The live performance of "Curio Shoppe of the Damned."
In a tiny, seedy Baltimore theatre attached to a tiny, seedy bar, Aaron Travis, John Higgins and their compatriots are writing love letters to low art and forgotten forms. They've created something nostalgic and wonderful in Horatio Dark's Between the Lines, a sci-fi/horror radio drama beamed to you live out of the early Cold War era.
By day, Travis puts ads on your phone. By night, he and his fellow writers capture the feeling of wild exploration that came with early genre fiction, complete with robots, zombies, beatniks and the Korean war. Performed live in front of an audience once a month and released in weekly podcast segments, Between the Lines is an experiment in finding the classic audio variety show its place in the modern world.
At last year's Artscape, an annual Baltimore event that dubs itself America's largest free art festival, Travis decided to write his first play. Laughing, he explained that the reason he chose to do a radio play initially was to simplify the process. Without the encumbrance of dealing with blocking and onstage action, he could focus purely on dialogue. In the end, Travis decided to add in a physical performance for this first play in order to spice things up for the intimate audience packed into the theatre. This performance—complete with actual organs raining down on the audience—can still be found on YouTube.
True to early 50s form, the word "android" never appears. In its place are the "chromes," sentient robots that blur the line between life and non-life.
Under the 1950s veneer, the fictional Horatio Dark's stable of writers is shining a light on the issues that they and their audience find important. Since its inception, the sci-fi/horror genre has been used as a vehicle for discussing social issues, and "in a 'Kirk's Star Trek' kind of way, we try to do that too," Travis explained over Skype.
"I wanted to make something that would sound as real as possible to an older person," said Travis. He thinks the other writers doing radio shows are doing awesome work, but they're focused on parody. "You don't need parody for this to be funny."
Once a month, listeners crowd into the Yellow Sign Theatre—"that's theatre with an 're,' spelled correctly, as our director would say," interjects Travis—or Club Charles next door to hear the next installment of Rex Pylon and Dot, Planet Trippers, one of the recurring vignettes that make up Between the Lines. The duo travel from planet to planet, their adventures written by Travis, narrated by a rotating cast of amateur actors and punctuated by wholly organic sound effects.
After Planet Trippers comes The Bennington Marcus Mysteries, a hard-boiled sci-fi detective serial. True to early 50s form, the word "android" never appears. In its place are the "chromes," sentient robots that blur the line between life and non-life. The heroes of the story, a Baltimore gumshoe and his chrome partner, solve the neo-noir crimes of the future.
In addition to these ongoing pieces, Between the Lines accepts two shorts from up-and-coming Baltimore writers each month. In a city that sometimes feels like the shadow of our nation's capitol, Between the Lines is one of the cooler ways to get your name out.
Travis described an upcoming episode of Rex Pylon and Dot as a response to the Baltimore protests. "I'm using their voice as an outsider's voice in the struggles that go on [on the planets they visit]," he said. "At first I felt it was kind of hokey to throw issues or things that are personal into these stories, but it's actually pretty damn cathartic, and it's a way of distancing yourself from it."
Bennington Marcus goes even deeper: a recent episode dealt with chromes experiencing an equivalent of gender dysphoria, and Marcus's chrome partner is showing signs of post traumatic stress disorder. Travis explained that the Higgins served in Iraq, making this latter issue especially personal.
Horatio Dark's Between the Lines has only just begun to be released online, and Travis will be implementing a delay between live performances and online release to give himself time to work on other projects. Between the Lines doesn't pay the bills and Travis works on other projects in his free time. In October, a silent play written by Travis will go up at the Yellow Sign Theatre. "Between the two, I will have written an actual, full play," he jokes. Listen here for your monthly dose of classic radio penny dreadfuls.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled John Higgins' name and misidentified the series he is working on. It is The Bennington Marcus Mysteries, not The Bennington Marcus Histories.