Forest Guide is a four-part magical realism fiction podcast from Crossroad Stations, written and directed by Jim Robbie and the Wanderers‘ Jack Pevyhouse. The show follows a night in the life of Shiloh (Pevyhouse), a bartending grad student (and ex-poet) who has lost his way in life. That is, until one night when the titular Forest Guide (Julia Schifni) shows up to get Shiloh back on track.
A common failing point with magical realism stories is far too much focus on the former at the expense of the latter. Forest Guide chapter one’s script is 22 pages long. The Guide doesn’t make an appearance until page 17. The rest is spent building Shiloh up as a character. We hear him successfully ask a co-worker over to his apartment to drink and watch anime (which inadvertently pissed me off because a rum and coke with my Cowboy Bebop blu-ray set sounds perfect right now but I have neither rum nor coke) and we get a glimpse of the complicated relationship he has with his parents as an out bi man.
The careful thought and effort put into every second of Forest Guide cannot be understated. On paper the first chapter has a creative type who has resorted to irresponsible amounts of alcohol and pop culture to offset a fear of creating. Then a Wise Magical Character shows up to help him find out the power was inside him all along.
A failed writer who turns to substance abuse. The college student tending bar. The everyman thrust into a magical realism situation. These are tropes that can easily knock a well-meaning show so far off course it could feel overdone, problematic even. Forest Guide dodges all of this by committing to the realism before getting to the magical.
Shiloh’s interactions with his mother over the phone are eerily similar in structure to conversations I’ve had in the past with family members. Shiloh’s awkwardness around Ruth (Lio Rivera) is far too familiar. Ruth’s real-talk moments calling Shiloh out on some of his bullshit echo times I’ve had to do similar things with friends.
It’s easy to cherry-pick moments from pop culture one has seen before and shoe-horn it into an audio drama for the sake of making one. What’s far more difficult is to structure one around one’s own journey. I haven’t sat down with Pevyhouse and gone through how much of Forest Guide is autobiographical, but I can say with firm certainty the writing and fantastic post-production (specifically pacing and sound design) work hand-in-hand to deliver a story that feels autobiographical.
I spent six hours editing my own audio fiction pilot episode today. Julia Schifini is a protagonist on my show, and I have heard her say the same 20 pages of dialog as my character too many times to count. I’ve listened to her co-host Spirits for well over a dozen hours. I could spot her anywhere at this point, aurally-speaking. Her performance (and excellent other-worldly vocal qualities added in post) blends into the show perfectly. Within seconds my brain switched from “that’s Julia Schifini” to “that’s the Guide.”
My one substantial criticism of Forest Guide is it’s actively difficult to find. Without a trailer to clear the digital path necessary for the show to immediately be searchable, it’s going to take a while for it to find a footing. Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Pocket Casts, all of them are going to have some trouble finding the show for now. Without an actual website it’s very difficult to Google at the moment, so I heartily suggest heading to the show’s podbean site and plugging that into your podcatcher of choice.
Faint online footprint aside, this first chapter was an absolute joy of a listen and I cannot wait for the rest of Shiloh’s journey.