Dallas — As podcasts become increasingly popular, theater professionals across Dallas are taking to this growing storytelling medium. It makes sense, considering that a big part of theater training, for actors at least, is voice work. Add in other theatrical skillsets, such as writing, directing, and producing, and you have a format that seems tailor-made for theater types.
We take a look at three such podcasts, produced by Dallas-connected theater artists: Terror and Tacos, hosted by Christie Vela and Michael Federico; 1865, a podcast about John Wilkes Booth produced by Erik Archila, Steven Walters and Rob McCollum; and Untitled Dad Project, by Janielle Kastner.
Terror and Tacos
While struggling through a terrible film might not appeal to most people, it is just another pastime for Christie Vela and Mike Federico. After all, this is their podcast, and they were in the zone.
The setting: Vela’s living room. The topic of discussion: Shark Exorcist, a 2015 Amazon Prime film. Federico’s verdict: “It’s like porn-bad, but without the porn.”
“I’m not even talking about porn with some type of budget,” he says, his voice rising in frustration.
As podcasts become increasingly popular, theater professionals across Dallas are taking to this growing storytelling medium. Vela and Federico wear multiple hats in the theater industry—her as actor and director; him as actor and playwright. Both are company members at Kitchen Dog Theater, where in the spring of 2020, Vela will direct Federico and Cameron Cobb’s A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving. Coming up in October, Vela directs the world premiere of Federico’s adaptation of Dracula at Theatre three. Before that, Vela directs another premiere, Blake Hackler’s What We Were, for Second Thought Theatre, a co-production with Circle Theatre. Vela was an original member of the Hal and Diane Brierley Resident Acting Company, where she recently directed Real Women Have Curves.
Podcasts—with no radio time slots, time limits or music required—allow them to release their own shows straight to the listening audience. Plus, they can take deep-dives into subjects they love. In this case, horror films and Mexican food.
Terror and Tacos is a casual show wherein Vela and Federico eat tacos from different local restaurants while riffing on the horror films they watched that week. Their tagline: “Let’s taco ‘bout terror.”
“Sometimes we try and tie in the taco to the movie,” Vela says. “We’ll do bougie tacos if it’s related to WASP-y horror.”
Vela and Federico said their show is intended to make listeners feel like they’re out to lunch with friends. After all, that is how their show started. In 2018, after discussing how much they disliked having people talk through movies, the pair started watching movies alone together, and then talking about the films over lunch.
One day, after watching — and thoroughly disliking — the film Annabelle: Creation, they had an epiphany.
“We were like ‘Surely we have seen enough horror movies between us that we could talk about this,’” Vela says. “We decided one day to just turn on a mic and record it.”
The first episode focused on one of their favorites, the 1976 supernatural horror film The Omen. It was a natural choice for the first podcast, since one of their preferred horror genres is religious horror—something they describe as fallout from their Catholic childhoods.
“If there’s a demon, usually there’s a priest who will come and fix it,” Federico says.
Now they meet almost every week, ordering takeout before settling down in Vela’s living room to record. Vela said recording days are now the highlight of her week.
Federico and Vela are both actors and adjunct instructors in Dallas, and while there’s plenty of humor and banter in the podcast, Vela says there is an academic element to each episode. It’s not just about the scares, she says, it’s about the story.
“The thing we have in common is that we both kind of see horror movies as this cultural thermometer,” Vela notes. “And that’s how we like to approach it. Like, ‘What is happening right now that makes this movie important?’ ”
Vela says that makes Terror and Tacos a show that even non-horror fans can appreciate. The show has developed some diehard fans, who sometimes send in requests to discuss certain films…or taquerias.
“We try to get to new movies as much as we possibly can,” Vela says. “And recently every new movie that we’ve seen we’ve hated.”
“We’re on a hate roll,” he laughs.
In the meantime, Vela and Federico have also begun shooting a horror film of their own, a throwback to old-school slasher films that takes place at a musical theater camp. The film, called Final Dress, has been shooting for the past month at locations in Dallas, notably Theatre Three, where Vela is Associate Artistic Director.
Vela adds that the duo is very open to getting sponsors for Terror and Tacos.
“The dream is to only make podcasts or make horror movies,” she said. “Or both.”
And though Terror and Tacos isn’t geared toward any particular audience, Federico said their language in the show makes one thing clear: “It isn’t for kids.”
If shows like Hamilton, Assassins, and 1776 have taught us anything, it’s that politics makes for surprisingly entertaining stories. The same is true of Rob McCollum and Steven Walters’s podcast 1865.
Unlike Terror and Tacos, 1865 is a large-scale production recorded in the style of a classic radio drama. The show is complete with a full score, mixed audio, and 40 voice actors. The actors are almost all have Dallas connections, and include The Good Place’s William Jackson Harper (a Dallas native who is also a playwright), R Bruce Elliot, Jeremy Schwartz, Derek Phillips, and Montgomery Sutton.
This political thriller recounts the intrigues and morally complex events following Lincoln’s assassination. The 16-episode serial follows Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whose search for justice (and John Wilkes Booth) becomes mired in complications. One of these complications comes in the form of the new president, Andrew Johnson.
Walters, a playwright, actor and director who was a member of DTC’s Brierley ensemble and is a co-founder and former artistic director of Second Thought Theatre, describes 1865 as having a style similar to House of Cards “if House of Cards was based on real history.”
1865 is based on 14 years of research by Walters and actor/director Erik Archilla that began as a college project. Though the research was originally intended to help create a play about John Wilkes Booth — their play Booth premiered at Second Thought Theatre in 2014 — the project expanded and changed, emerging as a podcast in 2017. Ultimately, McCollum says that a change of medium was necessary to do justice to the story.
“There was so much to tell that in a two-hour play, you couldn’t,” he says.
One of the things that makes 1865 powerful for modern listeners is the tie-in to contemporary politics. Walters says the Trump administration’s divisive relationship with the press is similar to that of the Johnson administration, right down to their shared cry of “fake news.”
“Trump and Andrew Johnson aren’t the same person, but there are strong parallels,” Walters says, “like undermining Congress in campaign speeches.”
Walters points out that reconstruction is not a time period that is widely talked about, which adds to the uniqueness of the story.
“I think my favorite part about [the podcast] is that it exposes parts of history not many Americans know about,” Walters says.
Whether it’s the unique narrative, the political intrigue, or the evident love of American history that brings in listeners, something is driving the show’s popularity. In its first week, 1865 had already reached 100,000 downloads. It reached No. 13 on podcast charts by day two.
“From my interactions with our fan base on Twitter, it seems to be a very diverse group,” Walters says. “I think generally fans of history are listening to our show, and fans of politics.”
According to Edison Research, roughly 90 million Americans aged 12 and over listened to at least one podcast in June 2019. That adds up to 32 percent of the U.S. population—a 6 percent increase from 2018.
Along with the juicy history and interesting anecdotes, McCollum says he hopes listeners walk away from this podcast with a dilemma, asking themselves what they would have done in Stanton’s shoes.
“I hope the people who listen … think about politicians today under that lens,” he said.
Untitled Dad Project
The year was 2015, and playwright/actress Janielle Kastner was struggling to write an email. She knew the message she wanted to convey — just not how to do it. Kastner had never known why her father was not in her life, she only knew his absence.
“I got an email address and started drafting an email to him,” Kastner says.
She drafted and redrafted her message over a period of weeks. But before she could send it, she was told that her father had died. Kastner attended the funeral, but none of his friends knew she existed.
“The sensation was that I was like a character whose plot had twisted, and I didn’t know what my lines were anymore,” she says.
People started to push her for answers: Why had they never heard of her? Why was her father absent from her life?
“Then I realized I should probably figure it out for myself,” she says.
Cut to 2019 and the release of Kastner’s first foray into podcasting, Untitled Dad Project. In this program Kastner seeks narrative closure by exploring the themes and rolls of different “characters” in her life.
The show tells a deeply personal story but adds a thin layer of theatricality by exploring the storytelling elements of Kastner’s real-life drama. Each episode sees Kastner working with different theater professionals to classify aspects of her story. Is she the comic relief character? Is this an improv, where lines aren’t prepared in advance, or even involved at all? What about resolving conflicts in the plot?
Despite the theatrical elements of the show, Untitled Dad Project is a highly intimate experience for listeners, Kastner says, and was intended to feel authentic and personal.
“It’s a pretty unconventional podcast, because it spans the past four years of grieving and creating and interviewing in eight episodes,” Kastner adds.
While Kastner’s story might normally be suited to a one-woman show, she says her podcast is really about “undoing” performance, serving as a memoir in real time. Kastner also wants her account to be real, not played by characters.
“It’s very much so informed by my experience as a playwright and a theater person,” she said.
Kastner, who was instrumental in running Shakespeare in the Bar, created Untitled Dad Project for Spoke Media, a podcast production company where Kastner works as a producer. The company was founded by fellow Southern Methodist University alum Alia Tavakolian, and employs other local theater artists, including Brigham Mosley and Carson McCain. Spoke president Tavakolian says Kastner’s show is a brave project that is “a lesson in vulnerability.”
“It feels extremely personal and also extremely performative, and that’s what makes it so delightful,” Tavakolian says of the podcast. “I feel like I’m sitting down with someone who’s being extremely vulnerable with me.”
Ultimately, Untitled Dad Project is about legitimizing one’s self, Kastner says.
“That overhaul has been so meaningful for me and life-changing. I’m a different person from who I was four years ago.”
As for her intended audience, Kastner says her show is a good fit for “people post-therapy."