AMA with Aaron Mark writer of Dolores Roach

November 1, 2018

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Aaron Mark, the writer and creator of The Horror of Dolores Roach, and its source play, Empanada Loca, joined Gimlet Members’ Slack to answer Member questions.

Mark: I'm a big weenie and am not super into horror cause I'll just end up hiding under the covers. Can you convince me to check this out?

Ha! Well this horror is a bit unusual, and it's very character-based. So while there are certainly moments of grotesqueness, it's not quite jump-scares, if you know what I mean. Dolores takes you through the whole story and she's super friendly! How kind of her! lol

A lot of horror is too much for me too, frankly, so I wanted to write something that would hold the listener's hand a bit.

Elise: You guys covered a lot of sensitive ground (trans characters, gentrification, race/class in NYC) - how were decisions made around those issues? how did you guys resolve conflict on how to frame those things?

Yes great question re: sensitive ground. Most of that was in the play, which we did three years ago, though the play is much shorter, so there wasn't as much of an opportunity to flesh things out. We were very deliberate about how to address all of those things in the podcast, with more time to do so. There was a lot of discussion about all those issues, and it was really important to listen to lots of different POVs about how to approach those things.

At the end of the day, it comes back to story. Those threads, the sensitive ones, are baked into the story and the character, but ultimately what remains in the podcast is all there to move the story forward. If it didn't move story or reveal character, we took it out, But yes, it's a fine line addressing things sensitively and thoughtfully while maintaining the style of a piece that is, in a lot of ways, deliberately tasteless, you know?

Andrew: Speaking of, there was a bit of framing with Nellie that I think may have been in part because this was a podcast so I was only using my ears it was mentioned that she was a "tranny" (to use Dolores's word) when we met her, and then at the end when Luis referred to her as he/him. Were those moments used as ways to make her character or others' personalities stand out? It kind of felt like those moments said more about Dolores (naivety) and Luis (callousness?) than about Nellie, you know?

Yes, Andrew, that's exactly right. Those moments are there to help place Dolores when she arrives - i.e. someone who puts her foot in her mouth and has trouble connecting - and then to highlight how far Luis has gone down the rabbit hole at the end.

So yes - that's very much about context, and the use of that language in wildly different ways, with wildly different intentions. And it was important that Dolores and Nellie begin on the wrong foot, that their connection doesn't happen instantly. That would have been too easy for the story. Dolores needed to stumble first, and then their relationship becomes super strong and important. Meanwhile, Luis becomes the asshole.

Gabe: Hey Aaron! What were the challenges of taking the structure of the Empanada Loca script for stage and making it work for a podcast format?

The biggest challenge was focusing it in. I had a bit of an inclination to let the story go off in a lot of unnecessary directions once I was giving the freedom to expand it, so we had to do a lot of reigning it in.

Anna: Hi! I'm wondering why you chose Wash Heights?

I live in Washington Heights! The story is in my hood. Lived here almost 10 years

Jimothy: If you could be any piece of furniture, what would you be?

If I could be any piece of furniture... Hhmmm.... What a question A deep fryer isn't furniture is it?

Andrew: I almost hate to ask because I feel like it gets at the central question of the story, but how would you characterize Dolores's transformation throughout? She seemed to go from impulsively stumbling into a murder at the beginning to relishing it at the end, but she never seems to fully own her actions (since Luis is such a willing cover for her). What do you think was going through her head in the end?

Yeah that's very much the central question. What's going through her head is, I think, what she says in episode 7 , "What the fuck have I become?" You're right that she never quite owns what she's doing, and yes, Luis is there to be the easy excuse for that.

Andrew: It kind of felt like he allowed her the out to avoid actually confronting herself. I forgot about that in episode 7… was that narrator Dolores reflecting I think?

What will be interesting, going forward, with the hope that there is more story for Dolores (which there certainly is), is what will happen when she doesn't have him there to deflect onto. He let's her not look at what she's doing. He enables her for sure. Yes narrator Dolores asking herself what she's become...but she never quite answers that question

Her trajectory was the seed of the play - the person we love and identify with...finding herself in touch with a monstrous impulse she didn't think she had

Andrew: I chuckled at the idea of y'all having empanadas at the launch party… I don't think I'll be able to eat one for a while!

I am eating empanadas right now! I was off them for a year when we did the play but now I'm back on them.

Kurt: How much forethought has gone into leaving the door open to a possible season 2? Does that include backstory in the Finding Dolores skill? Were you involved with all of that?

LOTS of forethought. And yes I wrote the Finding Dolores skill. There's lots more story for Dolores - we do know what happens next. And the Alexa skill in some ways is (hopefully) a bit of connective tissue. There are some things planted in Finding Dolores that I hope we'll be able to flesh out (haha flesh) going forward. But there is more story that existed even before we made the podcast. Back when we did the play, a lot of that was worked out, as there had been the hope of continuing her story in some form

Andrew: For those of us who just heard the Dolores story and who met you through this podcast, how can we keep up? Twitter or something? Hearing that there's more to the story is neat!

You can keep up through Gimlet for sure as far as Dolores is concerned. I'm still not on Twitter but might need to finally cave one of these days.

Sydney: What inspired the characters Dolores and Luis?

Dolores and Luis are drawn from two categories - the first being Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett in the old Sweeney legend (Not the musical, but the original Penny Dreadful and the various retellings of it over the last couple hundred years). They're reimaginings of those characters, but they're equally drawn from people I've known in my neighborhood over the years. Not that I've know a serial killer up here (that I'm aware of), but they are very much inspired by real people.

Andrew: Ooh you've known a Dolores? Can you say more?  

Well...not in a literal sense...but yeah, she's a kind of composite of some people. Her personality is, anyway - not how she behaves. The behavior is from Sweeney Todd - the personality is from real life. You know?

Andrew: Any favorite lines or moments to write? "We serve the community" had me cracking up!

My favorite moments to write were Dolores and Luis bickering. I very much enjoyed writing her yelling at him. Not sure what that's about, but there it is.

Jimothy: What's your best piece of generic advice?

A homeless man on a subway platform once told me, "Take the train that moves." That stayed with me. That's what comes to mind at the moment.

Andrew: Is any of the script improvised? Or pretty well written out? Did any of that change during recording with input from the actors? Related: were there any significant changes aside from being fleshed out between the play and the podcast?

Only a few actors did a bit of improvisation. Bobby did some improvising, and Daphne earlier in the process, but it's very very scripted. I definitely tweaked things once we started hearing the actors. If anything sounded written, there was usually an attempt to make it sound less written. It should sound almost improvised, but it's all very deliberate.

Elise: This may have already been addressed, but were the actors cast because of play involvement? Or did you have to go through a separate casting process?

We ended up with a handful of actors who had seen the play. Bobby saw the play, and Michael Urie, and Elizabeth Rodriquez, and David Zayas. So they knew what they were walking into. We may have had a few others who'd been aware of the play but hadn't seen it. Everyone in the cast was an offer - nobody auditioned - which is a bit unusual in general.

Elise: More casting questions: What were some of the key things you were looking for in the casting process? Did you have an image/voice/mannerisms in mind?

There were definitely voices in mind. We wanted to make sure the voices would be distinct from each other, importantly. And that the actors we got would be able to walk this very fine tonal line, where a lot of what they're saying is somewhat absurd, but it needed to all be played for real. We wanted people who energetically would fit into that style, and people who would be fun to play with. It's horror, yes, but it had to be fun. So we thought of people who'd be fun to have in the studio, and who'd be up for this kind of ridiculousness. But the voice is key, obviously.

We got very very lucky with the cast. It was luxury casting in a lot of ways

Gabe: What other playwrights’ work do you admire? are there any other plays you’d love to see turned into audio fiction?

Charles Ludlam. Martin McDonagh. Ira Levin. I would love to see the work of those three turned into audio fiction. In fact I would go as far as to say I myself would love to adapt their work (since two of them are dead) for audio. Levin's work has been adapted for film, but Ludlam's work hasn't really been adapted anywhere at all. Lucille Fletcher too. Albee's another one - his play THE GOAT is a big influence for me.

Andrew: What other podcasts do you enjoy? And maybe movies too

Honestly I've gotten pretty into Gimlet podcasts over the course of this project. The last non-Gimlet podcast I really loved that comes to mind is Missing Richard Simmons. Also - speaking of audio fiction from plays - Wallace Shawn's play EVENING AT THE TALK HOUSE was done as a 3-part podcast, which is pretty great.

Re: movies... Hitchcock. I watched REAR WINDOW and ROPE again recently. Ooo there is a great audio version of ROPE with Alan Rickman! Not sure where it is out there but it exists. There's lots of weird old suspense-type audio drama out there, lots of it that was done in the UK and is long forgotten.

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