In the Embers Is a Timeless Radio Drama for the Podcast Age

Cover art by Christine Mitzuk

Cover art for In the Embers by Christine Mitzuk

A young girl screams . . . a woman sobs, pleading with the girl to follow her voice. In the Embers starts out with a chilling digitized scream that sets the scene of this radio mystery. Digger Morgan (voiced by Edwin Strout) is an audio archaeologist who discovers the sound by using a laser on the burned remains of a Toole Hill stables farmhouse. This discovery leads him and his team to investigate the life of Kit Jeffers (Robin Miles) and the death of her sister, Alice (Olivia DuFord). One night, after a dinner party and an interesting conversation about quantum mechanics and how time travel might work, Digger wakes up to the voice of Kit, trapped on his computer.

The soulful voice of Catherine “Kit” Jeffers reaches out to us from the past and the songs she sings bring us back to a time that we try to forget. After Kit’s initial fear of Digger, they begin to work together to recall her history, the details that led up to the event, and what happened after that fateful day. Is it possible to bring Alice back?

In the Embers, from Minnesota’s Great Northern Audio Theatre, was written and produced by Brian Price and Jerry Stearns and started as an idea conceived while they were traveling. The pair wanted to create a new type of radio, something that was more of a film then a radio play. They achieved this by layering the sounds, the acting, and the story.

The pace is on point, and from the very beginning your attention is drawn in. The banter between Digger and his archeological team is delightful and comfortable, making you immediately feel like a part of their inner circle. Kit’s sultry voice is the highlight of the piece. The music that she sings has so much feeling that it acts as a bridge, bringing you into the beautifully created world of Toole Hill and the to the oppression of the 1920s. Listening to it for the second time, I picked up additional nuances and details that bring the story to life even more. The story is deep and soulful, and Kit’s voice ringing over the computer from the past is haunting yet beautiful. In the Embers is one for the ages and something that I will come back to time and time again.

The interview that accompanies this story is a wonderful companion to its creation—you can listen to the actors, writers, and musicians explain what In the Embers meant to them and what inspired them, it broadens the depth of the story you are listening to.

Brian (who has been reviewing audio for over 20 years) and Jerry (who has been broadcasting in radio over 30 years) had been talking about where to go in the field of radio, where it could be taken. They came up with the idea of In the Embers while on a road trip through Missouri and Illinois. It started with a thought that the main character should be a librarian, and from there, the ideas began to flow. They wanted to write a story that would affect you, change you, and be something that would stick with you. With In the Embers, their main goal was to go against the linear style of radio. Since radio is always starting from one point and moving through time in a forward fashion, they wanted to change that. Bring the old to the new and blend them. Go back in time to reveal the story and bring it to the present.

The drama uses scientific terms and methods that are proven today, though maybe not in the medium chosen. We already know we can capture sound in objects (clay vases, for example), and quantum mechanics is a field of scientific study, though I am not sure if they have had the same findings as Susan (played by Dawn Krosnowski).

Jacquie Maddix, the voice of Old Alice, found the authenticity of script surprising. She says in the interview, “It is very honest and authentic about the flow of the conversation and how everyone responded to one another.” This refers to how Kit responds to Digger initially when she discovers that he’s a white man. Jacquie further explains that in the past, not only was race segregated but culture was as well, and a white man would have no idea what was going on in the world of Kit, who is black. Black women during that time often played dumb to white men, something reflected in this play—as it moves in time and Kit learns to trust Digger, you can see her understanding and intelligence start to come out.

In addition to writing all of the original songs in In the Embers, Mike Wheaton is an accomplished pianist and guitarist. The song “My Columbine” was hardest for Mike to write; as it was supposed to be written by a young girl, he composed it more like a nursery rhyme. Another challenge was the song “In the Embers.” The song was written without Robin (who sang it in the play) getting a chance to hear it in the studio. Once she did, they realized it would have to be rewritten at a different pitch.

I spoke with Jerry Stearns to answer a few questions that I had after listening to the radio production and the interviews with the cast.

Jacquie Maddix - Dean Johnson - Jerry Stearns at the studio of KFAI community radio

Jacquie Maddix, Dean Johnson, and Jerry Stearns
at the studio of KFAI community radio.

Kelly Starsmore (TCG):You said that you were inspired while on the road. About how long after your idea of having the main character being a librarian did it take to develop and see the light of day?

Jerry Stearns: The idea began when we were driving across the Midwest in June, and we premiered the show in June two years later. In between, I had my knee replaced and we did our last Mark Time Radio Show, besides all the work for Embers.

TCG: The production was all done in the same room to help create more of a movie style; were there more problems recording in that way than in the traditional style? Did you find any strong benefits to doing it that way?

Jerry: We recorded with the actors together because we knew we would get a better performance with them working off of each other. That’s what I would call the “traditional” style. I consider it much superior to recording each actor separately and pasting together the best takes. One of the essences of acting is to “listen” to the other characters, and how can you do that if they aren’t there? We still made sure we had each voice on its own track so we could more easily cut, overlap, and process them as needed. We have pieced together voice tracks on other projects, but it was only when we just couldn’t get all the players at the same time.

TCG: Did you have any moments that shined out to you during the writing and production?

Jerry: One of our favorite moments in the writing was when we realized that what we were doing with Kit was taking a character from the past, making her come alive in the present, giving her a big chance to grow and learn what she never would have been able to when she was alive, and then having her then choose to go back into her own past because of what had happened to her there. It was a complete character arc that the character herself had created, and we had just been dragged along for the ride; we had not had that as part of our original plan. It’s one of those great writer experiences.

One of my own favorite moments of the production was when I sent the first mix to Tom Lopez, at ZBS, who is someone whose expertise and experience we greatly admire. And he came back and said, “I don’t know why you need me, you’ve got most of it done already. Especially that scene with the bulldozer; that really works.” It pleased me because I’d worked really hard to assemble all the right sounds for a scene that needed to be real, and apparently I had been listening.

TCG: Any frustrations?

Jerry: Not very many.  We’re both audio guys, so we’ve got all that figured out, but we forgot to take enough pictures of the process and the people involved. The biggest frustrations we have experienced are getting the production out there and listened to. We want people to hear it, but audio theater is a narrow niche, so it’s hard to get the word out. We don’t regularly podcast. It’s hard to get theater or film reviewers in the media to take notice, because audio is in-between their normal channels.

You must listen to this show. It has everything—beautifully written and sung blues songs, a dash of science fiction, humor—and it captures why radio plays are so amazing and timeless. Allow yourself an hour to just lay back and let these characters be part of your life. They want to tell you their story.

You can learn more about In the Embers by visiting the Great Northern Audio Theatre website.

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