Building A World With Your Ears: Talking ‘Liberty’ With Creator Travis Vengroff Part 2

by Tony Thornley

If you had guessed a decade ago that audiodramas would make a comeback, a lot of people might have laughed in your face. However, not only have they made a comeback, but they’re a huge part of the podcasting world. One of the most unique of the bunch is Liberty, a show created by Travis Vengroff that’s exploded into a multimedia experience. In part two of our interview with Vengroff, we dive deep into the audio experience, talk about season 4 of Tales From The Tower, and talk about what’s next for the series.

Tony Thornley: Hello again Travis! So last time we talked, you mentioned that at this point the bulk of Liberty’s audience is through the audiodrama produced by Fool & Scholar Productions, run by you and Kaitlyn Statz. Can you tell us a little about Fool & Scholar Productions? How did you and Kaitlin get your start?

[The Cast of Liberty: The Narrow at their live show in Boston (2019)]

Travis Vengroff: Thanks Tony! It’s been quite a fun journey for us, and as I’d mentioned in our previous interview we really had no idea quite how much fun podcasting would be, or how successful we’d become. In short, we make audio fiction with a full voice cast and sound effects that make you feel like you’re in the room (or cave, or dust storm) with the characters. 90% of our work is released for free, and the bonus stories are available for people who support our Patreon and help us keep the lights on.

As of today, Fool & Scholar Productions is the multi-award winning team behind some of the most successful audio drama podcasts, including The White Vault, Liberty, VAST Horizon, and Dark Dice. We have over 6 million downloads, 800 regular supporters on Patreon, we’ve won 14 Audio Verse Awards this year, we have multiple Webby nominations, our works have been featured in the Hear Now Gold listening showcase, we have released over 100 fully-produced core episodes, we’ve written hours of music, performed two sold-out live shows, worked with many of our favorite voice actors, and directed a 40 person choir. We’re doing all of this without corporate backing, and as the same two person core team, though it should be noted that we work with a number of fantastic actors, musicians, mixing engineers, and artists. 

[The cast of The White Vault at their live show in New York City (2018)]

Kaitlin and I started F&S because we were looking for a hobby we could share. We planned to either make a video game or an audio drama podcast one summer. It took us the better part of two days to get past the “Hello World” screen using an actionscript compiler, whereas in a single day we sorted through a half dozen story outlines for podcasts we’d come up with, and Kaitlin had written part of our pilot episode. We decided to make it part of the Liberty universe I was already working on because it had a fanbase from the comic books and the roleplaying game. I worked on production, Kaitlin wrote the scripts, and we had our first story done a few weeks later. We were wowed when we got over a dozen regular listeners. We were confused when our podcast numbers exceeded any other show on our network within the first two months. Things kept growing from there and we kept telling new stories every two weeks.

TT: What was your first collaboration?

TV: Kaitlin had a project for her German class in college where she had to record an audio drama where four German speakers have a conversation. It was terrible, but that was part of the fun. Kaitlin’s voice was pitched up or down so she could play three of the voices, and her class clearly knew that the fourth voice (myself) did not speak German. I also got to create a few sound effects for a phone call. I’d completely forgotten about this project until now and in retrospect that experience might have partially encouraged us to make Liberty into an audio drama.

Our first real collaboration was Alexei and the Forest Dragon, the aforementioned video game. Before we started toying with actionscript we made pixel art, animations, maps, enemies, and part of a soundtrack. The story basically focused on a fierce warrior whose little brother was kidnapped by a dragon. You play as the knight, Alexei, as you battle evil with your magical javelin (it returns to your hand 99.5% of the time), and when the game concludes, our silent protagonist is revealed to be a woman. Kaitlin created the pixel art, I wrote the soundtrack and made a list of the things we’d need to learn how to program. Our progress towards audio drama was so much faster, so we never finished it and instead started work on Critical Research.

TT How did your first show in the Liberty universe, Critical Research, come to be?

TV: Kaitlin had just graduated with a degree in anthropology, and we’d initially met because of an ethnographic study she was conducting at our local comic book shop. With a bit of an understanding that audio drama stories could work better as a series of interviews (instead of action sequences) we thought that an undercover ethnographer trying to understand what makes our world’s monsters human would make for a compelling story. We could also gradually introduce characters, worldbuilding elements, factions, and some of the more dark sides of Atrius if we took it one step at a time.

We were honestly quite prudish and concerned that we’d scare away potential listeners if we opened with the more upsetting content we had planned for later seasons. This coming from the people who now have stories known for staircases of human teeth, but at the time we were really worried about scaring people off by literally scaring them, because we were fairly new to the medium, and didn’t know what was socially acceptable. We cast our friends and family members as the characters, I made the bulk of the sound effects myself in our flat (aside: I hated recording footsteps), and somehow we were able to make the entire season.

[Recording wind and water on the Oregon coast]

TT: As I understand it, that show was sort of jumping into the deep end for you. What were some of the lessons you learned?

TV: I certainly learned how to use a hand-held microphone to record sound effects with greatly increased efficiency. I started listening to everything in life, and recording anything that sounded interesting. It’s funny though, because most of the lessons I learned were when I collaborated with Dayn Leonardson on Season Two of Critical Research. He opened my eyes to sound effects that you didn’t have to record yourself. For instance there’s a library online that has 70+ different doors being opened and closed, or five different types of shoes walking across seven different types of surfaces. That sort of stuff saves hours and is recorded far better than I can record in multiple afternoons.

I also started to think in terms of ‘frequency depth’ and how authentic sounds (like being punched or breaking glass) often do not sound nearly as good as faking those sounds by layering multiple sound effects together. You become a better editor by editing, but you become a smarter editor by examining what you’re doing, what other people are doing, and asking yourself what you could do more efficiently. From season two onward my goal has always been workflow optimization, saving our actors time, and having a method to organize my ever-growing library of sounds.

TT: The longest running entry in the Liberty universe now is your sci-fi horror series, Tales from the Tower, which is basically Atrius’s version of The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. What led you towards doing horror within your universe?

TV: Kaitlin and I are huge fans of The NoSleep Podcast, from which we took direct inspiration. After the first season of Critical Research, we both wanted to continue making podcasts but we were not ready to go back to full-cast audio dramas because our lives were fairly busy. Kaitlin was getting her Masters at Oxford university and I was jumping between the US and UK. Telling narrative horror stories with only a single actor seemed like a great way to continue exploring more of the Liberty universe without having to invest as much time on our end. Many of my personal RPG sessions also contained themes of horror, so I was really glad to reintroduce supernatural elements to our world while hinting that not every story is necessarily 100% canon, as the government is so fond of propaganda. The show really grew in season 2 with Excuse Me, as Kaitlin handed me a script with 30+ actors and said “I came up with a new story. If you like it and want to do a second season of Tales from the Tower, we have two weeks to produce it.” 

It was my favorite story we’d worked on at the time. I was hooked, and so we had a second season. The third season broke from the narrative form and each episode has been an audio drama akin to Critical Research or our other podcasts. It’s been really quite a fun journey of exploring what we want to do as storytellers, and to a large extent we’ve never known quite where the next season will take us until we’re there.

TT: Tales from the Tower just started its fourth season, and you’ve done a wide range of stories within the horror genre, spanning subgenres like psychological horror, to creature features, to cosmic dread. What can we expect to see this season?

TV: Without spoiling too much, our new miniseries, simply titled The Tower, is a fairly light story about a couple moving into an apartment complex with a war-torn history. As strange symbols start to appear and as the couple starts to feel like they might not be alone, we are left to wonder if the tower’s former residents are truly deceased, if there’s some kind of conspiracy, or if there’s something truly supernatural taking place. I say it’s a lighter story because it will not be showcasing any real violence, the language is fairly PG, and the characters are really likeable. One of the protagonists also works in Fringer relations, trying to understand the gods and stories of the Fringe, so there are a lot of possibilities where the story could go, and not all of them are grounded in hard science. If you’ve never heard a Liberty story before, it also makes for a great launching point, which we try to do with each season.

TT: Each episode has told its own story, and you’ve had a wide variety of creators and actors on board. Is there a particular episode you’re especially proud of? (On a personal note: My favorite episode by far has been The Narrow with Sarah Rhea Werner)

TV: Sarah Rhea Werner is a national treasure! She also has her own podcast Girl in Space that she writes, produces, and is the lead in. We have four episodes that people seem to really love, and The Narrow is always on that list! I think deep down we’re all a little bit claustrophobic, and with the entire story taking place in a dark hole, you really don’t need to know anything about the world to enjoy it.

While I am proud of my achievements on Excuse Me, Sleep Study, and Happiness, all of which feature a larger cast and more sound design than Critical Research’s first season, I think For The Archon is the story that I had the most fun on. In short, it’s a roller coaster ride where you actually get to follow the adventures of our world’s never-present leader, Archon Reeve, on a daring historical mission… Only it’s literally a roller coaster ride! From an audio layering perspective you have the person sitting in the seat, fidgeting, screaming during the drops, you have the ride itself which rumbles and squeaks as it pulls the cars along, you have the animatronic characters, the voices, the special and practical effects, and on top of it all you have an epic soundtrack that makes you feel each moment with 10x the intensity. Kaitlin and I both went to Universal Studios a few months before she came up with the idea and I’d like to think we really captured the feel of the Spider-Man ride in this one.

TT: How do you find creative talent for the episodes not written by Kaitlin or yourself? What was the process of working with guest authors like?

TV: Oddly enough, people who are either cast or crew on the episodes asked us if they could write an episode, and came to us with some really great ideas. This was during our second season, when Kaitlin and I were still hobbyists with a limited number of hours we could work on podcasting, so we gladly accepted their aid to help us bring new stories to life. Typically they’ll send me a script, I’ll redline edits to make sure everything fits our world, Kaitlin makes a few changes, and we send it back to the author for approval. I will say that in some instances Kaitlin and I have given heavy feedback (or, with permission rewritten large sections) and thankfully everyone we’ve worked with has shared our goal of telling the best possible story. When all of us are on the same page you can get some really delightfully creative stories like Underground or Heavy Heart  which are some of my personal favorites. I’ve also secretly snuck two of my own stories into the mix over the years, but writing for audio is a lot more difficult than I originally anticipated, especially in a non-narrative format.

TT: Okay, and my last question about Tales from the Tower, are these stories actual in-universe events being spun as fiction by the government, or are they entirely fictional?

TV: It’s a mix. We have a few that are most certainly straight up propaganda, such as Infection, where there are clear moral consequences and where gross misinformation is fairly telling that it’s propaganda. Other stories like The Narrow or Happiness are instances where the government would absolutely NOT want to fabricate such stories because they’re unpatriotic and showcase the colony in a poor light. As for which ones are true or false, it’s generally up to our listeners to decide, but we will occasionally sneak details of the true stories into our other Liberty works, like Vigilance or the Deception graphic novels.

[Archon Reeve is rarely seen but her presence is often felt in our stories]

TT: So after Tales from the Tower wraps the current season, what’s coming next from the audio side within the Liberty universe?

TV: We’re actually at a very interesting crossroads with Liberty, in that we have so many directions we can go, so many stories to tell, but only a limited number of episodes we can release in a given year as a two-person core team. We have no shortage of ideas though, that’s for sure. At present we’re in talks to maybe release a one-off or miniseries in the vein of Vigilance, after a recent resurgence in that story’s popularity. We’re looking into a scripted story pertaining to the colony’s founding, stories about a specific pivotal event, stories following characters who survive our graphic novel series, or possibly more Tales from the Tower. Part of us wants to also tie it into the VAST Horizon universe in some way, but for the benefit of both worlds we will probably keep them separated.

TT: I know we’re planning to sit down soon with you and your partner Kaitlin to talk about what else you have in the pipeline under the wider Fool & Scholar umbrella, but is there anything else you want to plug?

TV: I’d say that if you enjoy science fiction you should also check out VAST Horizon, which we also create. It’s a very dark story that follows one woman as she wakes up in an empty space ship and is fighting for her survival. It contains my best sound design work to date and Kaitlin’s best worldbuilding, going so far as to create multiple alien languages and cultures as we launch our second season next month.

I’d also plug Liberty: Vigilance, which is on The Liberty Podcast feed as well. Vigilance is one part actual play, one part audio drama, brought to life by dozens of actors from The Walking Dead, Borderlands, Space Ghost, and Fallout. In short, five Citizens uncover a plot that threatens to change the colony forever. It took us over a year to bring to life and I could not be more proud of the end result. It’s also narrated by my favorite Lovecraft narrator of all time, Wayne June from Darkest Dungeon.

TT: Thank you Travis! This really is some exciting stuff. We really appreciate you taking the time!

Pick up Liberty: Deception Volume 1 available on Comixology now, and check out everything Liberty on the website! The Liberty podcast feed is available on all major podcatchers!

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