Creator Download: Olly Gully

How a background in theatre translates to podcast production workflows

Podcasts are an excellent way to explore a variety of different topics, and mental health has been a particular focal point for many podcasters. The pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns were a tough period for most people, and a significant number of them turned to podcasts as an escape, both as listeners and creators.

One such creator is Olly Gully, a playwright by trade, who found himself at a loose end, and decided to turn his artistic talents to podcasting in lieu of being able to work in theatres. He started his podcast, Hear Myself Think, in collaboration with a number of other colleagues in order to explore different ways in which audiences could participate with a digital work, as well as to help unpack and alleviate some of the mental challenges that people were struggling with. 

We spoke to Gully about translating his skillset from theatre to podcasting, how to build a creative team, and why he doesn’t listen to podcasts in his spare time.

How would you describe your podcast?

Hear Myself Think is a series of short episodes inviting audiences to take part in activities beneficial to mental health. Each episode is narrated by a different character, and they’re experiencing some sort of anxiety or depression, and they undertake this activity and invite you to do the same. The idea is that the audience members, the listeners, pick an activity and they listen as their new-found friends tidy, talk, sketch, make food, brew hot drinks alongside them. Their comic and contemplative and investigative monologues offer instruction and comfort to the listener.

Why did you start your podcast?

I started the podcast back in early 2021. I'm a theatre-maker and writer and obviously in early 2021, there wasn't really much theatre to make; there weren’t really many theatres. I wanted to make something because that was my job. This was in the third lockdown and lots of people at that point were really struggling with social isolation, heightened anxiety, mild depression and general mental ill-health. I wanted to make something that combined the experimentation that people were making in bringing live theatre online.

So what we wanted to do was to create something that played with the idea of how much participation you could encourage from a digital audience. Was there some way you could represent that element of ‘liveness’ by encouraging the audience to take part in different live activities at the same time that they were listening to this pre-recorded piece of text? And so it's been an experimentation in those ways, and it grew out of that into something that was not only a piece of digital theatre, a piece of entertainment, but also had a very clear practical purpose.

What advice do you wish you'd been given when you first started?

What I wish I had done in creating Series 1, and I guess no one could have given me this advice beforehand, was do what we did in Series 2 – which was commission 15 creatives to create episodes that spoke specifically to experiences that are less represented in discussions and art around mental health. I'm very proud of the first series. I'm even prouder of the second series because I think it speaks more honestly to the reality of modern mental health.

The second series we made was very important because in the first series, I’d written episodes that were mainly from my own experience of mental ill-health. We also did community workshops with local mental health support groups and they had arrived out of that, but they were mostly from my own perspective in a range of different characters. And what became very clear is that mental ill-health discriminates in the same way that we, as a society, discriminate. So people who are less represented are less likely to be able to access support, and are less likely to see themselves represented in mental health discourse. They are also exposed to a climate which impacts mental health badly. 

How many people does it take to create an episode of your show?

That is a very good question. How long is a piece of content? The first series, I wrote each episode. We had a dramaturg called Kaleya Baxe who worked with me on writing the episodes, making sure they made sense fundamentally, making sure there was a good character arc, making sure they were engaging pieces of work that felt honest and authentic, but also then Daryl Rowlands directed those. And Kieran Lucas was our sound designer and composer. Then we hired five actors to record each of those pieces and work with a producer as well, Oli Seymour, who was extremely useful in terms of the practicalities of podcast-making. So that was sort of a skeleton crew. 

With the second series, the full team was 25 people and each episode specifically had its own writer, his own director and its own actor beyond that. We then had access to consultants, sound designers and a dramaturg again in the form of Kaleya. One of our writers was in Singapore, one was in Kolkata, one was in Glasgow, one was in London, and so it became a tangled web. It’s an exciting and engaging creative web of people coming together to make these episodes. So all in all, the core creative element of each episode was three people. But what we try to do is make sure there was an efficient and sizable team behind that to make sure everyone felt supported.

How do you monetise your podcast?

We don't. We realised first off that one of the most important things about this series would be that it was accessible. This was even before we thought it was a podcast – I still call it an ‘audio theatre series’ and everyone keeps telling me to stop being pretentious and call it a podcast! But we wanted to make it accessible, so we didn't want to pay for it. We have been very generously supported by Arts Council England and sponsored by other groups and other theatres, including Beats by Dr Dre and a number of theatres. 

Do I see a future in which we make more series and it’s monetised? Maybe. I've chosen collaborators wisely to make sure we get the best out of podcasts. Perhaps it could be something in the future, but what we want to do first off is just make sure we made it and we can get it out there as quickly as possible, and place the minimum amount of barriers between people pressing the button and listening to it. When it comes to mental health, friction, in terms of accessing support, is not a good thing.

How do you promote your podcast?

We've worked with a PR company called Chloé Nelkin Consulting whose main work is within the theatre sphere, because we always wanted to keep the idea of this as a piece of theatre. What we've done is made sure to work, as I say, with partner venues, with good community engagement as well as community support groups, such as Arts Network and Mosaic Clubhouse. To make sure that when we release the podcast, it goes directly to their networks and is marketed in that way. 

There's two strands, really, of marketing. That’s the first one, when we make sure that goes to the people who we think could benefit most from it. And we've made sure to make connections with organisations that have existing networks, have existing social media engagement, have existing magazines, newsletters, that definitely do go to these groups of people who could benefit most. But also we've worked with theatres to market it to a theatrical audience.

What have you learned about yourself since starting the podcast?

That I find a great deal of joy in working with other people towards a common goal. I think as a writer there's this societal idea that it's all about being a loner in some quiet corner, desperately scribbling away at your masterpiece. I don't think that's the best way to make work, or a very interesting way to make work. You create work that’s skewed to one perspective. Whereas when you get the opportunity to work with a group of people who all have different and interesting creative ideas, that is the most thrilling and generative way of making work. I knew that before, but it was proven to me in a very practical way, especially making Series 2, that the best way to make creative work is by surrounding yourself with people whose work you find exciting and challenging - and shocking, maybe. 

But also, people whose work comes at the same problem from a different perspective. I think that's the best way to make complex, interesting and nuanced work, which I hope we have done with this podcast – but certainly, I don't want to go back to working as a singular creative.

Who listens to the podcast? 

We now have listeners in over 30 countries around the world, which is pretty exciting - especially as it's an English-language podcast and it's picked up listeners in non-English or non-majority English-speaking countries. I think our audience skews mainly towards a female audience between 18 and 34; that's just what Spotify tells us. 

I see huge diversity in terms of the audiences, and that's something we wanted to make sure we spoke to in Series 2 by increasing the diversity of the creative team, but also all the way through in the first series as well, of putting these conversations about mental health into the mouths of characters who have different experiences: older characters, younger characters, characters from different ethnic backgrounds, different sexualities, different genders, different ages. That's always been very important. 

What was the last podcast you listened to?

I am terrible at listening to podcasts. I have such bad focus. I can barely listen to one… to listen to a group of people talk takes... it isn't my ideal way of engaging in content. I know you're saying it’s bizarre, then, that you created the podcast! I know exactly the dilemma inherent in that.