“Very well, I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! Here! Here! It is the beating of the old man’s hideous heart!”
This is the climax to Edgar Allen Poe’s horror classic “The Tell-Tale Heart.” And like many a classic, it’s a familiar tale that becomes fresh again when the retelling is new and different.
This is why the National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre’s podcast production of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is such a worthwhile listen. Hosted online by Baltimore NPR station WYPR 88.1 FM, “Tell-Tale Heart” is one of a series of Poe-based podcasts being produced by the company’s “Poe Theatre on the Air” initiative.
“Poe Theatre of the Air is based on the ‘theater of the mind’ approach to radio drama, which uses actors, music and sound effects to conjure up vivid stories in the listeners’ imaginations,” said Alex Zavistovich, the founder and artistic director of the National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre.
Orson Welles’ famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast is based on the theater of the mind approach. The dark stories of Edgar Allan Poe lend themselves well to this audio production style, even though his 19th century tales were written long before radio came to be.
An experienced actor and director as well as a former editor of Radio World, Alex Zavistovich is no stranger to radio drama. Previous to creating the National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre, Zavistovich founded and managed Lean & Hungry Theater, which performed radio adaptations of Shakespeare and other English literary classics. These adaptations have been aired on NPR affiliate stations in Austin, Texas; Tampa, Florida; and Washington, D.C.
Although Poe was born in Boston in 1809 and then lived in Richmond, the indisputable Father of American Horror did much of his writing in Baltimore, where he died at age 40 after being found incoherent in Ryan’s Tavern.
Poe’s ties to Baltimore appealed to Zavistovich when he moved to this city.
“I learned that there was no national theater dedicated to the works of Edgar Allan Poe,” he said. “So I have set about to raise Poe’s profile, and Poe Theatre on the Air is one way I’m doing it.”
As for hosting these podcasts on WYPR’s website? “Being affiliated with an NPR station instantly gave us a credibility and a reach that we wouldn’t have if we did this on our own,” said Zavistovich.
To date, Poe Theatre on the Air has produced five dramatic podcasts based on Poe’s works. As described by the theater’s web page, a sampling:
The Tell-Tale Heart: “A housekeeper takes a job caring for an old man, and it seems like a dream for them both. But the dream becomes a nightmare when the housekeeper’s obsession with the man turns deadly — with a truly heart-pounding ending.”
The Black Cat: “A man brings home a cat for his animal-loving wife, to replace a cherished pet. When the new family addition becomes too annoying for the man, it leads to a dark secret that the cat reveals at the worst possible time — for the man.”
Morella: “A man’s love for his scholarly wife fades as her fascination turns to morbid themes. On her deathbed, she gives birth and curses the man to ensure that he will never be freed from her memory.”
Posted more recently are episodes “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Berenice.”
In a nice touch, the stories are tied together by the device of the listener visiting an insane asylum. Each cell they visit contains a deranged inmate directly related to the Poe tale about to be told.
The scripts, drawn from Poe’s own works, are created by Zavistovich and Professor Richard Hand, a professor of media practice at the UK’s University of East Anglia. The actors are from the Poe Theatre on the Air’s company, with production being handled in Baltimore by long-time audio engineer and producer Ty Ford, another Radio World alum.
Teaching theatrical actors to do radio drama wasn’t easy, Ford said. “We do the show in my 25- by-35-foot custom-tuned basement studio, and it took a while for some of them to get used to working with microphones rather than projecting to an audience from the stage,” he said. “But they’re getting the hang of it now.”
To make these Poe podcasts more compelling, Ford uses a mix of original music that he and Zavistovich compose/perform on the fly, plus recorded sound effects, and actual “real” effects that he creates as required.
“For instance, when we needed the sound of a trowel being used to brick a victim into a wall, I grabbed one of my own and rubbed across the terra-cotta saucer of a flower pot,” Ford said.
CLASSICS FOR THE PODCAST GENERATION
In creating theater of the mind audio productions, Zavistovich and Ford are aiming for the pinnacle of Golden Age radio dramatic production, a genre made popular by long-running radio series like “Gunsmoke” and “Suspense.”
Judging by the quality of Poe Theatre on the Air, they have hit this mark. These podcasts feature a lively mix of solid voice acting, convincing sound effects, and suitably eerie music that underlines Poe’s emphasis on pervasive, insistent unease; a sense of discomfort that begins by gently unsettling the listener at the outset, and building to a tsunami of terror by the end.
“We recently heard from WYPR that we have had 6,000 downloads for the first three shows,” said Ford, “not just streams, but downloads. They were excited by that and are planning even more promotion for the show.”
If all goes to plan, Alex Zavistovich hopes to keep producing new Poe podcasts on a monthly basis. “There’s a whole community of podcasts listeners who are deeply interested in radio drama and complex storytelling,” he said. “This is what we are trying to bring to them through the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.”
And if the living Poe podcasts transport their listeners into a world of deadly fear and trepidation, so much the better. As the Father of American Horror wrote in “The Premature Burial”: “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
Find more episodes at www.wypr.org/programs/poe-theatre-air.