Six years ago, someone at Chickadee Prince Books, the small press in Brooklyn, thought it was a great time for a return to the golden age of radio drama, and further thought that The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third seemed to fit the bill. Steven S. Drachman’s novels, a weird mélange of Western, sci-fi and historical fantasy about a sardonic and embittered Western gunman in the 1870s who finds himself at war against a worldwide, supernatural conspiracy, could be exactly the sort of knowing throwback to appeal to real fans of old radio serials and also pull in a new generation of listeners. (And sell some books.)
So Drachman wrote two pilot scripts, and Chickadee Prince hired a producer, Jacob Simsky (not his real name), to oversee whatever production of a dramatic radio show might entail.
Simsky arranged auditions, from which he chose Anthony Tether to portray Watt, the novels’ eponymous Time Roamer and 1870s outlaw gunman; and Emily Dalton as Emelina, sharpshooter extraordinaire, Wild West show star and practitioner of the dark arts. Tether would also lend his voice to various supporting roles.
Simsky spent many months in early 2016 working on the first two episodes. But after the recording sessions, Simsky suddenly disappeared. He stopped returning phone calls. He had left town, the recordings vanished with him, and he declined to honor requests to return them.
With radio dramas clogging the podcast market by early 2017, Chickadee Prince determined that they would expend no new money to re-record the programs. And that, it seemed, was that.
Except that during the pandemic, Tether kept thinking about what might have been. He reached out to Drachman in late 2020 and urged him to pick up the project again. Drachman tracked down the fugitive Simsky and pleaded with him to send the recordings, and this time he did, other than a few lost scenes.
A new producer, Danielle Wu, came onboard, Tether recorded the few bits that had been lost, from his home, and Wu spliced the whole thing together, adding sound effects and music by Derek K. Miller.
Recently, Drachman, Tether and Dalton spoke to Audere about their experience with the radio show, and its long and winding road. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Audere: Tell us about the character you play on the show.
Anthony: His name is Watt O’Hugh, he’s a time-roaming cowboy. He has some renown, but he is a pretty self-deprecating character, which is really what I like about him. He downplays a lot of his legend, and I think it’s cool. He’s a great character. He was a quite a challenge, because I am the voice of Watt O’Hugh when he’s old and in his prime, so I had to kind of change up who he was, depending upon what aspect of his life I was acting out. So it was very interesting. The older Watt O’Hugh has a lot more time to think and to reflect, so he’s a little slower, and he’s a lot smarter I guess you could say. The younger Watt O’Hugh, you know, I really wanted to make sure that I got this cowboy thing down, this very strong character who doesn’t hesitate. He’s a man of action, so I really want to make sure I played that up.
Audere: Emily, what did you make of your character?
Emily: Emelina, she’s someone who is a very flawed but very bright gem, in my mind. She’s tried her best and made tons of mistakes, but at the end of the day she’s just trying to find a way to be happy, which is something I can definitely relate to. I think she’s really regretful about her past, and she dives into this entertainment world as a way to create a perfected version of herself. She’s hard, and tough, but funny and I think really intelligent. She’s full of surprises, and I don’t think she really knows where she’s going, just where she is now.
Audere: The music is really modern. Steven, what’s the story behind that?
Drachman: Watt moves through time, his musical taste isn’t limited to the 1870s! The music on the show is by Derek K. Miller, a musician who died in 2011, and his widow graciously permitted us to use his music in the show. Derek became quite famous for his last blog post, which was published after he died. His final blog post was so brave, so beautifully written and moving, and Derek avoided superstition and false hope. The character of Watt, as a time roamer, sees his own death and begins writing out his memoir, and Derek’s work reminded me of that. If the show does nothing more than bring some more attention to Derek K. Miller’s music, which is really beautiful and accomplished, it would all be worth it.
Audere: What have you all been up to during the six years since the show was originally recorded?
Anthony: Holy shit, has it been six years? I’ve been acting. I’ve been doing many other things especially because of the pandemic. I was lucky enough to land a starring role in [Starlit], this small independent feature film that landed in a few film festivals, and the pandemic killed that, which was great (sarcasm). And yes, I’m also kind of like Watt O’Hugh in the sense that I downplay my successes, isn’t that funny? I also landed this really great Smithsonian documentary called Pocahontas beyond the Myth, playing Captain John Smith. It was shot on location in Jamestown, it is fascinating, and I was really proud to be a part of that project.
Audere: Emily, what have you been up to?
Emily: Oh my gosh, too much! I’ve been writing, directing, and performing tons of short plays with companies as well as building my own work during the pandemic with a virtual theatre, From the Couch Theatre. I’ve done a couple commercials and industrials which has been very cool. I did a 5-month nationwide tour with National Players out of Olney, Maryland, which was totally life changing and just so so cool! I got to play Viola in Twelfth Night, one of my absolute favorites. In August, I’ll be in a brand-new play, “Time is On Our Side” by R. Eric Thomas, playing one of the main characters, Annie, who is a queer podcaster in Philadelphia. She’s going through some big changes understanding her family and her experience of queer history. It’s something that I know will be super challenging but in, like, the tastiest way. I’m super excited to dig into the role.
Audere: What’s your most indelible memory of your time working on the show?
Anthony: I think it was recording in [Jacob’s] apartment with just a shitload of traffic in the background and thinking there’s no way the mic is not picking this up. That’s one of the most memorable moments. Then we then moved to a studio, and I almost quite literally lost my mind, because I was playing about five or six different characters. I was struggling with them all at once, and it was pretty wild.
Audere: Emily, what do you remember most?
Emily: Just getting to know everyone! I loved working with Anthony, and getting to be in the studio doing the recording. It was one of my first voiceover experiences, and I just loved every minute. Super fun.
Drachman: I just tried to stay out of everyone’s way. I didn’t want to impose my vision on the thing. But I remember coming by after the final recording session and spending some time with Emily, Anthony and [Jacob]. It was especially weird how much they both even look exactly like Watt and Emelina. Of course, that’s not required for a radio show, but it almost made me wish we were making a TV series instead!
Audere: Now that the show is finally on the air where do you hope it goes?
Emily: I’m not sure! It would be amazing if it could be picked up and performed kind of like the “Thrilling Adventure Hour” podcast, where we do live shows that are recorded as podcasts. I’ve always found those kind of shows so fun to listen to, and they have that element of live theatre that I’m used to. So hopefully it’ll grow like that!
Anthony: Oh my God, I really hope we can record this trilogy. Holy cow. I would love for this to gain traction online, I would love for there to be some sort of a cult following behind it. I think that would be fantastic, that would be such a dream come true for me. I love these books, and I would hate to not play Watt O’Hugh more. I need to be Watt O’Hugh more. It was so so much fun, the little bit that we recorded, so please support this podcast. It’s a wild ride, it’s a great story and so well written. You will not be disappointed.
The first Watt O’Hugh novel was named one of the best books of the year by Kirkus Reviews, and the series has been widely acclaimed by Library Journal, Foreword, Fanbase Press, The Boston Phoenix and in many other venues. The Watt O’Hugh podcast is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.