The story is a classic: The chilling tale of a mad scientist and the grotesque "monster" he creates. But the 200-year-old "Frankenstein" narrative has been given new life with Dragon Productions Theatre Company's "The Creature," a serialized podcast production of Bay Area playwright Trevor Allen's radio play.
It's the Dragon's first podcast, and it's also the directorial debut of Dragon co-leader Alika Spencer-Koknar.
"It's been quite a roller coaster ride," Spencer-Koknar said of the long-awaited production, which was scheduled as an in-person staged show in 2020 before transitioning into a podcast last autumn, then rescheduled and revamped again for this spring.
"We decided to go back to square one and figure out how to properly produce this podcast the way we wanted to instead of rushing into it," she said. "It's been a really cool experience experimenting with the available technology and with what we can do with those tools on a low budget to sound like a really high-quality, fully produced audiobook."
Key to that quality is the work of sound engineer, designer and composer Gregory Holmes, who's created an original musical score, along with being responsible for the show's many sound effects and ambient audio.
"This production for me has been something of an 'alignment of the planets,'" Holmes said. While he'd long dreamed of composing and designing sounds for such a project, he originally signed on to serve solely as sound engineer, helping with recording and tech support. But after the production was put on hold and rebooted, Holmes was again offered the chance to do the sound design and scoring.
"By doing both jobs, I could make the music fit the actors, and make the actors fit the music," he said. "Staggering technology was available to me that was extremely cost prohibitive just a few years earlier," including high-quality MIDI instruments for his orchestrations (MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, allows electronic instruments and devices to communicate with each other), and affordable binaural microphones. Binaural recording ("bi" meaning two and "aural" meaning ears) captures the way human ears and brains process sound in the real world, allowing for a lush, three-dimensional sound quality.
"If this project had come to me in 2012, it would have been entirely impossible at worst, and embarrassing at best," he noted.
The score uses a 19-tone equal temperament system, "an alternate carving up of Western music's divisions of the octave," he said. This choice "complicates the music, but it gives us some truer harmonies, while allowing some complex chords that are not possible with the standard 12 notes."
He's also been playing with convolution reverb, which simulates the reverberation situation of different environments. In the case of "The Creature," these environments can include the wilds of the Arctic, "the cramped quarters of a ship's captain, or a Bavarian forest near Ingolstadt," he said.
"For the full experience of this podcast," Spencer-Koknar noted, "headphones are a must."
While there have been many "Frankenstein" adaptations over the years, from musical comedies to campy melodrama, Spencer-Koknar said she's partial to Allen's incisive take on it because of how true it is to Mary Shelley's 1818 novel, and how compassionately it brings forth the perspective of the "monster" himself.
"This adaptation really makes you stop and ponder: How is our society open to people who are different -- and not open to people who are different?" she said. "I've seen a lot of other adaptations where the point of view of the Creature is kind of lost."
Playing the title role is Spencer-Koknar's husband and Dragon co-leader Bora "Max" Koknar. Paul Rosenfield performs the role of the scientifically brilliant but ethically challenged Victor Frankenstein, with Filip Hofman portraying Captain Walton, and others.
When switching the production plans from stage play to podcast, it was important to Spencer-Koknar and her team not only to create a rich acoustic atmosphere, but also to maintain the chemistry and energy that comes from performers interacting with each other.
"This was a big thing at the very beginning of the pandemic: 'How do we still do things that are "live" but not in person?'" she said. "I wanted to keep that 'live' kind of feeling." To capture that energy, the cast rehearsed over Zoom and recorded those sessions, their isolated vocal tracks edited and processed after.
"Every rehearsal, we all came together," she said. "That back and forth you have with the actors, it's really hard to do on Zoom but it is possible."
"The Creature" is being released as a serial in nine episodes, one per week through June 21, with the first two episodes out May 3 and 4, respectively.
"Serializing this is really quite fascinating," Spencer-Koknar said. "It's a really dense piece, so it's nice to take our time in each episode instead of just plowing through, as we normally would in theater."
Listeners can find and subscribe to the episodes directly from the Dragon's website on a donation basis, as well as via Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud, with closed-captioned versions coming out on Fridays on YouTube. "We're trying to keep it as accessible as possible," she said. Each chapter also boasts original digital artwork by Spencer-Koknar, some incorporating writing from Shelley's original manuscript. A vinyl record edition is in the works for a limited release in June, which will include the artwork in the packaging.
The Dragon's downtown Redwood City theater space is not likely to be open for in-person activity any time soon, but hopes are high for some outdoor performances and classes in the coming months. Online programming, meanwhile, continues at a steady pace.
The company has also undergone a staffing and structural reorganization with an emphasis on serving artists, and launched a fundraising campaign with a goal of reaching $150,000 by the end of 2021.
"We live in an age where we must approach our work not like a factory, but like a garden; an ecosystem to be supported, cared for and nurtured so that it can grow and flourish," Spencer-Koknar said in a video announcing the company's relaunch.
More podcast-style theater may be in the Dragon's future. "Now that we've got this one under our belt, I'd love to keep finding ways to keep telling these stories," Spencer-Koknar said.
More information is available at dragonproductions.net/creature.