Entertainment » Culture

Telling Universal Tales Through an LGBTQ Lens :: Jack Tracy on His Spotify Podcast 'Community'

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jun 26, 2019
Jack Tracy
Jack Tracy  (Source:Joey Sbarro Photography)

On the heels of his film festival sensation "Snowflake," multi-media talent Jack Tracy has created a dramatic new podcast called "Community" that, true to its title, speaks to LGBTQ listeners by imagining a mass shooting at a gay night spot. The first episode of the fictional story is now available at Spotify, with additional episodes set to drop each Tuesday starting July 8. "Community" features a cast of more than a dozen voice actors, including two trans leads, Liam Zupp and Jay Knowles.

But the people depicted in "Community" are not all LGBTQ. Some are straight, including several characters who portray celebrants of a bachelorette party that has come to the club to enjoy the company of some "hot gay guys." And the dramatic turn of events that turn a typical night of clubbing into a nightmare of gun violence and carnage isn't a worry of the LGBTQ community so much as a terror currently inflicted upon all of America — our national community in its largest sense.

Jack Tracy spoke with EDGE about his new project, his many other accomplishments, and his idea for an entirely new sort of narrative experience.

EDGE: Hi Jack! It's a pleasure to chat with you again.

Jack Tracy: Yeah — I warned you I had more stuff coming!

EDGE: We spoke a few months ago about your film "Snowflake." How has the film been received? What kind of feedback are you getting?

Jack Tracy: I've really been happy with its reception, We had a world premiere at QFlix Philadelphia, and they were absolutely wonderful to us. We then had our New York premiere at the Big Apple film festival, and the audiences seemed to really, really love it. We had a lot of very active Q&A and talkbacks about the political topics that we get into with the film. We're now in talks with the sales agent to try to get this thing into a broader release.

EDGE: Your new project is a podcast — an audio drama, really — called "Community." It's fascinating how sixty or seventy years ago, radio was a primary form of mass entertainment that brought dramas and comedies and other programs right into people's homes — and now in the 21st century we're back to audio formats as a popular form of entertainment! What drew you to the world of podcasting?

Jack Tracy: The reason to do it this was twofold for me. One — I was still growing up in the late '80s, early '90s, and at that time radio was still very big in terms of music. I was constantly coming home from school and listening to a radio show — it was usually a DJ with the top ten hits of the day, or whatever. I was calling in and making requests and dedications to friends.

And I remember my mom used to buy me these audiobooks that were connected to something I watched [on TV] — something like "He-Man," or "Thundercats," or one of those kinds of things. There would be a read-along and listen along. I remember as a kid being really drawn to sitting and listening and having a story read out for me.

But more recently, it was really about... I listen to a lot of podcasts, a lot of political ones, and it was on one of those political podcasts where I first heard the tapes that were leaked out of the immigration detention centers. Listening to the kids who had been separated from their parents crying, screaming, asking where their parents were, and then hearing the border patrol people mocking them, saying something like, "Sounds like we have an orchestra in here, ha ha ha." At that moment I was deeply affected — I was on a bike riding to work, and I had to pull over and take a moment.

Later, when I thought about it, it became clear to me how impactful [it was]. We can hear something on the news that we don't like, and we can feel very energized about it, but not actually hear the ramifications, or to hear the emotion that's connected to the issue, can activate you in a way that hearing about it on the news won't. So, that really planted the seed for me to figure out that I wanted to do something like that related to some recent tragedy. It wasn't until later that it all sort of gelled into "Community."

EDGE You've done quite a lot with web series, like "History," which I think is now in its third season, as well as making a film. Coming from a visual medium, has it been a challenge to create drama using audio only?

Jack Tracy: With all of my projects I'm the everyman: I'm doing the audio editing, I'm doing the video editing, I'm doing the coloring, I'm doing the directing, I write it, I act in it. That's really just the stage of where I am; I don't have a ton of money to hire a bunch of post-production people, so I figure it out. For "Snowflake" I sent out the audio to a professional shop because it's a movie, and that I dare not tackle, but for "History," Season Three, with it being a web series, I felt more confident I could do it myself. It was really doing that, talking a scene at a bar, adding the crowd noises and the martini shaker on the right-hand side, and finding music to lay in the club and making it kind of muffled.

Doing all that for Season Three and really figuring out how much of an art form audio is, and the sort of world-building you can do in the audio realm, that gave me the confidence that I could do something like this. I've always scored all of my work; scoring is very important to me. It was really kind of a natural evolution of my growth as an audio editor.

Only Episode One is out right now, but with Episode Two you really get into the event as it unfolds. I tear up when I listen to it, so I think everyone else will, too.

EDGE: Not to spoil anything, but "Community," is about a mass shooting at a gay nightclub. It's interesting about the timing: The podcast is coming to us just after the third anniversary of the Pulse massacre. To what extent did the Pulse tragedy influence this project?

Jack Tracy: Being the third anniversary [of the Pulse shooting] is completely coincidental. We weren't planning on releasing until later this summer. What ended up happening was we started having conversations with Spotify, who very much wanted it on their platform for Pride month, so we sort of accelerated [our schedule]. That's why you have the first episode available now, and then the rest of it is coming later this summer. I'm still in the process of editing the last few episodes.

In terms of deciding to do this as a subject — I get the "Is this too soon?" question in every interview I do, and this has been my answer: "Too soon" is a Republican talking point. "Too soon" is what people who don't want anything to change say so that we don't act when we are at our most activated and our most heated. I don't think there's such a thing as "too soon." I don't think that we require three, five, seven, or ten years of "thoughts and prayers" and in memoriam, before we decide to get reactivated and angry about it again, and push for change. I think we should talk about it while it hurts — we should talk about it while it hurts; we should talk about it while it's uncomfortable. We say it's "too soon" because it makes us uncomfortable, [and the reason for that is] because it's in such recent memory, and we don't feel comfortable looking at it from an analytical perspective. I think that's a mistake. I think we need to work on things, talk about things, and tackle problems while we still feel them. If anything, "Community" is meant to make you feel the way you felt the day after Pulse — so you have that energy, and you have that focus. It wasn't until after I heard the tapes of those migrant detention centers that I finally opened up my wallet and sent money to do some good.

EDGE: It's certainly not "too soon," and with mass shootings happening just about every day there will never be any sort of breathing space to gain any perspective other than we are living in a kind of war zone here and now. And given the way anti-LGBTQ hate crimes have spiked in the last couple of years, this is very timely.

Jack Tracy: Another question I get all the time is, "Has anything changed since Pulse? Have things gotten better, or have they gotten worse?" And unfortunately, while we haven't had another event on that scale [target] our community, the atmosphere under which that might happen has not changed, and in fact, might even be worse. The longer we have this dog-whistling, racist, violence-inciting president, the more likely it is that we will have another event like [the Pulse nightclub mass shooting]. I would even say that we're in even more danger now than we were then.

EDGE This is a 12-part series... or is it a six-part series? I heard you were making 12 episodes, but then it turns out that six episodes will be coming on to Spotify.

Jack Tracy: It's a 12-part series, but the season is split into two parts. The second episode will come out July 9, and it'll be every week until the first six episodes are concluded, and then we'll take a short hiatus and then we'll be back for the final six to conclude this storyline.

EDGE: So, will there be a cliffhanger?

Jack Tracy: Yes, a very, very large cliffhanger at the end of [Episode] Six. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that things are not always exactly as they appear, and it gets much more complicated.

EDGE: Episode One is about 18 minutes long. Is that about the length all the episodes are going to be?

Jack Tracy: Yes. Most of the podcasts out there right now are interviews or talk shows, or discussions — there's not a whole lot of narrative structure out there, and I thought that 15 — 18 minutes is probably a good length. That's someone's commute. Hopefully, that's the perfect amount of time to be able to tackle one of these episodes. This is not something that you want playing in the background the way you might have an interview podcast playing as background noise that you check in and out of. This is a very complicated plot, it weaves in and out, there are a lot of characters and a lot of stuff going on. I've really got to keep your attention, so we kept it short and powerful.

EDGE: You've said that in casting for this project you wanted to be sure not to have cis actors playing trans, or white actors playing African-American... what informs that philosophy for you?

Jack Tracy: For me, it really just aligns with the mission statement of my production company: Necessary Outlets Productions is LGBTQ characters [and] universal stories. Our goal is to tell stories that do not rely on sexuality or gender identity, and that have universal themes — [tragedies], love, romance, politics — things that are universal to the human experience — but tell them through an LGBTQ lens so that there's a slightly different way that maybe someone from our community might approach something that all of us deal with. So, in doing that it was very clear that the points of view and voices specific to the LGBTQ community need to be heard. There's been a [long] history of LGBTQ voices not being heard or not being allowed to participate in things of this nature, or [if they are, it's] on a very limited basis. So it's important to me to do whatever I can to start trying to set the historical scales even and make sure that it's our people telling our stories.

EDGE: There's quite a lot of diversity in the cast of characters — a gay couple, a bridal shower party, a straight guy or two... was that also a matter of representation? Or are you telling us with this cross-section of characters that gun violence affects everybody?

Jack Tracy: The inclusion of straight people was to show our allies, and there are many, many, many. We need them, and we love them, and we're glad they are with us, so I wanted to make sure they were represented, as well. We had some commentary [in the form of] the bachelorette party in terms of how someone who thinks they're an ally might be treating us more like pets — I feel like that can happen at times, and wanted to maybe explore that a little bit.

But the idea is to take this tragedy that affects all of us — all of humanity — and tell it in a way that shows how it might affect the LGBTQ community, or any minority community, slightly differently. Not to diminish, compare, or in any way rank. I'm not interested in the "tragedy war," in who is the most hurt and the most disenfranchised. I'm not interested in that. But I think there's a difference in a murder committed for a political purpose that claims innocent lives or a religious purpose that claims innocent lives, and a murder that's targeted toward a certain group of people because of their identity. I'm not saying one is worse, but it's a difference worth exploring because the motivations are different and, thus, I think the problem might be attacked quite differently.

A promotional image for the audio drama 'Community'  (Source:Necessary Outlet)

EDGE: What went into the casting process? What qualities of voice or expressiveness were you looking for from your actors?

Jack Tracy: First off, I had to be able to tell everybody apart. A lot of the decisions were, I'd gravitate toward one or two of the audition tapes because I really loved their dramatic reading or their comedic reading, and it was a matter of, "Okay, who do they appear in scenes with?" Then I'd listen to those other tapes and make sure
I had people who would sound very different, so that people won't get confused. I wanted very identifiable, clear voices so that people don't get lost as to what's going on.

Also, of course, [I wanted] phenomenal, expressive actors — people who could really sell the role. With a few recent audio dramas I've listened to, especially ones that involve high-profile names, you get the sense that they walked in, saw the script for the first time, read it out loud twice, and then went about their day. I don't hear the commitment in a lot of these other podcasts to actually develop these characters and treat [the story] like a real project. It sometimes seems like a whim, or, "Hey, we've got this gaggle of stars, look who we have" is the main thing. So, we wanted to make sure our cast was committed to the work. We have a story to tell that's important.

And, also, unlike other podcasts as I understand it, we all record together. It was important to me to have scene partners here, acting and reacting to each other so it sounds more like you're in the room with them because you are in the room with them because they're both here. I encourage them that if there are moments that you want to talk over each other, if there are moments that you want to take a nice, long thing about something — do this just as if you were on stage. Feel the moment, be in the moment. I feel that will translate very strongly. It'll feel more real, it'll feel more authentic if the actors are all actually in here playing against each other.

EDGE: You are also a recording artist — you have an album our and another you are preparing for release, so I wonder how your experience as a recording artist and composer might also have influenced this audio drama.

Jack Tracy: I have one album out that's called out "Older" that's now a year old — today, actually! Today's the anniversary! That was a very fun learning experience. I was very happy with it, but like anything I do, the second it's done I think of the 500 things I could have done better or what I want to do better next time.

Those songs that were on my first album were background music that I created for Season Two of "History." I really just don't have the resources to jump into the licensing or sourcing of other people's music, so I learned how to make my own: I got some professional software, taught myself how to do some mixing and sampling and all that good stuff, and made what I thought were believable pop club beats that could be in the show. Some of them I just fell in love with, and thought, "This could be a song about this, and this could be a song about that," and from that came "Older." That album has four music videos, two of which have been accepted to film festivals. I like to do interesting narrative things with my music videos.

Album Two is coming later this year — I'm about 70% through filming a music video for every single song. We're gonna release it as a visual album. It's definitely a huge step up form the last one. A lot of the elements from these songs actually appear in "Community" as background music at the club, so anybody who follows my work specifically when the album comes out will recognize a few things because you've already heard them here. It's just another way that you start working on something over here out of necessity, and it leads to something else, which leads to something else, and suddenly you have an album.

EDGE: You're quite a Renaissance Man in different artistic media — film, podcasting, music. Are there forms of artistic expression you'd like to try your hand at? A stage play, or maybe a novel?

Jack Tracy: Of all the things, stage play is probably number one on the list. I have two films I want to do, and I have two web series I want to do; I have written a children's book — I have to finish getting it illustrated, but I hope to have that out by the holidays. Next year is when I starting thinking about a stage play.

I would always love to perform more, and I hope that this second album gives me more opportunities for live shows. I am an increasingly confident singer; I'm not Sam Smith or Adele, I don't have pipes from God, but I am an entertainer and a performer, and I think my best skill — which has yet to be fully realized — is putting on a big dance spectacle stage show. I did Jersey City Pride last year.

And then I also just broke an idea for what I'm calling a New Media series — it's not quite a web series. I want to tell a story using the video capabilities of social media. So this would be a story that would be told through, I think, an Instagram account. By following it and seeing is posts and its videos, what it's doing is actually tell the narrative. I'm still figuring out how that works, so I'll check back on that later.

Episode One of "Community" is available now at Spotify. Episode Two becomes available July 9, with new episodes each Tuesday after that. For more information on Jack Tracy and Necessary Outlet, please go to http://necessaryoutlet.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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