Learning Vulnerability and Healing from Trauma, in a Haunted House

A Retrospective on HartLife NFP's "Unwell, A Midswestern Gothic Mystery"

16 min read

For four years, five seasons, and sixty-one full-length episodes HartLife NFP’s Unwell, a Midwestern Gothic Mystery has been a bastion of hope, horror, and holistic storytelling in the fiction podcast community. Upon relistening to the entire series in the lead-up to its recent series finale, I was often struck by how purposeful every single moment of its plotting has been from its very inception. Purposeful in unraveling the mystery of Central Ohio’s Mt. Absalom community, of course, but also in plumbing the depths of the interpersonal relationships between the characters where they began, and where ultimately, they’ve ended up.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Unwell’s executive producers, Eleanor Hyde and Jeffrey Nils Gardener, about the origins of the series, the process of assembling the landmark team, and what they hope people will take from this series as it turns off the lights for the final time. The conversation was a fascinating deep dive into the ethos behind HartLife NFP’s creation process and a success story of a narrative told masterfully by a group of people who genuinely enjoyed the experience of working together. 

BOB RAYMONDA: Upon re-listening to Unwell, two major strengths did emerge for me. The power of its specifically Midwestern setting and the depths of its interpersonal relationships and familial histories. Thinking back to the beginning of the series, which of these two things came first – the mystery or the people?

ELEANOR HYDE (EH): When Jeffrey and I sat down before we hired a writing team, before we did any brainstorming at all, I asked what's the next project you want to work on? I remember that you sai

d to me: a small town in Ohio, a big beautiful house. Haunted. That was very much there from the very start. But when we got to the part where we're like, sitting in a room with our writers asking, what does this show want to be? Who lives in this house? What's interesting about telling a story in this style? That was deeply character-oriented.

JEFFREY NILS GARDENER (JNG): I came in knowing I wanted to work on a show about the Midwest and for me, specifically, it was about Ohio. And I think there is an interesting way in which a show about the Midwest, in the way we are engaging with it, couldn't be anything but this small community-driven show. I think for me the thing that really distinguishes the Midwest from the coasts is that the smallest unit that you consider is the community rather than the individual. There was also the fact that we were coming off of making Our Fair City, which had a massive ensemble cast of characters, which made us want to do a show that was more tightly focused on a small group of people living in a house together as a set of restrictions we wanted to put on ourselves artistically.

Those restrictions allowed the team to create a tightly-knit core ensemble with slow, methodical growth over the course of the entire series. Especially because, from the very first scripts, HartLife NFP had one distinct rule: no episode could have more than five characters appear unless you borrowed an additional from a future episode that wasn’t written yet. This allowed listeners to get to know the cast in a naturalistic way without being buried in exposition dumps, and foregrounding their relationships while simultaneously unraveling the mystery.

What is it about Fenwood house that convinces a space cadet like Dot to move away from her ex-husband and daughter in order to take up as its guardian? And how does Lily feel about having to go back to a place where she only spent summers growing up, to care for the woman who she feels abandoned her? And who is this teenage boy, Wes, who knows more about Fenwood House’s history than you could ever possibly imagine?

Of course, that rule went out the window as the seasons continued and they explored the other important locales throughout town, be it the Observatory, the Celeric Works, Town Hall, or Marisol’s record shop. But what it did for the show’s ability to envelop us, as listeners, into its world slowly and methodically, allowed us to feel like we were a part of that tight-knit community. We all know that if Chester shows up, we’re about to learn another of his seemingly endless list of jobs around town, or if it is Silas Lodge and his two trusty hounds, something creepy is right around the corner. The show developed its own distinct language by allowing every single character to bring something unique to the world that helped Mt. Absalom tick.

It’s a beautiful, symbiotic thing, to know whose talents will mesh best, and it’s admirable how much the HartLife NFP team fostered their community in order to do so.

To make something this intricately thought-out work, Eleanor and Jeffrey knew they had to assemble a group of people who not only believed in the project, but also enjoyed working together. After having already worked for eight years on a show as massive as Our Fair City, and no longer being in their 20s, they decided to build both a writers' room and a sound design team. Rather than asking Ryan Schile to shoulder the entire burden himself as he had on Our Fair City, they gradually tested out other artists by giving them a chance to design smaller, bonus episodes of Our Fair City, which ended up bringing together Schile, Alexander Danner, Sarah D. Espinoza, Mischa Stanton, Hannah Foerschler, Eli Hamada McIlveen, and Jeffrey themself to make up HartLife NFP’s sound team over the years.

For their writers’ room, only Jim McDoniel came over from the Our Fair City family, who then helped Eleanor and Jeffrey to comb through 30-40 submissions from other writers in the Chicago area. Ultimately, even after putting out an open call, they still had a history with most of their eventual collaborators. Bilal Dardai and Eleanor had worked together during his time as the artistic director of the Neo-Futurists, and Jeffrey had sound-designed previous audio drama pieces by Jessica Wright Buha. But their last addition, Jessica Best, came out of nowhere, and got in off the strength of her script for the pilot of The Strange Case of the Starship Iris

With the principal group assembled, HartLife NFP looked for outside help in casting a wider net for auditions for the core ensemble. From the very outset, it was important to everyone to ensure that the world of Unwell was as diverse as the one we all live in. Eleanor and Jeffrey, understanding that their own personal Rolodexes would likely skew mostly white, worked with The Chicago Inclusion Project in order to get their casting call out in front of a larger group of actors than they had immediate access to. It impressed me how intentional every piece of the puzzle was in building a crew that not only wanted to create art together, but also held the same core beliefs.

JNG: We had written, adapted [and] based on the Not in Our House Chicago standards, a set of harassment policies, a diversity statement, and a reporting path. And we had all of those at the audition in hardcopy for people to read while they were waiting, and [gave them] chances to talk about those. Afterward, we got everyone who was at the audition together and just talked to them about our values. We told them we want them to understand who we are and that it was gonna be a five year commitment for some of them.

EH: The core thing there is when you kind of ask the big question of ‘how do you put your team together?’, that piece of the story is about the fact that both Jeffrey and I think really hard about the fact that putting a team together is not just a top-down approach. We're not just hiring someone, it's about building something in our relationship with each other. You want to invite people in who have looked at you and go, Yeah, I do want to work with that person. We don't pay anybody enough for you to be here only for money.

JNG: We've been really deliberate because it's not just, who do I want to work with for the next five years? It's also like, if I bring a new person into this group, everyone else in the company is going to also have to interact with them for all that time. And so I think being careful, considerate, and thoughtful about the people who become part of that core team is a really important [theatrical] show community piece of building.

Eleanor and Jeffrey on stage.

BR: One of the things that really struck me from going back to the beginning is how much of that thematic groundwork is laid throughout all of those episodes. Whether it's the importance of Rudy's fear of wolves, or Abby's fraught relationship with their sister, or Lily's tendency to wander from place to place and never stay long, or Wes' questionable personhood. How much of the end game did you know versus how much did you mine those previous scripts for?

EH: I get asked this all the time, and I always – it's like, a little hard to answer because I think the answer is: I can tell a version of the story where I'm like, we had it all planned out. We knew exactly what was gonna happen. And I can also tell you a version of the story where I'm like, we had no idea what the fuck was going on. We were flying by the seat of our pants. And like, I really do think both are kind of true.

JNG: Yeah, there are big chunks of both. I think there are certainly the big ideas and where it was going emotionally and thematically was very carefully plotted out, so we knew what end state the characters wanted to be in. But we didn't so much have the individual points of how they got there plotted out as much. And so we did a lot of free writing and writing prose and things like that in the beginning. And then that all got mined later by writers of like, oh, I can bring this back, oh, let's use that song here. Let's keep bringing these things back, you know, never, never ever wasting something that was left earlier.

EH: When we started working on season five, we did a thing where we got a big sheet of poster paper and we made a list, as a group, of all the things that were in the story that we felt like we needed to use again. Whether they be plot moments, or metaphors, or symbols, or whatever. We just made a long list of all the things that were in the story that we wanted to make sure got revisited again in season five. That was a really fun process, looking at all the things we had put in the world and telling ourselves: Okay, we're not allowed to put anything new in the world. There are so many things already here. How do we use what we have to get us where we finish what we want to do?

For their final batch of episodes, HartLife NFP challenged themselves on every single level to revisit previous story beats and the ways in which their world operated on a macro level. That meant figuring out character pairings the show hadn’t previously explored. What would it look like, say, if Dot was having a hard time dealing with her dementia, and the eerie magic of the Fenwood House was keeping her daughter away from her, leaving instead only Lily’s partner, Marisol, to care for her instead?

And what, perhaps, might happen if our two most powerful and diametrically opposed ghosts (or echoes, as they’re better described in Unwell) Wes and Silas had a confrontation?

And how would Norah solve the puzzle of the Observatory telescope without her trusted science bud, Rudy, there to assist her? 

Some of these questions were easy to answer because of the immense talent of everyone involved. Of course, we needed a scene between Michael Turrentine (Wes) and Mark Soloff (Silas). And obviously, we needed to see what would happen with the chemistry between Marsha Harman (Dot) and Amelia Bethel (Marisol). But we also revisited the friendship and mutual support of the incredible Clarisa Cherie Rios (Lily) and brilliant Kathleen Hoil (Abbie), something that always set the studio on fire, but had been pulled back in some of the middle seasons in order to explore other character relationships. 

Every single creative that had a hand in this series was able to bring their own personal journey with Unwell to an end on the highest note possible. McDoniel was finally able to sneak in time travel, and he used Abbie and their attachment to Hunter’s Diner to do it. Best ushered Wes and Silas and Spikes and Tim and Graham, and all of the other Echoes, throughout Mt. Absalom in a massive confrontation expertly sound designed by Gardener. Buha (who was at one point described to me as a magical fire hose of ideas) got to show us Fenwood House at its least sensical, even if she didn’t get to burn it down like she always wanted. And Dardai got to escort Norah back out of the world of the Observatory, just as he’d ushered her into it all the way back in season two.

While we may initially think of which characters in the story give us the most interesting scenes together, one of Jeffrey and Eleanor’s favorite pieces of the puzzle was pairing writers and sound designers together. They looked at everyone’s personal availability against their production schedule, and they also looked at the content of the scripts themselves. If they were going to tackle something by Buha that was big and weird and hard to define, they were going to do their best to tap Danner to design it, as he’d find the most esoteric ways to accomplish her vision. It’s a beautiful, symbiotic thing, to know whose talents will mesh best, and it’s admirable how much the HartLife NFP team fostered their community in order to do so.

BR: Once the series is over, what did the two of you most hope people will take away from the story of Mount Absalom. Obviously, there's the overarching mystery, we'll all be happy to have finally unraveled, but what would you say are the most core important themes that you're proud of?

JNG: What I think is really important about Unwell and what have been my, kind of, guiding stars, I think, is that it is a story about supernatural things and monsters and obstacles where the answer isn't finding the magic spell that solves it, where the answer isn't “we have to kill the monster.” The answer is, in the end, growth of emotional intelligence. Unwell has been a process for me of like, thinking I understood some big ideas and thinking I had the answers for some things. [T]hrough the five seasons and notably, midway through we had a pandemic, and all experienced some really pretty enormous trauma. And, realizing how much I had to learn about how to be a good person and how to care for others, I hope that people are willing to go on that journey with our characters.

EH: It's just like, you know, we have lived with this story for like, six years. We were writing season one when Trump got elected. And we are wrapping this show now, in 2023, having lived through a pandemic. When we started the show, I thought it was about one thing. And I remember at some point, you know, very much going through the pandemic, I would have said this is a show about trauma and how we, as individuals and communities, navigate that. And then by the time we kind of came out the other end of it, and we were writing season five, and I was in a very different place in my life, I was very much like, this is a show about vulnerability, and how you learn to love each other, and how you learn to make space for the fact that the people you love are really complicated whole human beings who fuck up sometimes.

It’s a big question, asking a team that has worked together for this long to put in succinct terms what the intentions behind their art have been. And while there is no easy,  definitive answer to that question, let alone the mystery part of Unwell’s full title, it's still one Jeffrey and Eleanor were happy to tackle.

I can’t say for certain whether or not they’ve accomplished every one of their goals as they originally sought to do, nor would I want to. I have a sneaking suspicion the answer to that very personal question depends on who you ask, fan or creator, and on what day you ask them. However, I am comfortable with the knowledge that this team has been the one to bring the community of Mt. Absalom over the finish line. Whose morals and ethics are baked so deep into everything they do, both in the art they create, and the conditions under which that art is made. Together. Where no single part is greater than the whole. And it’s better that way.

Editor's Note (10/2/2023): Misspellings of Ryan Schile and Jessica Wright Buha's names fixed.