Q&A: Felicia Day boldly going with sci-fi improv podcast ‘Voyage to the Stars’

Voyage to the Stars, Felicia Day, Janet Varney, Colton Dunn, Steve Berg

The Cast of Voyage to the Stars (l-r): Janet Varney, Colton Dunn, Felicia Day, Steve Berg. Courtesy.

While podcasts are experiencing a renaissance and anyone who’s anyone’s got one, Voyage to the Stars, which debuts Tuesday, still stands out. It’s an improv-yet-scripted comedic take on sci-fi adventure. Actress, writer and producer Felicia Day, who stars as one of four good-natured but incompetent human space explorers lost in space, said Voyage to the Stars is breaking new ground by filling the gap created when the web series bubble burst.

Day—who has built a small nerdcore empire on the pioneering web series The Guild and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, founded web production company Geek & Sundry, shined with recurring roles on Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and is the main character on the latest incarnation of Mystery Science Theater 3000—knows a thing or two about telling stories online.

“I think this is a new frontier. If you look at web series themselves, they were a bubble that burst or they got eaten up by bigger-budget television shows on streaming networks,” Felicia Day said in a phone call last week. “So there really isn’t that scripted web series left. A lot of that innovation is going to the podcast medium—which is different because podcasts are very long-form. Improv really shines when you’re doing off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness interaction with your castmates. So this is a kind of fun hybrid that I haven’t heard before. It made me laugh a lot.”

Voyage to the Stars, Felicia Day, Janet Varney, Colton Dunn, Steve Berg

Voyage to the Stars

The podcast is set in the year 2263, with a group of four boarding an alien ship that goes through a wormhole and is transported to the far end of the universe. On each of the show’s 17 episodes, the crew tries to get home but fails hilariously.

Voyage to the Stars stars Day as Elsa, a privileged, overeducated and naïve science officer; Colton Dunn (NBC’s Superstore) as unqualified and unprepared captain Tucker Lentz; Steve Berg (The Good PlaceThe Goldbergs) as apathetic technician Stew Merkel; and comedian-actress-musician-producer Janet Varney (You’re The Worst, Stan Against Evil, the founder of SF Sketchfest) as combative alien artificial intelligence Sorry.

“We all have relationships between us, and every episode we’ll have a really awesome guest star,” Day said. “We have everyone from Tom Lenk to Eric Edelstein to Gary Anthony Williams; Suzy Nakamura. So, an amazing gamut of comedic actors who are so good at improvisation. They had us breaking character all the time.”

Creator Ryan Copple has even bigger goals for Voyage to the Stars, including comic books and live shows. It was featured with a performance at SF Sketchfest in January.

“I think it’s really unique. Whether you are a comedy or sci-fi fan, I think there’s something for anybody here,” Day said.

RIFF: If you could describe Voyage to the Stars in a nutshell, how would you do it?

Felicia Day: This is an improvised comedy podcast about a group of misfit crew members of a spaceship trying to get back to earth. There’s 17 episodes now, for the first season, and hopefully we get to do more in the future, because I love it. It’s really, really fun. As an improviser myself—I’ve been doing improv comedy since I moved to L.A. to be an actor—I think it’s a perfect style to go for the audio format.

How did you become involved?

Felicia Day: The creator is Ryan Copple. He’s a very good friend of mine. I met him over 10 years ago when I first started doing web series. He did a web series called Riese: Kingdom Falling; which was a steam punk fantasy web series, in the very beginning of web series. I just tracked him down online and said, “I loved what you do.” We became friends. He was head of production for my company, Geek & Sundry, and then he ran my company for a while before going off to do his own creative stuff. Voyage to the Stars is a project he thought up.

What kinds of stories have you written for the podcast so far?

Felicia Day: We recorded the whole season already, and they’re going to be released Feb. 12 anywhere you get your podcasts; Earwolf, Apple, Spotify—everywhere. We’ve had the episodes done for several weeks. There’s a lot of postproduction because of … all the special effects, sounds and sound design had to be done.

Voyage to the Stars, Felicia Day, Janet Varney, Colton Dunn, Steve Berg

The cast of Voyage to the Stars records a scene from a first season episode. Courtesy.

How is the show made?

Felicia Day: What we do is get into the room, and have sort of loose idea of what we need to make up for the story, but then all the dialogue is improvised. I come up with it on the spot and we talk a lot. It’s a lot of funny stuff. We have loose outlines for what we’re going to talk about. We have the setup for the scene. Each character has one line or two lines about how [he or she] would be reacting. There could be a couple of pieces of pertinent information that you will be told; “You’ll want to bring up this before the end of the improve.” And that’s it. Everything else is made up. It’s great that as a performer, I have the safety of knowing where I’m going, but in the process, [I] have the freedom to make up all the details.

How do you rehearse for a character that only exists in voice form?

Felicia Day: There’s no real rehearsals. Ryan Copple gave us pretty comprehensive biographies for our characters. So we did have a lot to draw from already. But improve is one of those things that’s very magical. When you’re in a group of people that you’re like-minded with, amazing things can come out of your mouth that were in your subconscious. … A lot of aspects like that integrated themselves into the story and influenced who the characters were. We each brought our unique twist on the information we’d been given. From that collaborative process, the origin of the character and what we make of it becomes canon, and I think that’s pretty cool.

How do you balance the podcast with your other projects? How much time and effort does it require?

Felicia Day: Podcasts, for the performer, [are] actually quite simple. I think we did all the episodes in about three or four days of recording. That’s very fast to do 17 episodes of half-hour. … I know Ryan worked very hard on the arc of the season and writing all the outlines. It’s very similar, from what I understand, to how Curb Your Enthusiasm is done. You’re given the outlines of where the characters will go, but all the details are left up to the actors. That’s a really cool way to operate … [compared] to actors on screen, where one episode takes eight days of shooting. It’s much faster and very rewarding—and you don’t have to do your hair! That’s not fun for me. I’d rather not do my hair, ever.

Voyage to the Stars, Felicia Day, Janet Varney, Colton Dunn, Steve Berg

The cast of Voyage to the Stars records a scene from a first season episode. Courtesy.

What was it like working with your castmates? Did you already know each other?

Felicia Day: Colton I’d only met a couple of times before at parties. Steve Berk I’ve known a very long time because he was actually in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. He was one of the groupies. And Janet Varney I’ve known for a really long time. I did her podcast many years ago. We’ve been friends and we’re in the same social groups to this day. And I knew a lot of the guest actors … It did feel like a really tight group of comedic actors. I come from more of the nerd world, and the others are more comedians. So it was a nice way of integrating two things that I love together.

Janet is pretty well known in the Bay Area for Sketchfest. Do you have any stories to share about your friendship?

Felicia Day: I’ve always been an admirer of her. She kind of looks like a porcelain doll but she’s one of the razor-sharp wits of comedy to me. She’s always really good about creating on her own and I really admire that about her. As an actor you can get complacent and wait for people to knock on your door… She was one of the people who was podcasting way before it was popular and she’s been doing Sketchfest for so long, so I just admire her as a comedian and as a person. She’s a wonderful person.

Is the intent of Voyage to the Stars to pay homage to the space travel genre, or to satirize it? Fox’s The Orville was initially advertised as a parody, but it quickly became a heartfelt appreciation.

Felicia Day: I think it’s definitely more of a comedic take. There’s some outrageous things. We certainly are not as competent as the people on The Orville. [laughs]. We’re all very nerdy. Our intentions are good, when we do things, but the results are sometimes not so good. And we just move on, going from planet to planet spreading disaster—in a well-intentioned way. And it’s about the relationships between the characters, as well. When you do a scene and you just follow whatever interesting thing comes up [you] influence the story in a bigger way than you ever could have thought. So we’re making it up as we go along, and that’s really fun.

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.

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