Radio refresh: ‘Erasmus Dagger’ drama podcastrevives on-air storytelling

A group of UVA students is writing and producing “Erasmus Dagger: An Intergalactic Teleplay,” a radio drama podcast available for listening on major platforms. They have four episodes up now, and after taking a break for the summer, will be back in the fall with more. Image: Amy and Jackson Smith A group of UVA students is writing and producing “Erasmus Dagger: An Intergalactic Teleplay,” a radio drama podcast available for listening on major platforms. They have four episodes up now, and after taking a break for the summer, will be back in the fall with more. Image: Amy and Jackson Smith

The sound of spurred boots scuff-clicking across a creaky wooden floor is what did it for third-year UVA student Jess Miller. Sitting alone in front of his laptop, headphones on, ears alert, he’d sifted through a digital library of sound effects to find the right one, the noise that would let the listener of his new podcast know that the sheriff was sizing up the saloon…and its new-in-town owner.

Using audio editing software, Miller dropped the effect into place, and when he listened back, he was convinced: There he was, with the sheriff, in the saloon, on the frontier. In that moment, Miller realized that he could create an entire world with sound alone.

Of course, he knew he wasn’t the first to do it. He’d studied radio dramas, and knew how wildly popular they were in the first half of the 20th century.

And some of them were pretty well done: On October 30, 1938, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, narrated by Orson Welles for his weekly CBS program “The Mercury Theatre on the Air,” managed to convince a significant number of listeners that Martians were invading Earth.

By the 1960s, television caused radio dramas to decline, but the form never went away entirely—in the 1980s and ’90s, the three original Star Wars films were adapted for radio, and NPR’s “Prairie Home Companion” had plenty of dramatic sketches, to name a few.

Inspired by the challenge of audio storytelling (and bored with the proliferation of nonfiction podcasts on topics like economics), Miller, along with playwright Bob Lynch, decided to write an original radio drama podcast—and “Erasmus Dagger: An Intergalactic Teleplay” was born.

“The story tells itself,” quips Lynch.

Here’s the gist: It’s the year 2999. Sheriff Erasmus Dagger and his half-alien sidekick Reginald Zorplon fight to defend their frontier town of New Chicago from evil villain Temeritous “Hotpants” Orlando, who threatens to poison the town’s water supply (and torch his nemeses’ pants). But that’s not all: Much to his surly landlady’s chagrin, Erasmus—the kind of guy who takes eight-hour naps—can’t seem to pay his rent on time…and he’s in love with Anne, femme fatale and proprietor of the local saloon.

It’s “a parody of, and a love letter to, all these old sci-fi, western, and detective dramas,” says Miller, who voices the announcer and the landlady, and writes all of the scripts along with Lynch, who voices Erasmus. Miller and Lynch recruited fellow Shakespeare on the Lawn actors to voice other characters.

“It’s thrillingly imaginative,” says Mailie-Rose Smith, who voices Anne. The actors’ delivery of the words, in combination with well-chosen and well-placed sound effects, give the listener a basic mental picture of what’s going on, and for the rest, “you have to imagine,” she says. “There’s something really exciting in relying on your mind to do that for you.”

The focus on language and word choice affords ample opportunity for clever wordplay that might get lost in a busy visual landscape (listen closely for Anne’s full name). The writers can invent invisible characters (technically, all the characters are invisible), or write an episode around a wild train robbery, situations that would be nearly impossible to create visually with the resources available to the “Erasmus Dagger” crew.

In combining so many genres, they’re able to draw upon well-known tropes for plot and comedic effect.“We’re celebrating and satirizing at the same time,” says Miller. “There’s really no limit to the kinds of stories we can tell.”

Friends keep asking to voice bit parts, and Miller and Lynch are happy to oblige. These minor characters (like Manners, the British butler) add interesting texture to the story. And, for what it’s worth, they have a list of dream guests that include the ghost of Sam Shepard, UVA Dean of Students Allen Groves, politics professor Larry Sabato, physics professor Lou Bloomfield, and English professor Elizabeth Fowler. If UVA President Jim Ryan is game, they have a part in mind for him, too: Erasmus’ supervisor.

They don’t expect “Erasmus Dagger” to be a podcast sensation, or revolutionize the radio drama genre. Maybe it’ll be the second-biggest podcast in America, says Lynch.

Top 10 at least, retorts Jakob Cansler, voice of “Hotpants” Orlando.

Right now, there aren’t many scripted fictional podcasts in production (“Homecoming,” “Welcome to Night Vale,” “The Truth,” and “Limetown” are a few of the more popular ones), as Cansler learned when putting the podcast on Apple Music, Spotify, and other platforms; there wasn’t even a “scripted drama” genre option to tag, he says. And so in making “Erasmus Dagger,” says Cansler, “we’re saying, this is a form of storytelling that we should keep around. We shouldn’t forget about it.”

“It’s so fascinating that audiences can suspend their disbelief this much, and really believe that all of this is happening, when it’s just a few of us sitting in this room for an hour and a half, recording it,” says Miller.

“We want to tell stories,” adds Lynch, “interesting stories, good stories that people get a lot of pleasure out of listening to.”

And they’re having a hell of a good time doing it.