Arts & Entertainment

How a Dallas Podcast Mirrored the Rise of Donald Trump

"Terms" is the fictional story of a loudmouthed, divisive president-elect and the president determined to stop him.

Earlier this year, inside an office in Lakewood, a small start-up team predicted the future. Not with the mystical kitsch of crystal balls or tarot card semiotics, but by a weaving tale of political intrigue featuring a far-right politician who rises from out-of-nowhere, tapping into the incubated fear and anxiety of the country’s population. The candidate represents, to some, including the sitting president (a well-liked and charismatic leader at the end of his second term), the worst possible threat to democracy, decency, and the future of the republic.

The fictional star of the new podcast, “Terms,” presented by the Dallas-based Spoke Media, is President-Elect Charles Dunwalke, a Donald Trump surrogate who thrives on fear-mongering and the manipulation of empty rhetoric. Incumbent President Oliver Pierce plans on doing everything in his power to stop Dunwalke from succeeding him.

Voicing Pierce is Jeffrey Schmidt, the new artistic director of Theatre Three and a longtime actor and director who represents the diverse and incredibly rich talent pool of voice actors calling Dallas home. (Brandon Potter, another Dallas actor, plays Dunwalke.)

“As a liberal, I went through the stages of grief pretty quickly,” Schmidt says. “At the time [of the podcast recording] Trump was a far-flung ‘what if.’ At least I thought so. And at its most basic level ‘Terms’ is about how we got ourselves into this. Now it’s how are we gonna deal with it. In terms of my character, it’s really fascinating [portraying] the making of a tyrant. With all good intentions.”

Lindsay Graham, co-founder and owner of Spoke Media, started the company with Keith Reynolds in early 2016. Reynolds had the idea of creating an audio production company on his own, but realized he could do more with Graham. They had a mutual interest in podcasting and wanted to test test out ideas for a narrative fictional podcast. The duo landed on “Terms” as something to do as Spoke expanded its business in audiobook production. The company is also developing other podcasts, including a collaboration with Cinestate.

“The germ of the idea is something I’ve been holding onto for years: the idea of a non-peaceful transition of power,” Graham says. “When this election cycle started it became a little more interesting of an idea. We pitched it in late December of 2015, when there were 20,000 Republicans running. The only guarantee was Hillary was running.”

As Spoke Media began to work on its first fictional podcast venture, reality began to mirror fiction at an unsettling rate as Donald Trump rose in the polls, positioning himself to become the Republican nominee.

“It’s been both fantastic and horrifying,” Graham says. “We were writing a fictional story. We wanted a terrifying candidate, and Dunwalke is different than Trump but gets elected in much the same way, through an upswell of grief within the establishment. At one point we had to come up with President-Elect Dunwalke’s campaign slogan. We thought of ones from the past and we came up with ‘America First.’ Six days later, Trump himself came out with the same slogan.”

Schmidt says “Terms” and all of its mirroring coincidences are a testament to the power of podcasts as a vehicle for storytelling.

“I am a quiet political person. I am not outspoken but when it comes to political dramas, I love them,” he says. “I mean, Aaron Sorkin, come on. That is some of the most exciting storytelling. To be able to take politics and make it thrilling is amazing.”

Schmidt has amassed a prolific voice-acting career, performing for commercials, video games, and anime. He enjoys the elasticity it demands of an actor’s voice, as well as the level of improvisation it allows.

“They all demand a different part of your voice. I am most thankful to my mean fourth grade reading teacher, who made sure to embarrass me in front of the class,” he says. “A lot of of what you do as voice actors is cold. You don’t see the script until you walk into the booth. What might take four weeks to rehearse on stage or film, you don’t get that in voice work. You read it and you have to make quick decisions from the point-of-view of the character and just go.”

When casting the character of outgoing President Pierce, Graham knew he needed an actor whose voice projected gravitas, a necessary feature for portraying an American president, especially one with complex and possibly treasonous motives.

“His tone, tenor and pacing is of a much higher order. He can be menacing as well,” Graham says. “That kind of play, although not explicit, the political aristocrat vs the populist, is something you can feel in their performances.”

“It would be impossible not to be inspired by Trump. It just lends interest to the storyline. At this point they are writing it for us.”

Schmidt credits the unique complexity of voice acting as motivation for bringing his A game to the booth.

“It’s a lot of fun. I don’t think every actor has in their bag,” he says.

Graham believes Spoke Media can be at the front of a podcast surge in Dallas.

“We are probably the only organization trying to make a real focus on it,” he says. “I don’t know why we would be the first. The pool of voice actors here is deeply talented. We are excited to be on the vanguard. The easiest plan is to put out a great podcast. One of the beauties is production [cost] is lower than film or TV. With a lot of gumption and with the right set of ears you can put together a great product. Our intention is to lean on the great talent here in performance and put out more shows.”

Graham plans on producing two additional seasons of “Terms,” which is written by Robert McCollum and Michael Federico, taking cues from the political cycle on where the story will go. Six episodes have been released so far, and Graham expects the first season to conclude in mid-January.

“Season One is in real time where we are releasing it. It runs from Election Night to Inauguration Day,” he says. “It would be impossible not to be inspired by Trump. It just lends interest to the storyline. At this point they are writing it for us. We have been eclipsed by some of the absurd or miraculous moments of this cycle. It’s gone beyond our imaginations. At the same time, this is a fictional show that has an arc that’s a lot more dangerous and large-scale than reality.”

Listen to “Terms” here, or find it on iTunes or Stitcher.

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