Who doesn’t enjoy a good, humorous sci-fi story? The creative partnership of Fable & Folly producer Sean Howard and writer/director Eli Hamada McIlveen, based in Canada, has produced a variety of improvised, comedic podcasts—including award-winning Alba Salix, as well as fan favorites like Civilized and The Axe & Crown. Their approach to making strong fictional stories ties back to their passion for the genre.
“We’re both SF fans since birth basically,” says McIlveen. “I grew up listening to audio drama on the radio because I’m Canadian, and we continued to have an audio fiction industry for many years. They would rebroadcast things like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from the BBC.”
McIlveen did a stint in university radio, producing a comedy show among other things, which drew him into writing.
Launching with “Alba Salix” and “The Axe & Crown”
“In 2011, I hit on the idea of Alba Salix, Royal Physician, a fairytale hospital sitcom, like Shrek meets House. It took us a while to get that first episode out the door,” he notes. They recorded the podcast in a makeshift, DIY studio—lining their dining room walls with mattresses to get a clearer sound. The first season hit the airwaves in 2014.
“It was a fun thing to do with some of the people we knew in the theater space, and life went on,” says Howard. “We did other things.”
Then one day he walked by Eli’s desk and saw a set of numbers. “What’s that?” he wondered aloud.
McIlveen replied, “It’s Alba.”
As it turned out, McIlveen was studying their podcast’s download figures. Alba Salix was doing impressively well for a show they weren’t strongly marketing, at a time when there weren’t a lot of audio fiction podcasts being made. A little word of mouth had created a growing set of avid listeners.
“That’s when we scrambled,” Howard says.
He and McIlveen started thinking bigger, and that led to the creation of their follow-up series, The Axe & Crown—which follows the adventures of Gubbin the troll tavernkeeper as he deals with his clueless new landlord, his shady niece, and some new competition.
“Alba had received an award for fantasy audio fiction,” says Howard. “We were driving back from that conference and tossing back and forth ideas.” Their plan was to create a short, simple fictional story that would build on their success. As with all great ideas, it ballooned into something more.
“The show takes place across the river from Alba Salix, in a tavern in the bad part of town where things are rapidly gentrifying,” McIlveen says. In writing The Axe & Crown, the creative team drew on a variety of inspirations, including McIlveen’s time studying urban planning, the duo’s appreciation for humor, and even local economics and development issues.
“We were living in Toronto at the time, which was gentrifying like mad,” explains Howard. “So it was very topical.” The show has had two seasons so far, and is in the process of funding its third.
A More “Civilized” Series
Next, the Fable & Folly team launched into other concepts not tied to the Alba world. The result is Civilized, a dark comedy, completely improvised, science fiction podcast, which is in its fourth season. It’s a workplace drama set in space, which Howard dreamed up with a fellow actor Kristi Boulton, who plays Beatrix on the show.
The concept is familiar, yet fun:
Humanity’s final hope lies in terraforming a new world. A fleet of engineering ships are sent in advance of the colony ships sure to follow in their wake. But one lone ship becomes separated from the fleet and crash lands on an alien planet.
What makes the podcast unique are the elements of flexibility and unexpected creativity that come with its brand of long-form improvisation. The cast and creative team don’t plan ahead in detail. They don’t even use classic blocking methods (“this happens, and then this happens…”), which were hindering the cast’s ability to get real humor out of their scenes. Instead, they use a Friends title as a general staring point, and jump in.
This ad-hoc approach requires some more patience and editing, and plenty of attention to sound design. But over time, the cast has developed a strong sense of how to create humorous and compelling moments in audio drama, which is quite different from improv on stage.
Another challenge: making the improv work over Zoom during the pandemic stay-at-home orders.
“So much of the magic of Civilized was having that rapport of a bunch of long-form improvisers all working off each other. And the ability to use a gesture to indicate that the scene is almost over was hard to do on Zoom,” explains Howard.
“We’d connect; the call would be on Zoom, and everyone would record to their own hard drives and then send me the files,” adds McIlveen. “I’d be hoping that everything was all right. It’s so much less stress when they’re all in one room.”
“The good news about Zoom is that Eli ended up doing more tightening in the timing (and editing),” says Howard. “But we’ve just started going back in person, and it’s been magic.”
Growing Their Podcast List
As the Fable & Folly team evolves, their methods are evolving too. They’re using a writers’ room for Alba’s third season. “It has been such a change and so amazing,” says Howard, “to increase the diversity of voices and also alleviate the two weeks of hell as Eli and I would stay up passing scripts back and forth as we move up toward recording.
“Having a group of writers with all these different perspectives, and saying we’ve agreed on an arc but we want to bring up social issues and use comedy that way—it’s been really neat to see what comes out as a result that’s more topical and based on what we’re all going through.”
The team’s newest show in development, The Denial Project, will be a campy horror in the vein of Shaun of the Dead and What We Do in the Shadows. The trailer for The Denial Project is available now, and season one is expected to begin this fall.
“One of our things about Fable & Folly—It’s in our name—is that we like to do stuff that has comedy or is an escape a bit. We don’t need any more anxiety personally, and we figure most of our listeners are also looking for something that’s a fit.”
For this new show, the team is casting the net wider for actors, looking for ways to provide even more opportunities for diversity and representation. “We did our first session, and it was heaven. It’s a terrific cast,” they say. “We’re super excited about it.”
Supporting Other Podcasters
As they’ve watched the audio fiction space evolve, the Fable & Folly team is expanding their efforts to provide behind-the-scenes production and platform support for fellow creatives. Their goal: to offer indies an outlet as audio fiction grows more popular.
“I saw this as an opportunity to find some of the most amazing audio fiction producers who do have the chops and want to do this full-time, so that’s what we’ve been building,” says Howard. “My real dream is to see a path now for some of us to be at the table of what is going to be independent fiction producers.”
As their team builds this area of the business, they’re excited about the possibilities they hope to see happen.
“There are some amazing creators out there who have done great work, often from an underrepresented point of view, and I want to have the resources to grow those shows,” says Howard.
To follow Fable & Folly, you can check out their list of shows on their home site or look for them wherever podcasts are distributed.