Take the gritty paranoia of Battlestar Galactica and cross it with a synth-laced soundtrack in the vein of Stranger Things and you get something close to Wellspring, a sci-fi drama podcast that rolled out this past fall.
Produced by Cincinnati-based performing arts nonprofit Walterhoope, the six-episode narrative podcast follows Ve, an investigative journalist trying to understand an incident — and its subsequent repercussions — that unfolded at Wellspring, a government-run facility two decades prior. The inhabitants that live there are often, and rightfully, secretive.
Wellspring marks Walterhoope’s first foray into the podcasting ‘verse.
“We choose our medium based on the story as opposed to the other way around,” William Vaughn, co-director and writer of Wellspring, told me. “For this story, we really all were just like ‘This should be an audio drama.’”
Certainly, Wellspring immerses the listener into a sonic swirl of sound. It may feel as if you’re in the room alongside Ve as she interviews various characters. Rain patters. Thunder strikes. There’s a knock at the door. Floors creak. Rumblings of commotion and far away shouts ring out. Like classic sci-fi audio dramas, the sound design is crucial to the experience as it etches out a setting that pricks at one’s imagination.
Dylan Oseas’ ominous, dread-inducing synth-heavy music anchors the scenes. It’s reminiscent of Stranger Things, and that’s not a coincidence. Oseas drew inspiration from the popular Netflix show.
Though the final episode of Wellspring aired in November, those compiling a list of podcasts to experience in 2020 would do well to take note. Embroiled with intergalactic conflict and identity politics, the issues posed in this world are not unlike the ones we’re grappling with on our own pale blue dot. Bingeable in about two hours and offering several twists, the story resonates on several levels.
“The nugget of our idea started a couple of years ago when the families were being separated at the Southern border and in airports,” Vaughn says. “And Audrey Bertaux, our producing artistic director, was really struck by the security guards at the airport that were doing the splitting up. But really it was just like — pass down, pass down, pass down. What must it be like for these people that have families and honestly probably don’t know exactly what’s going on at the time to literally be splitting up these families?"
The first episode, titled The New Guy, sets that stage with a character named Damon, who — in the midst of what could be thought of as an alien invasion — is placed in a camp and asked to do things that he isn’t sure are for good or for bad. What results is a morality crisis.
As the episodes dive further and Ve talks to subjects coming from multiple viewpoints, more details of wrongdoings at the hands of Wellspring — and the government at large — are revealed. With each new character, another caveat is posed. The narratives dug up often clash with those posed in episodes previous, leaving listeners with a tangled web to unravel. Even Ve, who carries listeners episode-to-episode, has a nebulous past and identity. Her search for "truth" is as much a personal one as it is to understand what went down — and the continuing repercussions — at Wellspring.
Fans of Cincinnati theatre will likely recognize some familiar voices. Directed by Vaughan and David Mavricos — and co-written by Vaughan, Mavricos and Tereasa Spencer — Wellspring stars Bertaux, Billy Chace, Kimberly Gilbert, Darnell Pierre Benjamin, Allyson West, Jeremy Dubin, Jennifer Joplin and Candice Handy.
Keep an eye peeled for Walterhoope's upcoming fourth season, in which acclaimed Cincinnati-based director and choreographer Darnell Pierre Benjamin will spearhead13th and Republic. Featuring music by Kaleel Skeirik and the poetry of Tyrone Williams, according to its description, the piece will "follow a single character who embodies the victims of excessive police force, and interacts with an ensemble of dancers and a chorus of singers to tell their story." (It's currently seeking funding via Kickstarter.)
Walterhoope's founders — Vaughan, Mavricos and Bertaux — all met in Washington D.C., the organization's original home base. A Cincinnati native, Bertaux grew up in the local theater scene, which led to the company's move here in 2017.
"We are really happy to be here," Vaughan says. "It's such a great community and the arts scene… people are just really excited to be experiencing new things artistically."
For more info or to stream Wellspring, visit walterhoope.com/wellspring.