Virginia Gazette Online - May 19th, 2016 - By Phillip Merritt
Williamsburg, Virginia residents beware. All the secrets and unexplained mysteries of your humble little town will be exposed to the world on June 10th in Kansas City, Missouri. That's the day the locally produced podcast Lost in Williamsburg will be presented at the 2016 HEAR Now Audio Fiction and Arts Festival. The four day festival features a day-long listening event showcasing a jury-selected sampling of audio programs from around the nation, and Lost in Williamsburg creator Phillip Merritt will be on hand to introduce an episode of his podcast.
So what is a podcast? That's a question show creator Phillip Merritt was asked a lot when he began his project. "Podcasts are like radio shows for the internet age," he says. "But instead of being broadcast over the airwaves, they're downloaded from the web." And like radio shows, podcasts can be about anything: news, comedy, talk, or in the case of Lost in Williamsburg, a serial drama.
Mr. Merritt has always been a fan of the classic radio dramas of the 40's and 50's like Suspense or Inner Sanctum, which you can now find archived online. And when he heard the first episode of a Welcome to Nightvale, an immensely popular new audio drama, he decided to try his hand at a story focusing on his own hometown. "With hundreds of years of colonial history and numerous famous residents, Williamsburg is bursting with dramatic potential," he says.
The question Mr. Merritt's show explores is this: Is the charming little town of Williamsburg really as quaint and quiet as it seems or could there something sinister lurking amongst the town's historic homes, B&B's, and campus courtyards? To find out, The show's story weaves back and forth between the 18th century and present day. Characters include the young student Thomas Jefferson, a tavern owner (and sorceress) Hexabeth Blackhard, and members of Cats with Benefits, a William & Mary rock band whose lead singer mysteriously disappears.
Finding actors for portray the dozens of characters required for the production was tricky at first. Mr. Merritt posted flyers around town and cajoled anyone he could think of into finding their inner thespian. Friends, co-workers; no one was spared. "One of the things I enjoy most about the show is working with locals to get that authentic tidewater feeling," he says. " I haven't been able to convince everyone though. There are a couple of people I know with the most amazing Gloucester accents. I'm still hoping to get them to take on roles someday."
While many of the actors had little or no theatrical experience, neither did Mr. Merritt. "Figuring out how to write a script and music and to get the voices and sound effects to work together required a bit of trial and error. "The early shows are bit clunky, but I think the show improves a lot as the episodes progress." Others seem to agree as the show has picked up acting, music and production nominations from both the Audio Verse Awards and Parsec Awards, including a win for Best Actress in an Ensemble Role for Colleen Kennedy's performance as Hexabeth Blackhard.
If you're interested in exploring the twilight world of Williamsburg, you can download or stream the program for free on iTunes and SoundCloud. With a bit of strong language and the occasional murder, it's probably not for the kids, but if you're not intimidated by poltergiests, possessions, or passive-aggressive parents, give it a listen. You don't have to be a native Williamsburger to enjoy the program, but if you are, you might be very suprised to find out what your neighbors have been up to.