It’s not too often that graduates of the College of William and Mary can add “time traveler” to their resume. That is, unless you’re Lauren Shippen ’13. In addition to writing and directing the award-winning podcast “The Bright Sessions,” Shippen breathes life into the character of Samantha Barnes, a time traveling young woman who attends therapy for the strange and unusual.
“The Bright Sessions” is one of the most popular science fiction audio dramas on iTunes, boasting numerous awards and over 8 million downloads. The podcast explores the lives, problems and mental health of atypicals – seemingly ordinary people with not-so-ordinary abilities.
Between the time traveler Sam, the angsty, teenage empath Caleb, voiced by Briggon Snow, the antagonist and mind-controller Damien, voiced by Charlie Ian, and the mind-reader and art student Chloe, voiced by Anna Lore, there is a lot that makes these atypicals’ lives a little bit more complicated. That is where Dr. Bright, voiced by Julia Morizawa, comes in.
During her therapy sessions, Dr. Bright discusses high school romances, anxiety and sometimes even the not-so-secret government agency, The AM. Luckily, Dr. Bright records these sessions for us non-atypicals to listen to. Four seasons since its 2015 release, “The Bright Sessions” has expanded its format to include phone calls, private conversations and even a musical episode into its impressive canon of 56 episodes, the last of which will air June 13, 2018.
With a podcast as unique, clever and touching as “The Bright Sessions,” it is no surprise that its creator has always been involved in the arts. After initially wanting to complete a theatre major at the College, Shippen ultimately decided on a music major. Shippen also participated in student plays and vocal groups, such as Double Take, where Shippen first met the show’s composer, Evan Cunningham ’16.
After graduation, Shippen packed up her belongings and moved across the country to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting.
“I sort of did the cliché actor hustle where I was taking classes and working at a restaurant and auditioning,” Shippen said. “I was just very frustrated with it because it’s a hard hustle … even the stuff I was getting wasn’t necessarily super engaging all the time.”
Shippen soon realized that a traditional acting career wasn’t what she was looking for. After listening to the popular science fiction podcast “Welcome to Night Vale,” Shippen got the idea to create an audio drama of her own.
“I didn’t know what I was doing when it came to film,” Shippen said. “But, I think that having a background in music and having a little bit of editing experience in audio, I was like well, maybe a podcast. I could probably do a podcast for cheap and do all of the post-production myself.”
“The Bright Sessions” began with development of the character Samantha Barnes, voiced by Shippen.
“I had this idea of this girl who time travels, and she has panic attacks,” Shippen said. “I started thinking about well, I don’t want it to just be my voice. That would be really boring, and I really don’t want to edit that. We should give her somebody to talk to.”
That somebody became the therapist Dr. Bright. Shippen then later developed the whole cast of atypicals who fans have grown to love (and sometimes love to hate) over the years.
“The Bright Sessions” may be nearing its end, but fans have much more to look forward to from Shippen. In the summer of 2019, “The Bright Sessions” is set to jump from our ears to the page with the release of the first novel in an adapted Young Adult trilogy.
The first book will focus on the romantic relationship between the teenage empath Caleb and his non-atypical boyfriend, Adam. The second book is set to explore the life of Damien, the devious mind-controller with a complicated past. The final book in the trilogy will explore Dr. Bright’s newest patient, Rose, a young queer woman who has the power to walk through dreams.
If news of Shippen’s upcoming trilogy isn’t enough to satisfy fans’ love of “The Bright Sessions,” there is one more project in the works: a television show. The show is currently in development and has been optioned by Dark Horse Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions.
“It’s in development, and in Hollywood things can be in development for years,” Shippen said. “They can go to TV really quickly. They can get out of development. It’s a slow process, but it’s been a fun kind of process of discovering what the show would look like in a visual format, because it is so different.”
As a writer, Shippen is excited about the opportunity to broaden her work’s horizons.
“Getting a second swing at your own writing is kind of a nice thing,” Shippen said. “The TV show I’m thinking of as its own beast. I kind of want to approach it as an adaptation rather than a direct translation.”
Although the format and characters of the podcast have changed and grown over the years, one thing has remained the same: the heart of the show.
“Externally, I feel like it’s changed tremendously, like my own internet presence and the show’s internet presence has grown so exponentially over the past couple years,” Shippen said. “Internally, I don’t know how much has actually changed.”
Still, Shippen receives emails from fans that surprise her to this day.
“It’s funny,” Shippen said. “I’ll get emails from people sometimes, and they’ll be like ‘I don’t know if Lauren Shippen will ever see this,’ and it’s like yeah, no. Lauren Shippen is the only person who checks this email.”
At the end of the day, “The Bright Sessions” is still a couple of people recording on old microphones in Shippen’s bedroom.
After being in the industry for five years, Shippen is able to reflect on her experiences. According to Shippen, an important part of her success has been her time at the College, where she learned the costs and rewards of hard work.
“I don’t mind sort of working tirelessly seven days a week if it’s something that I really enjoy doing,” Shippen said. “I think that that’s a kind of DIY attitude I feel like was something that I saw a lot of people doing at William and Mary. A sort of good, strong work ethic.”
As someone who has found success in the notoriously turbulent industry, Shippen advises that students pursuing creative careers take a good look at what they want to gain from that pursuit.
“I’ve met a lot of people who want the quick fix and want to do something to become successful, and that’s just never going to happen,” Shippen said. “If you’re going to pursue a creative career, it has to be the thing you cannot let go of.”
For Shippen, the thing she could not let go of was her love of storytelling. That love became the delightful, heartfelt and fascinating journey into a therapist’s office for everyday people with extraordinary abilities. That love became “The Bright Sessions.”