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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
Lauren Shippen: The Bright Sessions

In 2014, Lauren Shippen was an aspiring actor in Los Angeles: taking classes, booking intermittent gigs, waiting tables, the like. Four years later, she ended up becoming one of the busiest people in podcasting, all on the strength of an independent fiction podcast she had made on her own time: The Bright Sessions. In this week’s episode, Nick talks to Lauren about her steadily rising career in entertainment, which spans multiple podcasts, a multi-project book deal, and maybe more.

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Servant of Pod Lauren Shippen: The Bright Sessions Episode 25

Fri, 1/8 10:11AM • 26:58

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

laughter, podcast, people, lauren, sessions, bright, character, episodes, big, hollywood, fiction, season, projects, couple, queer, westerns, feel, masculinity, webseries, idea

SPEAKERS

Lauren Shippen, Sam (Lauren Shippen), Caleb (Briggon Snow), Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa), Nick Quah

Nick Quah 00:01

In 2014, Lauren Shippen wrote her first podcast pilot.

Lauren Shippen 00:05

And then I didn't do anything with it for an entire year, because I was just caught up in this idea of, "Who are you kidding? You're not a writer, you're not allowed to be a writer. You don't have training for that. You don't have any experience. You don't have a degree in creative writing. You've never taken a creative writing class in your life."

Nick Quah 00:21

As it turns out, classic case of imposter syndrome. Now, Lauren is one of the most sought-after audio fiction producers in the industry. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Lauren Shippen's journey from aspiring actor to rising podcast star.

Nick Quah 00:58

Lauren Shippen came to podcasting the long way around, after figuring out that what she thought she wanted wasn't actually what she wanted at all.

Lauren Shippen 01:06

I had gone to college for theater and music in the hopes of eventually moving back to New York, where I grew up, and being on Broadway.

Nick Quah 01:14

What's the big musical for you?

Lauren Shippen 01:16

Oh, I am a huge Sondheim-head.

Nick Quah 01:18

Ah! Not surprising. [Laughter]

Lauren Shippen 01:21

I feel like it explains a lot about me. And my favorite musical of his is Assassins.

Nick Quah 01:26

Of course, yeah! I actually saw a staging of it in New Haven, actually. I lived there a couple years ago.

Lauren Shippen 01:31

God! Oh, I'm so jealous. I've never actually seen it in person, because it was revived on Broadway in 2004, and my dad and my sister went, my older sister, and they didn't bring me because they thought that it was gonna be too mature, and I was 13 at the time, and then they brought the soundtrack home, and I listened to the soundtrack, and became obsessed with it. And actually, I was supposed to see it in New York this past spring, and of course, you know, with everything, theater got shut down. But someday I'm gonna see it in person, and it will be wonderful. But yeah, I wrote a paper on it in college. I'm such a nerd for that stuff. [Laughter] And I think that should have been a clear sign that I was obsessed with the ideas of Americana and masculinity from an early age. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 02:09

Absolutely.

Lauren Shippen 02:10

So I got, like, halfway through my theater degree and realized that, actually, I was enjoying the music scholarship aspect of it a lot more. And so I ended up changing to be a music major, and doing more academic music writing, and briefly flirted with the idea of being a music journalist. Ultimately, by the time I got to the end of college, I realized that I didn't want to be doing musical theater, and that I didn't want to move back to New York and do the same show eight times a week. I think that that's an incredible thing, I love being in the audience for that, and that the magic of theater is something that can't really be captured elsewhere, but it is grueling, and you really have to love it in a specific way, I think, to want to get up on stage and perform the same two-and-a-half hours eight times a week. You know, that's an intense physical and mental feat.

Nick Quah 02:56

Yeah, it's a real paradox of that life that the meaning of success is that you do the same thing over, and over, and over again.

Lauren Shippen 03:01

Yeah, it really is. And I think, in getting more into television and serialized storytelling in college, I realized the thing that I loved about storytelling was getting to stay with a character for a long time. And so I moved to LA to hopefully become a TV producer because I thought, "Okay, well, like, I'm never gonna make it as an actor in Hollywood. Like, that's very silly." And I don't know what else I would do.

Nick Quah 03:25

You came to that realization very quickly. [Laughter]

Lauren Shippen 03:28

I did, but then I immediately reneged on it, because I got to LA, and I got a job at WME, one of the agencies, and was in the mailroom, doing the classic Hollywood route of being an assistant at an agency in hopes that you'll eventually move to a studio, or network, or what have you. I lasted like, three months at that job. And I... It was so high stress and low mental engagement for me, just because I'm not interested in dealmaking, I'm not... You know, that's not really what I wanted to be doing. And so I quit and decided to try acting full-time.

Nick Quah 04:02

Lauren went all in. She took acting classes and worked as an extra in movies and television shows. She also started hosting a friend's webseries about Dungeons & Dragons, which inspired her to think about what she could do on her own.

Lauren Shippen 04:16

But I was listless and doing the whole, like, working in a restaurant, and auditioning, and just being exhausted, because then the auditions I was going on were for roles that were really, really boring because it was like, the male lead's romantic interest who has four lines. And then you don't book that, and you're like, "Well, if I don't even book the thing that's, like, not going to be fun, then what am I doing?"

Nick Quah 04:36

So she created her own webseries, focused on Tumblr fandoms, while still trying to make it as an actor and working full-time. And in researching her series, she stumbled across a podcast that inspired her in a new way: Welcome to Night Vale.

Lauren Shippen 04:52

And I just thought, "Gosh, this is great!" and like, I can't do this. I'm not this kind of writer, and I don't have Cecil's voice, and I don't have this incredible music. But I can do the audio part, I have a music degree, I kind of know about audio editing, a little bit. And so I actually wrote the first script of The Bright Sessions in 2014. And so, I just sort of put it in a drawer and didn't think about it for about a year because I was just on the grind of working at a restaurant, come home, on casting websites, go to an audition the next day, make a YouTube video, go to acting class on the weekends, and also starting to actually make friends and have a bit more of a social life. And ultimately, the thing that sort of pushed me back into making The Bright Sessions, and then starting to write again, was in the spring of 2015, I got strep throat and it went very wrong, and I nearly died.

Nick Quah 05:37

In early 2015, Lauren was hospitalized for five days with a severe case of strep throat. A month after leaving the hospital, the illness returned more forcefully and dangerously. She was hemorrhaging from her jugular vein for two weeks, she developed chronic arthritis, and she had a difficult time getting around. Her doctors told her that if she wanted to be able to use her legs, she needed to stop standing during the day, which meant quitting her restaurant job. She ended up going back to the east coast to recover at her parents' house for a few months. And that's where the idea for The Bright Sessions came back to her.

Lauren Shippen 06:13

So I was just like... Sat on the couch, and watching Bake Off, and not doing anything. And maybe I can take the luxury of the time that I have now, right? Like I completely own up to the pure privilege I had of, A) still being on my parents' health care and not having to worry about a six figure medical bill. And having a place to go where I could be taken care of, and have my my parents helped me cover rent while I was in between jobs, and having some savings, and all of those things that just give you the privilege of time, and space, and energy to do things. And, you know, that was balanced out by the fact that I was in immense pain every second of every day. [Laughs] But I think I was able to sort of channel that into some writing energy. And by the time that I came back to LA, and had sort of gone through the process of putting my life back together with the job, and the voice lessons, and the speech therapy, and everything else, I had nine scripts, and a couple friends in acting class that I had been eyeing for roles who were very willing to do stuff for free, simply because I said, "It'll take two hours per episode max. And you won't have to do anything except show up and read from the script. Like, you don't even have to memorize your lines. This is gonna be the most luxurious thing ever." And they were just... They were so down.

Nick Quah 07:33

The Bright Sessions is a science-fiction podcast about people with superpowers called Atypicals. In order to cope with their powers, they see a mysterious therapist named Dr. Bright. The show is built around those therapy sessions.

Sam (Lauren Shippen) 07:47

You can’t tell anyone about this, right? I mean the same patient-doctor confidentiality agreement still applies?

Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 07:53

Of course. I can’t tell anyone what you tell me in this office.

Sam (Lauren Shippen) 07:57

And you can’t report me to any law enforcement or government agency or anything, right?

Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 08:01

Well, if you’ve hurt someone, or plan to, I would have...

Sam (Lauren Shippen) 08:05

No, no, no, no, no, I... Oh god, it’s nothing like that, it’s just... Well... Okay, you will probably think that I am completely insane. I mean, I think I’m completely insane, I have thought for fifteen years, but, well… here’s the thing: ever since I was a kid, I’ve been able to do this... this thing that for all intents and purposes should not be possible. And I’ve read every book that I can get my hands on and I have scoured what feels like the entire Internet and I’ve never come across any kind of explanation for it… and you probably will not believe me, but, essentially, unbelievably… I can time travel. And it sucks!

Nick Quah 08:56

One of the more intriguing qualities of the podcast is how its characters challenge conventional views on masculinity and gender roles, themes that Lauren often weaves into her work.

Lauren Shippen 09:06

One of the very first characters that came out of initially thinking about, okay, what kind of therapy patients would be interesting for this world in which people with supernatural abilities go to therapy, and talking to a friend about things that we found interesting and liking the idea of the typical male jock football player in high school, and that character trope, and then ultimately putting it on its head by having him be an extreme empath, and feel the feelings of everyone around him while he's existing in this body that is taught to repress his feelings and not express emotion in a thoughtful way, as I think is the lesson that's taught to a lot of young men in our culture.

Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 09:54

Sometimes, people don’t want others to see their sadness. He probably thought he was hiding it well, and the fact that you noticed frightened him. It brought into focus just how unhappy he is.

Caleb (Briggon Snow) 10:07

See what I mean? I knew how he was feeling and instead of fixing it, I made him more unhappy. You’re always talking about this like it’s some sort of stupid gift, that I can help people. But I always just **** things up.

Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 10:19

That’s because you haven’t learned how to control it yet. You’re so young and you’re dealing with so many of your own emotions that handling others’ is going to be overwhelming. Being a teenager is hard, you know that. I’ve said before that I think this ability get easier as you grow older...

Caleb (Briggon Snow) 10:34

Yeah, I know, I know. Being a teenager is rough, there are hormones and all that stuff, blah, blah, blah. That doesn’t change the fact that I suck. It’s not an excuse. Someone was sad and then I opened my mouth and now they’re sadder. And I don’t know what he’s going to do, or how he’s gonna react, or if he spent the whole weekend thinking about it... and would you stop that! I can feel your ****ing pity bleeding out of you and I don’t need it! I’m not some pathetic emotional loser, okay? I’m not like him!

Dr. Bright (Julia Morizawa) 10:58

Okay, okay, Caleb. Caleb, it’s alright. It's alright.

Lauren Shippen 11:03

And ultimately the character ended up being a little bit different than I had initially conceived of him simply because I cast Briggon Snow, who's one of my best collaborators, in the role, and we found new facets of this character as we went along. And I think even before I cast Briggon, I was writing the first three episodes that Caleb was in and realized that he, that this character was in love with this other boy in his class, and I hadn't necessarily jumped into building that character of like, oh, on top of being an empath, he's also going to be queer. It just is something that came naturally, I think, because I was also exploring my own... rehashing my own feelings of sexual identity throughout high school and college, when I was figuring myself out. And this idea that he can be this masculine, athletic football player who also is deeply sensitive and emotional, and those two things are not at odds with each other. And that masculinity can still leave space for emotion, and for thoughtfulness, and taking what's usually the blunt instrument of the high school jock character, and trying to soften it a bit, and explore the positive sides of masculinity.

Nick Quah 12:15

So when you started making The Bright Sessions, what was the goal? Did you have one? Or did you just want to make something to call your own?

Lauren Shippen 12:22

You know, even at the beginning, my greatest hope was that it eventually would become something bigger. And that best-case scenario, get, you know, bought by somebody, and then they would make it into something that could actually make money...

Nick Quah 12:36

The very same quiet hopes and dreams that everybody has doing anything in that way.

Lauren Shippen 12:39

Exactly! [Laughter] And so I think for The Bright Sessions, the intent was very much to, I think at the beginning, just to figure out if I could do it. I think just writing the scripts, and directing actors, and editing the thing, and putting credits music on it, and releasing it on an RSS feed, and all of these things that I had no idea about, not necessarily thinking that I would find a big audience. But I think the thing that I hoped for, especially because my introduction to audio fiction was Welcome to Night Vale, and finding that show through Tumblr. "God, maybe like six strangers on Tumblr will go nuts over this." [Laughter] And I think that was really what I was aiming for. It was like, maybe I can make something that will speak to a niche fandom. Maybe people will end up caring about these characters in a way that I care about them.

Nick Quah 13:38

Coming up: Lauren finds her niche.

Nick Quah 13:56

The first season of The Bright Sessions launched in November of 2015 and wrapped in January 2016. By February, the first episode of the series had received 2,000 listens. The show, which had no funding and no budget, was gaining traction organically.

Lauren Shippen 14:14

And so I thought, okay, well, 2,000 people is like enough to do more. And so that February I started a Patreon and took a month off and said, "Okay, you know, I..." Because I already started writing a little bit of a second season because we were just having fun doing it. That's ultimately what led me to writing more episodes, was that we were having a good time, and I was having lots of ideas about what could happen next. But we went into this second season, launching this Patreon, having maybe like three patrons, two of which were my mom, probably. [Laughter] And not really knowing what the second season was going to be, other than I decided, in my infinite wisdom, I was like, "We're gonna do, instead of nine episodes, we're gonna do 20, and we're not gonna release three a month, we're gonna do it weekly, actually." [Laughter] And I'm just gonna launch this before I even know exactly what the end of the season is. And so, as a result, the spring of 2016, we released the second season, it's a bit of a blur. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 15:10

Yeah.

Lauren Shippen 15:10

Because I wrote 20 episodes in like, three months and fully produced them. But I think when I knew there was something maybe happening was actually late March. So it was like a couple weeks after we'd started the second season. I don't know what prompted me to search The Bright Sessions hashtag on Instagram, but I did, and someone had made fanart of one of the characters. And I was like, "Oh, my God, this is it. This is the thing that I wanted. I wanted somebody to care about this enough to make fan art."

Nick Quah 15:39

In the middle of the second season, Lauren was able to hire sound designer Mischa Stanton, who raised the production quality of the show. And then she started to get noticed by some big podcasting names--like Jeffrey Cranor of Welcome to Night Vale and the folks at Apple.

Lauren Shippen 15:54

It really was a couple of big players in the podcasting world at the time making a concerted effort to listen to new stuff and to elevate the stuff that they liked. And that's not to say that I wasn't grinding on social media, trying to get people to listen to it, because I was. For months that was like, where most of my time was going into, was spending time on Reddit, and Tumblr, and Twitter, trying to get people to listen. But I think that by the time that we had completed season two, we'd had a couple of those bigger folks spotlight us, and then it felt like, okay, now I have to think about what I'm doing.

Nick Quah 16:31

The Bright Sessions went on to have four seasons, plus a couple of mini-seasons, and it officially wrapped up in 2018, the same year Lauren's career took off.

Lauren Shippen 16:41

And then between July of 2018 and November of 2018, a bunch of things happened very, very quickly, and that was, we wrapped The Bright Sessions, the actual series itself, in May of 2018. I think I'd started talking to Luminary the month prior to that about spin-offs. And I knew that we were ending the show, and so I was like, oh, well, I can't give you the show. But I have this idea for these other Bright Sessions universe shows, and we had that conversation. And then that same month, basically, John Dryden reached out to me about working on Passenger List, potentially. And two months after our Bright Sessions wrap party, our final series wrap party, I, in the span of about six weeks, flew to London to direct Passenger List with John. While I was in London, I was working on this insane 30-page proposal for the Marvel job. I get back, I do L.A. production for Passenger List, and then I get news that... Oh, no, and then I go to Austin for Austin Film Festival, where I finish the final manuscript of my first book. And then I get back, and like two days after I get back from Austin Film Festival and turning in my book, I hear that I got the Marvel job. And so it was like, that felt very fast to me, because also at the time, I was starting to prep The AM Archives. [Laughter] And it sort of felt like, Oh, I all of a sudden feel like the most popular girl at the ball. You know, like everybody's asking me to dance, this is so exciting.

Nick Quah 18:12

In 2019, Lauren started her own podcast production company, Atypical Artists, and launched three Bright Sessions spin-offs, two podcasts--The AM Archives and The College Tapes--and a novel, The Infinite Noise. She's got more books and podcasts in the works, and even bigger projects on the way, too. So does she feel like she's made it?

Lauren Shippen 18:35

No, I don't feel like I've made it at all. I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities that I've had, and the collaborators I've been able to work with, and the projects I've been able to work on, and unbelievably grateful that, for the past 18 months, I've been able to make a living from fiction podcasting. But it's still a constant uphill battle, and I think the thing that I'm experiencing now is just the fact that audio fiction is much bigger, and especially with Hollywood studios getting into it, and maybe not... choosing instead to work with TV and film writers, that I'm still constantly proving myself to the people who hold the purse strings. And that, I think, is a feeling that I don't know will ever go away. Like, I don't know that anybody ever gets to a point where they're like, "Oh, I know I'll be able to sell my next show and pay rent." I would love to get to that point, but I don't know if that will be the case. And I don't know if podcasting will be that. Because the thing that I'm always fighting now is A) selling shows, and B) selling shows to folks who want to provide a budget that actually will allow me to pay people a living wage. I think the influx of Hollywood money into fiction podcasting is great, but I think there are certain attitudes around "Oh, well, but it's a podcast so we can make it for five bucks, right?" It's like "Yeah, no, it's way, way cheaper than a single episode of television, but it still costs money."

Nick Quah 19:56

Yeah.

Lauren Shippen 19:57

And yeah, so I think... I feel like I've made it in the indie podcasting scene. I feel like I'm a name that, if people are in fiction podcasting and in that niche community, that people are familiar with my work, but I don't think I've made it as a writer, if that makes sense.

Nick Quah 20:15

Is there anything you're working on that maybe doesn't fit the Hollywood mold, but you really want to make?

Lauren Shippen 20:23

Yeah, it's uh... so, a couple years ago, I played Red Dead Redemption 2 and got obsessed with cowboys and westerns. [Laughter] And the fact that...

Nick Quah 20:32

I believe I saw your tweet that said "big sad cowboy."

Lauren Shippen 20:35

Yes. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 20:36

"Much relating to the big sad cowboy." [Laughter]

Lauren Shippen 20:38

Yes, I relate hard to the big sad cowboy. And I've always been really fascinated with ideas of Americana and ideas of masculinity. And I think that for me, the reasons that I've never really related to westerns before playing Red Dead Redemption 2 is because they are this really toxic American male fantasy that I have no interest in exploring. Whereas the reality of the American West is actually that it was way less white and way more queer than the Hollywood westerns would have you believe. And so I just started reading about the history of outlaw culture, and cowboys in the American West, and the various people who actually were occupying those spaces. And the long and short of it is that I want to make a queer cowboy rom-com. [Laughter] Maybe unsurprisingly, nobody's interested in making that except for me.

Nick Quah 21:31

Never know. You never know. You absolutely do not know. [Laughter]

Lauren Shippen 21:33

You never know!

Nick Quah 21:34

Yeah. [Laughter] So, that actually leads me to my final question, which is: what do you hope gets preserved within the experience you had coming up through the indie fiction podcast scene?

Lauren Shippen 21:46

I think the thing that I have loved about the space and the community for the past few years is this feeling of creative freedom, and is this feeling of, if you have an idea that you're passionate about, there is an audience for it, and some of them actually will pay you money for it. That's something that I hope gets preserved, is the idea that niche stuff can still exist and that you don't have to make the most marketable idea that then gets network noted to death. My queer cowboy rom-com, like, that's something to me that's like, oh, yeah, the audio fiction audience, there are people for this. There are people who will want to listen to this, because I know them, and I've talked to them about this project, and I do think there's an audience here for this. It's just impossible to sell to anybody, right? Because it's a period piece, and it's queer men, and it's a non-white cast, and all these things that Hollywood has a hard time wrapping their brains around. But I really like... that's a show. And there are a couple of other shows that I'm eyeing where I'm like, oh, yeah, I am eventually just going to make this through like, Kickstarter, or Patreon, or my own funds from another project, because I want to see this exist. And I don't really want to wait around anymore for people to give me the permission to do it. But that's really hard to do, and I really want to make sure I'm paying people well, and having the understanding that there are certain aspects of building a podcast that I just simply cannot do. And unless I want to dedicate years of study to something that I'm not going to be able to do, the least of which is just, I can't voice every single role in a podcast. [Laughter] Although I do... you know, in a couple Atypical projects, you'll hear my voice enough. [Laughter] In the wall, in the background, because I'm always the the loop cast person who jumps in and says the passerby lines, I've really learned the benefits of having wonderful note givers, and collaborators, and people who are helping you make this thing that you're making even better. But I think that there's also the struggle of doing a bigger project, and having a million cooks in the kitchen, who are all giving notes on a thing that you created, that you're the expert on.

Nick Quah 23:59

It sounds like the core tension is, on one hand, you want to get respect in those rooms. And on the other hand, you want to preserve this feeling of, I want to make things for community of people who like this thing that I like.

Lauren Shippen 24:13

Yeah. Yeah. I think I'm starting to find the balance of that of, okay, these are the projects that I do want feedback, and I do want notes in, or these are the partners--I've been developing a show with a particular partner for a while and they're a bigger sort of Hollywood-adjacent company, but their notes are great, and it's very few people in the company who are collaborating with me, and that's the kind of stuff where I'm like, okay, the pushback I'm going to get from this group of people on certain things are going to be things that make this story better. And things that are outside of my perspective that are important versus like, "Oh, well, I don't think that this particular bisexual experience is actually true to life. And it's it feels unrealistic," and it's like, "Well, it's based on my bisexual experience. So it's not unrealistic, but okay." [Laughter] Stuff like that, where you just kind of get "network-y" notes because they're thinking about the marketing or audience side of things, and you're still focused on the story. Yeah, I think that tension is exactly right, and I think... you know I recognize that I will not be able to get a huge budget to make exactly what I want with no input, and that that probably wouldn't even be beneficial to my storytelling overall. But I think it's about, yeah, finding the projects where I'm happy to compromise on certain things, and then finding the projects where maybe I want to cordon them off, and just do them in a couple of years, and just start saving up my own money for those projects now, because I want to make them in a specific way, and I haven't found that collaborator that's going to make that show with me in that way yet.

Nick Quah 25:40

Well, I look forward to watching the queer rom-com cowboy western.

Lauren Shippen 25:45

I really hope so. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 25:48

And I hope you get to play in Assassins one day. That would be dope.

Lauren Shippen 25:50

Oh, me too! [Laughter]

Nick Quah 25:52

Lauren, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me, I appreciate this.

Lauren Shippen 25:55

Thank you so much, Nick. This was so great.

Nick Quah 26:12

Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.