“What would happen if...?”
That question usually begins the formation of a new idea. And around Eau Claire, Chippewa Valley Writers Guild founder B.J. Hollars thinks if you ask the right people, you can find your answer.
“That’s sort of the beauty of Eau Claire is if you have an idea, it’s just a matter of getting the right people in the room to make it happen,” Hollars said.
Following a live reader’s theater of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” that community members performed in October 2016, Hollars said the response was so positive that the folks involved started asking, “What would happen if we wrote our own radio drama?”
They are about to find out.
The first episode of “Bend in the River,” a locally written, performed and produced fictional podcast, airs at 7 p.m. Friday on Blugold Radio 99.9 FM. Subsequent episodes will air at 7 p.m. each Friday throughout the eight-episode series. They will re-air at noon Sundays and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, and can also be found at blugoldradio.org.
The show follows 25-year-old David Sundby as he travels to River Bend, Wisconsin, for his grandfather’s funeral. Following a bridge closure, he is forced to take the old ferry and finds himself transported to the summer of 1958. In his efforts to return home, he disrupts the time-space continuum and meddles with his grandparents’ and his own future.
“I like to describe it as ‘The Twilight Zone’ meets ‘Fargo,’ ” Hollars said. “It’s a little spooky and a lot of fun.”
The script was co-written by Hollars, Charlotte Kupsh, Ken Szymanski and Jim Rybicki.
Almost as fun as the writing itself, Hollars said, was bringing the story to life. They didn’t have to look far to find talented folks to play the 18 characters, but they did have to look in new places.
“What’s so great about it is a lot of these folks I was meeting for the first time,” he said. “When we were casting parts we relied pretty heavily on the theater community about who would be good for each part.”
That’s how they stumbled upon Jake Pritchard, a local actor who has been heavily involved in community theater. Hollars had never met Pritchard before, but said he turned out to have the “perfect voice” for the show’s main character, Sundby.
Pritchard said he “jumped at the opportunity” to try voice acting, something he had never done before. He enjoyed doing a series that developed over a longer period of time, as opposed to a 1½-hour theater production.
“It wasn’t a blatant or obvious character arc like you would see in a play,” Pritchard said of his character’s development. “With eight 15-20 minute episodes happening over the course of weeks, months, it was a lot more subtle and I had to think about everything that happened in between each episode.”
His character wasn’t challenging, he added, because he is roughly the same age as Sundby in the same time period.
But traveling back into time and trying to be the serious man alongside some of the more “zany” characters was sometimes difficult.
“Trying to play the straight-faced man to some of the characters in this show was hard because the actors were really good and I always wanted to laugh,” Pritchard said.
Never having done voice acting, he said learning how to express a range of emotions with only his voice was also a challenge, but one he enjoyed learning to overcome. He credits a lot of that to the quality of the script.
“It is really funny, but also very well thought out, touching at moments, sad and intense even,” he said.
Blugold Radio manager Scott Morfitt said he also was impressed with the script and the actors. Listening to the episodes, he said it is easy to get hooked.
“The writers did an amazing job crafting characters and building River Bend,” Morfitt said. “In a very real way it feels like a tangible place, no matter how zany.”
From the business end of things, Morfitt said the partnership was simple. Because it is locally created with the radio station, they don’t have to pay licensing to air and produce it.
More than that, though, it was another opportunity for creative collaboration, which he thinks is what is at “the core of Eau Claire.”
Editing the episodes to include voice overs and sound effects has also been a valuable experience for the radio station’s producers, Eli Klatt and Nathan Baughman.
Morfitt said he is proud of the work the two have put into the program and added they’ve taken a cinematic approach to editing.
“(We are) asking ourselves questions like, ‘Where is the camera in this scene?’ in order to orient how we are crafting the actors’ vocals, sound effects and ambiance into something that feels like you’re right there in the moment,” Morfitt said.
This is the second radio drama Blugold Radio has produced this year, he said. The organization worked with playwrights Jim and Jane Jeffries to create “Wisconsin History Theater,” which recently won a Wisconsin Broadcasters Award.
That show featured standalone episodes about specific moments in time, he said, whereas “Bend in the River” is serialized.
“Listeners really will be able to binge listen and get a real feel for the place (River Bend),” Morfitt said.
Karen Drydyk, an English teacher and forensics coach at Chippewa Falls High School, has two roles in the series: Jorie Eversole, Sundby’s grandmother, and Elmira, a no-nonsense psychic.
As someone who appreciates oral interpretations of written word, Drydyk said she enjoyed bringing her own characters to life as well as seeing what elements other actors brought to their roles.
“It’s really impressive to see where people took things and how creative they got with their interpretations of the script,” Drydyk said.
It also brought a lot of folks with different creative backgrounds into the same room. Drydyk echoed Hollars when she said she met a lot of new faces.
“It’s really powerful when you get so many creative people together in one place,” she said. “Magic happens.”
The magic will continue with a live performance of the final two episodes at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 5, at The Metro, 210 E. Lake St.
After Hollars’ experience with the “War of the Worlds” reading, he couldn’t say no when someone suggested they incorporate a dramatic reading into this podcast.
“We have already spent time making the script pop,” he said. “There’s no better way to celebrate the final episodes of this — adding drama in an intimate way.”
Contact reporter: 715-833-9214, email@example.com, @KatherineMacek on Twitter