DC fans of theatrical horror, the often grisly Grand Guignol-style, will remember Molotov Theatre Group and its co-founder, actor/director Alex Zavistovich, who got them hooked. Molotov’s 2014 production of Nightfall with Edgar Allan Poe by Eric Coble proved to be its most successful.
While producing Molotov stage plays in DC, Zavistovich was also one of the original members of the audio company, Lean & Hungry Theater, which produced Shakespeare adaptations for local NPR affiliate WAMU. “Having done radio dramas in the past and noting the success of Nightfall, I made the decision to try radio adaptations of Poe,” Zavistovich said, from his home in Baltimore.
His idea became The National Edgar Allan Poe Theatre, with its producing arm, Poe Theatre on the Air which has been creating free monthly audio adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories since August, 2019. “We create fairly complex soundscapes, with sound effects and musical underscore, and use classical actors because they have the greatest control of their voice.” Those artists have included Baltimore and DC actors Brian McDonald, Jimi Kinstle, Jennifer Restak and Zavistovich himself.
NPR Baltimore affiliate, WYPR, was the first station to sign on. Now the programming – twelve Poe stories to date – is widely available, including the BBC. “We’ve gotten really great critical response,” Zavistovich says, while sharing credit with Technical Director Ty Ford. “We were a gold selection in the Hear and Now Festival in 2020, which is sort of the Cannes Film Festival for audio dramas.”
“We’re creating a visual landscape for your ears,” Zavistovich says, who recommends wearing headphones to best capture the layers of enriched audio he’s laying down. Audiences listening in to these highly produced dramas may be surprised to learn that all shows, since the pandemic shutdown in March, have been recorded in the only acoustically neutral space available to Zavistovich, a hall closet.
That limitation hasn’t impacted the quality of the programs. Poe’s original Eldorado, the company’s July release, was only 24 lines. Zavistovich extended it into 24 minutes of taut radio drama by adapting the story as a western set during the fevered rush for gold.
Starting with its August 3 release, Poe Theatre on the Air makes room for a two-part guest production of Edgar Allan, an original musical that reimagines Poe’s childhood days. “This is a new musical that is written and performed by The Coldharts. We are presenting this midseason replacement so we can get our feet back under us, wrap up the season and begin our next season of programming,” he says.
“I really love the form,” Zavistovich says. “It’s interesting that some people are reporting on this [radio drama] as a lost art form, but it isn’t. In the UK, it’s still huge,” he says. “These days, some established theaters are trying their hand at it to stay relevant and connect with their audiences.”
Looking ahead, he expects a revival of the popularity of the art form similar to what it enjoyed in the ’50s and early ’60s.
“It is a fascinating thing to listen to,” Zavistovich says. “Our programs are very evocative visually. As you listen, the brain fills in the absence of the visual component.”