Saturday, December 9, 2023

Big Dawg’s theatrical audio format benefits reprisal of horror-fueled ‘Wendigo,’ streaming this month

Chase Harrison, Kevin Wilson, Steve Vernon and Robin Dale Robertson voice the audio version of award-winning ‘Wendigo.’ (Port City Daily/Courtesy of Chase Harrison)

WILMINGTON — In 2016 when Chase Harrison won StarNews’ Theater Award for Best Original Play for “Wendigo” — a horror play that debuted at the now-defunct Browncoat Pub and Theater — little did he know he would reprise it in 2021 in a different format because of a pandemic. Big Dawg Productions is opening “Wendigo: An Audio Drama” on Thursday, which will be available for streaming through Mar. 21.

It’s been one year now since Big Dawg launched an in-person production. It began doing audio dramas with Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” last spring, followed by Christmastime’s “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol.” The productions have been funded by grants from The Landfall Foundation and the Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County.

According to Harrison, he’s been tweaking and editing “Wendigo” since it debuted in 2015. Changing the format to strictly audio however was a new, exciting challenge, he said. It’s also one that worked out well since the show is based on campfire ghost stories. Specifically, it centers on four men taking a hunting trip deep in the woods, as “an ancient evil force” begins to haunt them and forces them to face their own demons.

“Luckily, horror is like the ultimate cheat code,” Harrison said of the audio drama format. “[A]s the old adage goes, the human imagination will always fill in the gaps way worse than anything that anyone can or could be shown. So with that, the loss of the visual element is a benefit. Now, when the Wendigo stalks its prey, sure, it’s my words, but it’s the audience’s own imaginations building the beast. We — the production team — have circumvented the whole loss of visuals by co-opting the listeners’ very imaginations against them.”

The production is being voiced and acted out by Robin Dale Robertson, Kevin Wilson and Big Dawg’s artistic director Steve Vernon. Harrison also is joining the acting ranks for the first time in six years.

“All my life, all I wanted to do was make/tell horror stories, be a master of horror myself, if you will,” Harrison said. “But acting in one of my shows?”

He points to pandemic times as the driving force. “Actors were not easy to come by,” Harrison said. “So, when push came to shove, I stepped up and played one of the characters I created, which was strange but cool!”

We interviewed Harrison about getting back onstage, adapting “Wendigo” into an audio drama, and of course his love of horror.

Port City Daily (PCD): So did you like being in the acting seat again?
Chase Harrison (CH): Here’s some behind-the-scenes, IMDB trivia for your readers: I have a bad habit of reading all my dialogue aloud to myself while I’m writing. Helps me to hear it back and make sure it hits the pace I’m aiming for.

After having read and read and read oh-so-many readings of the “Wendigo” script through the years, let’s just say I knew the role well. But we had Steve Vernon as a director. If you want to talk about secret weapons or someone who can just see past the bulls***t and see ‘it’ —  whatever the hell ‘it’ is — it’s him. He would drag us all, the cast, outside and lay into us if it sounded like we were just not taking it seriously one night. He knew what we all were capable of and what we all could bring, and when that didn’t match, he’d captain the ship. . . .

I never meant to be as hands-on with the project as I was. I wanted to help Big Dawg Productions in a time of need, in the only way I could think. I never expected I would have gotten so much out of this experience, not to simplify if all down, but it’s been great. From the initial meetings to the see-ya-at-the-cast party, it’s been great.

PCD: You love the horror genre. How does ‘Wendigo’ encapsulate and pay homage to that love?
CH: Horror is my passion. Some people like sports, others take to painting. I like spooky stuff. My dad likes to tell the story of when I was a baby and he would read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to me. I would always just flip the pages with my manic baby hands till we got to the horrific illustrations of witches depicted in the book, then I would just start cheering at the sight of them.

I’ve always liked the dark side of this world. Not to sound all goth kid, but I find some form of safety in knowing it’s there and seeing it . . . Horror allots us as humans a safety net. To see the worst the world could have in store for us — prepare for it, maybe, but at the very least acknowledge it.

[A] personal idol of mine, John Carpenter (“Halloween” franchise) is quoted with saying there are two types of horror: Horror that is the outside threat, the “us vs. them.” We fear only that which exists where the fire’s light cannot reach. Carpenter goes on to add, though, the other side of that coin is the horror of self, personal struggles of good vs. evil — am I a good person, really?

I do believe “Wendigo” grabs both those ideas and presents them eerily in a way that builds off what I have learned from years and years of watching horror. 

On the back of that, horror movies are also pure escapism. More often than not featuring creatures and situations so otherworldly they couldn’t possibly take place in our world, the real world [is] similar to the same thrill people get from a roller-coaster ride I imagine. I’m too scared to ride those.  

PCD: Tell our readers what inspired you to write this story.
CH: What inspired me to write “Wendigo” was being asked if I had a story that could fill a time slot back in the day when the Browncoat Pub & Theater was kicking. The artistic director, Nick Smith, at the time was looking for an original script back in 2014 to fill in the 2015 season, titled “Amazing Wonder Stories” — and with the Browncoat being a geek Shangri-La, he wanted each show to be a specific genre. I was riding high off of having just brought H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Re-Animator” to stage for TheaterNOW in October ’14, so when Smith asked if I had a story to tell, you bet I jumped at the chance to keep the train going.

“Wendigo” comes from childhood, when my dad would tell ghost stories around a fire on cold-cutting winter nights. He would walk around the fire, changing his pace and voice to match the tension and tone of the stories. He would give each character a new and different life.

Honestly, thinking on it more, it was those days that showed me the power of performance. One of Dad’s tales of terrors he liked to weave as the fires flickered before him was that of the Wendigo. I mean, I have heard tales of the mythic beast all my life, and it’s never really taken hold in modern horror. . . .

[Reprising] “Wendigo” is pretty special for me, as it’s the first time a play of mine has been performed twice. I think that proves the show has legs and could be put up for years to come — here’s hoping, at least.

PCD: What was it like taking “Wendigo” from a live stage to audio format — how did you make up for the loss of visual storytelling? I imagine you were in heaven with creepy noises here.
CH: Let me just start by saying that Scott Davis, the production’s sound engineer, is a wizard! When I was first struck with the idea to reach out to Big Dawg and see if they’d want to even adapt “Wendigo” into an audio drama, I thought it would just be recorded over Zoom with maybe two or three read-through sessions. Nah, Scott Davis and Steve Vernon knew after reading the show over Zoom once that the magic of the script was the banter between all the friends. 

The main characters have all been best buds since the diaper days, so the ability to speak over and bounce off each other is important. It’s important in all forms a theatric art, but we’re in pandemic times and you gotta do what you gotta do. So, after a few talks and a couple of cast changes, the team agreed that if we’re safe, followed CDC guidelines best we could, we’d meet in person and record this together. A huge credit to that taking place, and as absolutely safely as we did, goes out to Scott Davis.

At the Cape Fear Playhouse, he set up a very professional four-mic recording zone, where none of the actors were facing one another. We wore masks whenever not in the recording zone; we did all we could to be safe.

Outside of the play not going up live in front of an audience, nothing was truly different honestly. I’d say we rehearsed for maybe two weeks of just reading the script and then we started laying down tracks, but we’re still in a rehearsing stage.

We just didn’t want to lose any of those earlier moments; you never know when gold could be struck. Funny enough, after a few weeks of recording and some real deep character/actor soul-searching, we made the call to throw out the entire first few weeks of work and go back to re-record it all with the emotional mindsets we had discovered over all the weeks of work put into it. That’s a call only to be made when every mind on board believes in the project at hand and knows, “Yeah, this is more work, dammit, but for the end game, it’s all gonna be worth it.” We all encouraged each other into making the show better and better at each turn.

PCD: Is your favorite scene in the audio show the same as the live show? Did you enjoy taking the play to an audio format — would you consider doing it again?
CH: Interesting question — yeah, a lot of the human-element moments I find still hit hard and land right, as far as my writer opinion goes. I don’t know how this sounds, but when I listen to the portions of the show that I have so far, I can honestly say I forget that it’s my show. I just enjoy it as a new entry in the horror genre.

I’ve always had an idea that “Wendigo” could work as an audio drama: the fact it’s a small cast, one location, a lot of its runtime is rising tension for the horrific moments where the beast attacks. So, again, being in the time of a pandemic with so many companies adapting themselves to survive — and Big Dawg moving in the direction of audio dramas — I saw an opportunity for both parties to benefit.

My plays are all owned by me, currently, giving me complete control of who and where the rights can go. Steve and Big Dawg are a company in need of show with resources that I need. Things just fell into place really for the project to come about in the evolution I always wanted for it.

In 2015 it was a play. In 2021 it’s an audio drama. In six more years, who knows what it could be? Feature film, perhaps?

PCD: Any new work you’ve been churning out since the pandemic?
CH: I’ve joked that I’ve deleted more than I’ve actually written during this whole “Time of Blah.” But that’s not to say I’ve been resting on my laurels, by any means.

Before the big shutdown put us all on pause, I was gearing up to direct my fourth play — another horror-based tale of terror titled “Fool’s Gold.” It would have been staged in October of 2020 for Panache Theatrical Productions, which as far as I’m concerned is still on the books as a “TBD” for when the big pause is called off.

I wrote a sequel to my ode to ’80’s slasher films, “TheaTerror.” It’s called “TheaTerror II: Devil’s Play.” There’s something funny to the idea of a sequel to a play. Plus, it’s just slasher code, you gotta make a sequel and Erin Hunter, who played killer Lin Palmer in “TheaTerror” has told me that as long as I write the character, she’ll play the character. That’s always sweet: when your friends will murder for ya at a moment’s notice.

I’m currently outlining something new, still untitled, and I’m just figuring out the plot beats and who the characters are, but I’m really excited about it. Any time I get to work on it, I can just see it moving already — and that’s half the battle. It follows a son who finds a dark secret in his family’s past, while taking care of his father who is suffering from dementia. It’s closer to thriller/drama than full-on horror, but it will fall safely into the genre when it’s all said and done.

“Wendigo: An Audio Drama” can be purchased for $15 to stream Mar. 11-21. The audio drama contains strong language, appropriate for adults.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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