By Randy Fiedler
Baylor’s theatre and film programs are known for training and then launching talented men and women into successful careers in many entertainment venues — from Hollywood feature films and television series to Broadway plays and musicals. Now, two Baylor Theatre alumni are making their mark in the ever-expanding world of audio podcasts with a historical drama series called “1865.”Most Americans are familiar with at least the basic facts concerning the Civil War, since that seminal conflict has been portrayed for more than a century in numerous books, films, and television shows. But the events that took place after the Civil War ended –– in the wake of president Lincoln’s assassination when the future direction of American society was not yet clear –– are the focus of the popular podcast “1865” series created by Steven Walters (BFA ’03) and Erik Archilla (BFA ’03).
The series is called “1865” because that was the year of the Civil War’s end, as well as Lincoln’s assassination and the unexpected rise of newly elected Vice President Andrew Johnson to the nation’s highest office. It’s available through Apple’s iTunes and all major podcast platforms, and has been downloaded almost 2.75 million times by listeners.
“We’re grateful that so many people have listened to it and we have such an engaged audience,” Walters said. “I’m not surprised that this amount of people are interested in history, but I was surprised that they were interested in an audio drama.”
Walters and Archilla met as theatre arts majors at Baylor in the late 1990s. During lecturer Scott Lahaie’s theater history class in 2002, the two men asked for permission to alter a class requirement. They had been given the assignment to write a research paper on theater in the 19th century. One of the subjects listed as a possible topic was the famous Booth family of actors, including Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.“We thought it would be cool to write a play on the Booth family instead of a research paper, which both of us were dreading,” Archilla said. “We asked Professor Lahaie if we could do that, and he said yes. So we wrote what we consider now to be a really terrible play, but at the time we thought it was great.”
Walters and Archilla performed their student play about the Booth family for Baylor’s Scholars Day, and that could have been the end of the story.
But fast forward 10 years later, when both men were members of the Dallas-based theatre company known as Second Thought Theatre. It had been founded by Walters and other Baylor theatre arts alumni, and Archilla was one of the original ensemble members. The two men decided to take a look at their old Booth family play written at Baylor, and they found it was worth reworking for Second Thought.“We applied for and received the Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund grant, and as part of that grant we had to put on a full stage production,” Walters said. “So, we wrote a play called ‘Booth,’ and ‘Booth’ ended up becoming the genesis for what would later be ‘1865.’”
As Walters and Archilla reworked their college play, they started with the idea that the new work would focus on what made John Wilkes Booth commit his horrific crime. But as they researched the facts surrounding Lincoln’s assassination, their interest moved from Booth to the man who seemingly played the most compelling role in the weeks following the crime –– Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.
“Stanton sort of rose to the surface,” Walters said. “I like to say that he demanded that the story be about him.”The research also brought to the forefront the stormy relationship Stanton had with the new president, Andrew Johnson. Both men were Democrats, but Stanton was an ardent abolitionist in favor of granting significant civil liberties to the newly freed African-American slaves, while Johnson favored a less charitable approach.
Using their new research, Walters and Archilla rewrote their original Booth play to center around Stanton and the sometimes unorthodox methods he used to both search for Lincoln’s assassin — and to steer President Johnson toward more favorable actions toward the emancipation of former slaves in the South.“Stanton is a complicated figure. It’s hard to argue he was not on the right side of history in the sort of altruistic sense as it relates to moral questions of civil rights and equality,” Walters said. “But at the same time, Stanton did some very questionable things in pursuit of his worldview and agenda. And so the story became sort of an ends-versus-means question –– if the ends do justify the means, and if you can do some morally questionable things in pursuit of something greater, what is the cost?”
Baylor Theatre was an early supporter of the two men’s revised play and hosted the first reading. The theatre arts department chair at the time, Dr. Stan Denman, originated the role of Edwin Stanton in the first Second Thought production, even growing a gray beard as a touch of verisimilitude.
A few years later, Archilla and Walters took the next step in their work’s evolution. They expanded the revised “Booth” play into a 13-episode podcast they named “1865,” which debuted on the paid podcast provider Stitcher Premium in December 2018. In June 2019, the “1865” podcast was released on Apple as a free podcast, and it is now available for free across all major podcast platforms.
“Podcasts are a kind of throwback to an earlier time and an earlier way of telling stories,” Walters said. “Audio dramas are having a resurgence right now.”Walters and Archilla are the co-creators of “1865,” and they both serve as writers for the show. Archilla did the majority of the research, and then Walters acted as the main writer to transform that research into a theatrical production. Two other key persons involved in making “1865” a reality were Lindsay Graham, who served as executive producer as well as the podcast’s sound designer and music composer, and Rob McCollum, who directed the series.
All four men play roles in the drama as well. Walters plays Robert Lincoln, the oldest son of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, and one of two Lincoln sons left alive in 1865. Archilla plays a composite of two Booth conspirators given the name of Samuel O’Loughlin in the script, while Graham plays Abraham Lincoln in a number of flashback sequences. McCollum plays the part of Congressman John Bingham.
The “1865” podcast starts with the assassination of President Lincoln, continues through the capture and death of assassin John Wilkes Booth, and ends with the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. It contains the fruits of many hours of research, and attempts to be as factual as possible.
“The facts don’t change. The underlying information doesn’t change, but the interpretation of the facts definitely does,” Walters said. “My hope is that the people who listen to the podcast will be inspired to go and look into the facts for themselves, look into the real history of it and make that determination on their own.”
“There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there about the assassination,” Walters said. “I think we do a good job of navigating those waters without giving too much credence to any one theory, and painting a portrait through historical fiction that is rooted in some form of truth.”
Artistic liberties are taken with some of the people and events portrayed in “1865,” especially when a clear picture of what actually happened is not available. At times Archilla and Walters felt compelled to make educated guesses with their scripts, but in contrast to many historical dramas, the podcast’s listeners aren’t left trying to figure out themselves what is based on solid fact, and what is created out of informed speculation.
That’s because in addition to each of the 13 episodes, there are 13 accompanying bonus episodes titled “Inside the Episode,” in which Archilla, Walters and others involved with the podcast’s production talk about which elements of each particular episode might have been based on educated guesses. After listening to each of these bonus episodes, a listener will know exactly what’s “true” and what only “might be true” about the events portrayed in each segment. The bonus episodes also discuss other aspects of the production, such as how the sound effects and musical backgrounds were created.
“The [bonus episodes] are there for fans of the show, just to shed light on the liberties we’re taking, and to give some insight into why we’re taking them,” Walters said. “The ‘Inside the Episodes’ also gave us a platform to talk about aspects of history that didn’t make it into the show, but that might be compelling to the people who are interested in those.”
And if that isn’t enough for history buffs, “1865” also features three additional theatrical episodes, which “do a deep dive into Booth’s side of the story and the events leading up to the actual assassination itself,” Walters said.
The engaging cast of the “1865” podcast is a mix of accomplished stage, screen and radio actors and personalities. The main role of Edwin Stanton is played by Jeremy Schwartz, a Dallas-based theater and voiceover actor. Vice President Andrew Johnson is played by R. Bruce Elliott, an accomplished anime voiceover actor. Other actors have recent television credits –– Tony Award-winner Reed Birney, who played roles in “House of Cards” and “The Blacklist,” portrays Senator John P. Hale; William Jackson Harper, who played Chidi Anagonye on “The Good Place,” portrays John Langston; and Baylor alumnus Derek Phillips –– Billy Riggins on “Friday Night Lights” –– plays one of Booth’s co-conspirators, David E. Herold.
While Walters and Archilla are busy evaluating the prospects of a second season for the “1865” podcast, as well as shopping the show around as a possible television series, they are also writing for a new history-based podcast –– “American Elections: Wicked Game” –– that reviews the entire history of presidential elections, from the unanimous election of George Washington in 1789 to Donald Trump’s surprise electoral victory in 2016.
With a solid record of theatrical success behind them, the two men give credit to Baylor’s theatre arts program in giving them a good foundation to build on.
“One of the great things about the theatre arts department at Baylor is that it is really comprehensive. It teaches you about what it takes to make theater and what it takes to tell stories,” Walters said. “Erik and I were acting majors, but we directed, we wrote, we painted and built sets, we hung lights, we made costumes –– we learned about all the fundamental elements of what makes a theater tick. That’s a distinct feature of Baylor’s program, and it’s one of its strongest assets.”
“Our experience at Baylor was fantastic –– it’s an incredible university,” said Archilla. “Theatre arts is a fantastic department, and under [the leadership of chair] Dr. DeAnna Toten-Beard, it’s going to continue to grow. They’re lucky to have her.”
Listen to the “American Elections: Wicked Game” podcast here.