showcase some really amazing people and showcase our improv skills.
Yeah and I’m currently writing a podcast for Strong Branch, that’s all I’ll say for now but I’ve recently been re-motivated to write and get back into writing.
(Alex) Also our anthology style show that we’ve been working on for a long time but haven’t formally announced, that’s not a big surprise, people know we’ve been working on that show but it hasn’t officially dropped.
What advice would you give to any young creative person at the beginning of their career, on how to do what you’ve done and branch out their skillset?
(Grace) I think it would just be to learn by doing and just go for it. I think a lot of creative people are held back by perfectionism and being like “I really want this to sound perfect and want this to be perfect”, and you’ll just end up never doing it.
So I think it’s better to hit the ground running and learn on the fly. I think we’ve learned a lot simply by doing and you should not hold back and “wait until you’re ready”, I think you are ready and should just go for it.
(Alex) Something that has helped me so much is this idea that “ideas are a useless currency”. People have this notion that they need to get inspiration, and that inspiration is this magical thing that only strikes some people and that if you don’t have the inspiration then you can’t make the thing. I think that is completely false.
Anything can be a good idea, I’m constantly writing down random ideas. Something from a conversation I had, something from a dream I had, something from a book that I want to steal. A whole list of ideas, only some of them get made into things, only some of those things actually go forward. The point is it’s not the ideas that matter, any idea can be a good idea it just matters how much work you put into it and refine it.
Everything we did is just one of a tonne of random ideas, so don’t let ideas and the idea of inspiration stop you. What Grace said just doing it is so much more important than doing it well. Also the community aspect, have a team.
(Clare) My advice would be to take pride in what you create. It can be so easy to compare yourself to others and feel like your own work isn't good enough. In reality, if you find joy from creative work, then it's good enough. Every creative accomplishment, whether that's picking up a pen for the first time or publishing a novel is huge and worthy of celebration.