Ell Potter and Mary Higgins are the creative minds behind Life of Bi, a podcast that articulates the slippery history of bisexuality. Both bolstered by theatrical backgrounds, the pair are more or less podcast newbies, however, the finesse, fluency, and intricacies of their debut tells quite a different story. Life of Bi is equal parts playful and informative, striking a perfect balance that invites the listener into a nook that’s truly special. We sat down with Ell and Mary to talk about the genesis of their podcast, their creative processes, and what their bisexual identity means to them.
Hey ladies, please introduce yourselves and your podcast!
Ell: Well I’m Ell Potter
Mary: And I’m Mary Higgins and we made the podcast, in fact, we make the podcast Life of Bi.
Ell: The Life of Bi is an eight-part series about the slippery history of bisexuality all the way from ancient China through to the current modern phenomena of bisexuality that you see on TikTok and in modern popular culture.
What inspired you to look at the history of bisexuality specifically?
Ell: Well, I think because we didn’t know any of the history ourselves. That was partly because bi history gets mixed up under the umbrella of queer history and also because it’s just not that spoken about as its own, individual thing.
When we were researching for the show we came across tons of figures that were supposedly bisexual but that never officially came out as such. Their sexuality was always suggested. This kind of left us, as modern bisexuals, without a clear view of our history.
Mary: We also found that all the other podcasts that discussed bisexuality were exclusively conversational. While that can be wonderful and there’s definitely a place for those podcasts, we wanted to create something that was less about our own lives and more general.
Looking back, I think we used this show as a means to bolster our own identities a little too. Before the podcast, we definitely didn’t have much pride in being bi. Now we definitely do. I love saying it. Thanks to the show, we have all these different people throughout history in our back pockets who identified in the same way that we do and that’s pretty cool.
How did you find researching for a history-based podcast?
Mary: This is the first time that we’ve worked with external researchers on a project and their expertise made the whole experience amazing. We worked with two incredible individuals called Eve Brandon and Robert Craig and they rummaged through the messy past of bisexuality so expertly. In fact, they came to us with so much information that actually picking, choosing, and compounding it into digestible episodes was tricky.
Ell: Yeah totally. That’s actually part of the reason why we’re making series two of the podcast. Our researchers uncovered such a pond of content that we honestly could have made 800 variations of series one with it.
The podcast is produced in this really special format which plops the listener in vivid situations such as Ariana Grande’s music video or a courtroom from the 1600s. I understand that you both have a background in theater. How much did this experience influence your design for the podcast?
Mary: I think to some extent our theater backgrounds are always going to influence whatever project that we do.
Ell: Yeah I mean, it is somewhat unavoidable.
Mary: But I also think as queer individuals, we wanted to create something queer, and designing the podcast in a theatre-esque way felt queer to us.
People have different ideas of what queer creativity looks like. To some, it can simply mean having queer characters in their play or taking a look at a particular part of queer history, but to us, it means creating something playful. We want people who consume our creativity to have fun. We like doing stupid voices and thinking outside of the box. It’s literally what we love to do.
Ell: Yeah. We wanted to make a queer podcast in form not just in content. Rather than just telling people what happened in 1600s Virginia, we wanted to take them there with us.
When we make theater we center our projects around how they would make the audience feel. We see ourselves as their guides for this hallowed time that we have them in our presence. I guess with the podcast, we still wanted to take them on this journey, just the same as we would do in a theater setting, but via audio.
We worked with Tom Foskett-Barnes, our go-to sound designer for our theater productions, which aided us in transferring our creative process from the stage to audio. He really shares and understands our vision, or in this case, our hearing, so that made translating our theatrical style into podcasting pretty smooth.
And what inspired you to steer from theater into the podcasting industry?
Ell: Mmm… Covid.
Mary: Yeah. We had made one audio play before, and while I think that project informed our making of this podcast, it wasn’t the reason we made Life of Bi. This podcast truly came about because of lockdown.
Over the course of the pandemic, not only were we as theater professionals left without a working space, but we as queer individuals were having this sort of identity crisis too. We had all these feelings and questions about queerness because a lot of the things that bolster your queer identity, such as queer spaces, people, whatever, were made unavailable because of the pandemic.
Ell: We were also both in heterosexual relationships with men for the first time since we had been in a relationship with each other which was pretty bizarre.
Mary: Basically, nothing about our lives looked or felt that queer. Like everyone else, we were a bit lost.
Ell: Yeah. We felt we had to explore both of these questions and losses somewhere and the only space that was operating normally and available to do so in was the podcasting world. It was the perfect way for us to, I don’t know, medicate our identity crises!
Now, having gained experience in both podcasting and theater, how do you find creating in both spaces? Is the experience similar?
Ell: The planning and stages of creation are similar. However, the practicalities are different. There is more freedom in audio because you don’t have to show physical forms to tell a story.
Mary: Yeah, podcasting also doesn’t have to be as dense as theater. Your audience is usually not paying, they’re probably doing something else while listening – there isn’t the same pressure.
Ell: Another thing that has been different is our relationship with the audience. In theater, when you perform, you pretty much know then and there whether the people watching have enjoyed it or not. Then it’s over. However, with podcasting, it’s totally different. You know there’s a release date but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s when people will listen to your work. For example, with this series, our listenership increased months after we released it.
Mary: Yeah exactly. Also, with podcasting, your show can become part of a person’s day. That’s pretty unique. You’re literally inside someone’s ear. You’re there when they are cleaning or cooking or whatever. You become the soundtrack to that person’s moment. There’s something incredibly intimate and also at the same time ridiculously detached about it as an art.
And do you yourselves have a podcast that takes you back to a particular moment in time or activity?
Mary: Yes actually! I remember listening to About Race when I was moving out of my flat for lockdown. That was obviously a big moment for me personally and that podcast was literally the soundtrack to that whole day.
Ell: You know what, I vividly remember listening to Dolly Parton’s America when I was on holiday in Morocco. I’ve never properly thought about this until now. I was on a bus looking out the window and even now, I can remember the particular view, the interviewee featured on the podcast, everything.
The conversation in Life of Bi sounds and feels so natural, however, oftentimes, it’s the most off-the-cuff-sounding podcast dialogues that are in fact, the most structured behind the mic. Do you format your conversations on the podcast?
Ell: Yeah we script our episodes. We tried a version where we didn’t use a script and it was quite awful. We totally dried up and it didn’t feel right. Using a script means we can riff and digress when we want to, but also provides us with a basis to come back to afterward.
Mary: Yeah. When we listened to recordings of us talking off the cuff, it was a very different podcast. It was too easy to go down a funny cul de sac and too difficult to stick to a nutritious story.
Ell: We also wanted to approach sensitive subjects like the AIDS crisis respectfully. Tonally, that would have been very tricky to do without a script.
In episode four of your podcast, you discuss apps like TikTok and their contribution to the bisexual identity. How do you feel social media outlets like it have contributed to the modern-day queer experience?
Ell: I think that on the whole, they’ve been helpful. I mean, anything that enables a community, who otherwise wouldn’t have found each other, to actually find each other must be good.
Mary: Yeah definitely. Now a teenager can literally be discovering and forming who they are while also having access to this incredible well of humanity, cultures, and identities. That has to be incredibly formative.
The only downside is that they only have access to this well of information because of huge corporations. This means that while teenagers are finding this haven of like-minded people to relate to, they’re finding them on this capitalist app, a space that doesn’t necessarily respect the things they’re identifying with, which is sort of warped.
Ell: Yeah. It basically means that you have access to queerness, but only via something that is inherently not queer, something that wants your money and your data and whatever. I feel people should be able to have access to queer culture without having to sign up to these platforms. It should just be available without any fine print.
And to finish up, what are your favorite sounds?
Mary: Oh, rain! I always listen to rain to go to sleep. I specifically like rain on a tent or rain on a roof. No thunder, just rain on a surface. That’s my favorite sound.
Ell: Hmm.. That’s a tough one.
Mary: Ell is a very audibly sensitive person!
Ell: Right now my favorite sound is this noise that my cat is making. She just got back from the cat hospital and she can’t speak. Well, not that she could ever speak, but she can’t make her usual little cat sounds. However the other day she made this ‘Rrrrrrrpppppp’ noise! Do you know how cats make that funny noise? Anyway, it was fantastic.