Mic Drop (Radio Drama)

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Mic Drop is a new one off drama, starring Adam Tyrell, based on the play that debuted to critical acclaim at the ‘Scene + Heard’ Festival in Summer 2017. This one-man show tells the story of Irish web entrepreneur Perry Pardo. Perry is the living embodiment of the new Ireland. A working class boy made good, Perry moved to San Francisco to make his fortune, and now he’s back to teach a room full of eager listeners how to replicate his success. This satirical business seminar rapidly descends into a dark exploration of contemporary Ireland, as Perry’s hard partying catches up with him and he undergoes a breakdown – revealing his background and failings through fragments of story and song. In the process Perry reveals the anxieties and hypocrisies that can underlie the success stories of Irish entrepreneurship, and the dark side of wealth.

Credits

Perry Pardo – Adam Tyrell
Writer / Director – Gareth Stack
Sound Engineer – Brendan Rehill
Script Editor – James Van De Waal
Lyrics from ‘Monto’ by The Dubliners
Audience – Seamus Stackpoole, Frances Galligan, Shane Connelly, Nicole O’Connor, Kenny Stapleton, Dominik Turkowski.
Music – Ariel Beat, Myuu, Marc Remillard and Audio Jungle.

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A great writer has passed, Julian May 1931 – 2017

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Science fiction is undergoing a cinematic renaissance. Over the past few years we’ve had an undeniably great continuation of the Starwars saga, two populist reimaginings of Star Trek, and superhero shows to every taste. Bladerunner just had a remarkably tolerable sequel, albeit one that like the original, bombed in America. The most popular cartoon is a hard SF parody, and the best satire on Netflix is cerebral future shock. For ‘a that, there have been surprisingly few recent adaptations of major science fiction novels or series. Fewer still have been artistically or commercially successful. There’s no Rama or Ringworld movie, no Hyperion or Xeelee series. ‘Syfy’ channel efforts to bring life to Riverworld, Dune and Earth Sea have done more harm than good. The reason is undeniably budgetary. Sure, CG has come to the point where digital compositing is routinely used to take the place of location shooting. Yes, movies like Gravity have demonstrated an almost entirely digital set can, with care and expense appear photorealistic. However, the old fast, good, cheap equation still applies. In the case of CG the response is, ‘pick one’.

That’s one reason I have so much trepidation about the proposed adaptation of Julian May’s classic Saga of Pliocene Exile. Julian May died recently, at eighty six. She was perhaps my favourite writer. The books you stare deeply into as a child become the lens through which you view the world as an adult. As a tween I ate up late Victorian & Edwardian comic fiction, from Just William, to Jeeves and Wooster to Three Men in a Boat. To this day I still have an inappropriate fondness for the aesthetics and chummy noblesse oblige of late British imperium. When early adolescence hit, another perhaps only slightly less fanciful genre became my focus. I ate the greats of science fiction in huge, unchewed swallows – from Asimov and Clarke to Aldis, and Baxter. Later I nibbled weirder stuff, Lem, Dick, Ballard and Delany.

Science fiction was for me, as for so many others, an escape from a miserable adolescence. It spoke to the possibility of a future filled with wonder. Alien life and artificial intelligence offered the possibility that we, and I, were not alone. The endless vistas of space were a joyous vacation from the confines of early 90s Ireland. With its apologia of technological magic, science fiction offered a believable, and by inference hopeful future. One light years from Catholic Ireland, original sin, and the mundane suburbs of The Pale. From my wooden, inkwell holed desk in St Joesph’s Christian Brothers school in Drogheda, I could run the endless strips of Trantor. Wet arsed on the grey ceilinged beaches of Laytown, I could walk without rhythm across the sand dunes of Arakis. Each mind bending short story by Niven or Heinlein or Bester, offered the possibility of a word vivid and different, a world of hope and change, in a place and time that seemed devoid of both.

For an unhappy child in an unwholesome place, the believability of escapism was paramount. And no one justified her fantasies like Julian May. Her magic was the ability to craft from hokey tropes like telekinesis, spiritual possession and alien visitations, a world at once mundane and utopian. My exposure came through the journalist dad of a school friend. He was occasionally sent books with covers and premises to garish to review, and kind enough to pass on a few to me. That’s how I came across The Galactic Milieu series, and through those May’s best known work The Saga of the Exiles.

Julian May spent decades writing copious non fiction. Including “7,000 encyclopedia articles on science and technology, [and] over 200 juvenile nonfiction books on science, sports, and biography”. That experience gave her with a literally encyclopaedic general knowledge. Her narratives are bedded in a profound mythological erudition, rivalling that of that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkin. The Saga of the Exiles is saturated with Scandinavian and Celtic mythology (one fabulous conceit of the books is that they explain the origin of the myths that inspired them). Not to mention fanatical attention to the detail of geology, mountaineering, materials science, cordon bleu cookery and a hundred other disciplines. Her characterisation is rooted not in Joesph Campbell, but in Jung’s primordial archetypes – as filtered through mythology and classical literature.

The books are littered with wordplay connecting characters and ancient alien races to Irish mythology. For example the Firvulag (a race in the Saga of the Exiles) take their name from the Fir Bolg, one of the first peoples of Ireland mentioned in the legendary volume of Irish pre-history Lebor Gabála Érenn. The Firvulag’s ancient rivals the Tanu, take their name from the Tuatha Dé Danann an ancient race of Irish gods. Their leader was Nuada Airgetlám, who becomes Nodonn Battlemaster, a powerful alien psychic in May’s universe. Game of Thrones might be the apex of contemporary fantasy world building, but for depth of mythological reference, complex psychologically diverse characters, and the fusion of the conceptual depth of SF with the magical conceits of fantasy, The Saga of the Exiles has it beat.

May blended science fiction and fantasy in a way only giants like Frank Herbert and Anne McCaffrey had previously attempted. Both in terms of content (fantastical beasts, Arthurian aristocracies, hyperspace travel) and mythic resonance. Her work took the tropes of fantasy seriously in a way that authors whose popularity transcended the genre (with notable exceptions like Ursula K. LeGuin and Susan Cooper) rarely did. Her taxonomy of ‘metaphysic’ mental abilities, developed out of a fascination with parapsychology. She reenergised the ‘next stage of human evolution’ trope by imagining super human abilities emerging gradually and inconsistently throughout human history; accounting for everything from ghostly apparitions to faith healers. As with the x-men franchise, the mistreatment and eventual acceptance of her psychic operants can be read as an allegory for the civil rights and the emerging American gay rights movement.

Over two interconnected series, May constructed a grand and intricate narrative. A genre defying tale of warring political dynasties, organised crime, time travel, serial killers, psychic abilities, mountain survivalism, ancient reptiles and near future space colonisation. Her books are undeniably science fiction, just as they are undeniably fantasy, noir, political thriller and philosophical treatise. Her characters are human, in a way that is all too rare even today in genre fiction. As likely to argue Quebecois history or the theories of Catholic philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as they are to battle on flying beasts over the skies of Pliocene Europe.

This unrivalled ambition was not always successful. Her work can at times become bogged down in sheer detail, and the meta-narrative that connects her two best series can seem initially impenetrable. The final two Galactic Milieu books inexplicably run out of steam, just as they arrival at a conflict that should bring the arcs of all her central characters to a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps these factors explain why her work is not as well remembered as it should be. Just as likely, the books are simply too difficult to categorise to be truly marketable. Like the high fantasy-SF of real life spy Cordwainer Smith; May’s fiction remains too human and quirky for genre fans, yet too fantastical and narratively focused for literary fiction.

Julian May died two weeks ago. Perhaps the rumoured TV adaptation of her Saga of the Exiles will give the books a second life, but I doubt it. The scope, ambition and sheer scale of her major series would require a visual treatment dwarfing Game of Thrones. They’ll likely remain second hand book store favourites, passed from fan to fan. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

“A professional writer for my entire adult life. Married to the same man for thirty years. Mother of three grownup children. I have three cats that keep the house messed up and a big Japanese Akita guard dog that goes backpacking with me. I grow cute little miniature roses. I play pop songs on a mighty theatre organ and love to go to the opera. I drive a bronco four-wheeler. I sew on a 1928-vintage electric sewing machine. I’m a practical, hard-headed pro. I write for money and make no bones about it. Starving for the sake of art has never appealed to me. I like to write and I’m good at it – but it’s my profession, not my pastime. “

Julian May, 1981

Someone just created The Blair Witch of podcasting, and no one noticed

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Warning: This article contains spoilers for the podcast 'The Polybius Conspiracy', if you haven't yet heard the show, you might want to listen before reading the rest.

Someone might just have pulled the Blair Witch of podcasting, and no one’s noticed. In 1999 a viral campaign for the pioneering found-footage horror, The Blair Witch Project, briefly convinced millions of people that a team of young filmmakers had disappeared in occult circumstances in the forests of Maryland. The stunt was so successful it helped kickstart the found footage genre. The micro-budget film went on to gross almost 250 million dollars worldwide.

Radiotopia are the HBO of podcasting. The network has given birth to shows like 99% Invisible, the Heart, Love and Radio, and Johnathon Mitchell’s unparalleled drama anthology The Truth. It makes sense that this outfit, responsible for some of the most innovative and diverse (not to mention popular) programming online, would come up with something like this.

Full disclosure, I’ve met Radiotopia founder Roman Mars, and count several Radiotopia staffers among my friends. But I haven’t spoken to any of them about this theory. My guess is the truth is locked down to a few members of the production team. In any case, it’s much more fun to puzzle out as a listener.

The Polybius Conspiracy series centres around Bobby Feldstein, a man who claims to have been abducted in October 1981 from his home in a suburb of Portland Oregon. Discovered the next day near the Tillamook State Forest, 60 miles from home, Bobby told a wild and implausible tale of mysterious figures paralysing him before transporting him to a hidden location. There he managed to escape only after being freed by another boy, a long term captive. This event is somehow connected to an unusual video game Bobby had played in the weeks before his disappearance. A legendary arcade cabinet known as Polybius, said to have briefly appeared in Portland arcades in 1981.

The myth of a mysterious mind controlling arcade cabinet is a well known one within the videogame world. The story seems to have originated in the Pacific Northwestern arcade community in the early 1980s. Recently, Polybius has had a resurgence in popularity. It’s been the topic of popular articles, documentaries, a graphic novel, and even a virtual reality interpretation by legendary game developer Jeff Minter. The story taps into all-too-real mind control experiments carried out on American citizens by three letter agencies throughout the latter half of the 20th century. It arose in the context of an American conservative renaissance, with Christian and family groups railing against Dungeons & Dragons, videogame arcades and a litany of ‘satanic’ cultural influences. Variations of the story include everything from extra-terrestrials to the notorious MKUltra chemical control programme. Those unfortunate enough to have played the Polybius game cabinet are said to have suffered nausea, nightmares, madness and even death.

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In Episode One of The Polybius Conspiracy, Bobby Feldstein recounts how he discovered an unusual cabinet at an arcade called Coin Kingdom, run by a dubious man named Willy King. The game contained in this unmarked cabinet featured strange abstract graphics and an usual control scheme. Bobby spent weeks perfecting his skills, till one day he reached a high level where he was assailed by invisible enemies. After playing he felt nauseous, barely making it home before passing out. He awoke a few hours later with a powerful thirst, and walked downstairs to get some water. Here he was somehow paralysed by three mysterious non-human figures, who entered his home and abducted him.

The programme makers don’t play along with Bobby’s story, at least not at first. Via real videogame historian Catherine “Cat” Despira, they introduce dark inferences about the underbelly of 80s arcade culture. Perhaps Bobby’s story is a con, perhaps it’s a screen memory for a more mundane yet horrific story of abduction and abuse.

Bobby recounts how he woke up paralysed in the dark, in a tunnel somewhere in a forest far from his home. Barely able to see, hearing a thrashing sound, he was released from the ‘vines’ holding him down by another captive. This boy fled with him but ultimately disappeared. Bobby managed to make it through the wilderness to a road, and finally a petrol station where he called his parents. Bobby claims his story was dismissed by both parents and police. We’re informed the owner of the arcade, Willy King, died in a car accident nearby a mere month after Bobby’s experience.

Episode 2 introduces a man named Ruben, who’s partner Mark Symms had a storied history with prostitution and drug addiction centred around the Portland arcades. Mark recently disappeared after taking thousands of dollars from the couples shared accounts. Cat Despira provides context for the Polybius legend, linking arcades where the game is alleged to have existed to police raids in the 1980s. These raids centred around drugs, stolen goods and underage prostitution. In February 1981, a friend of Catherine’s, Tony Sayers, told her about an unnamed game at the ‘Good Times’ and ‘Games Plus’ arcades. A game that had supposedly driven a teenager insane.

Back in the present, we learn that Mark Symms disappeared, leaving his partner Ruben, family and job in drug rehabilitation. After his disappearance his sister (for reasons unexplained) sent Ruben a picture of Mark as a teenager in a ‘Knights of Entertainment” tournament at Coin Kingdom. Ruben claims to have stumbled across Bobby’s tour (which includes a visit to Coin Kingdom) online. Although Mark had never mentioned Polybius, Ruben decided to take Bobby’s tour When Ruben showed him the photo of Mark as a teenager in the arcade, Bobby instantly recognised the boy who’d saved him in the forrest. We then hear Bobby take the producers on a tour of through the old arcade, and into tunnels running under the building (now a laundrette). This leads into a discussion of another legend, of ‘Shanghai’ tunnels supposedly running beneath the streets of Portland, used to press gang young men into forced servitude on the seas. The presenters enter the tunnel beneath Coin Kingdom, which Bobby suggests could have been used to ferry the Polybius machine into the arcade. Oddly the programme spends several minutes discussing the likelihood that the tunnels running under Portland were probably never used to smuggle the unwary into a life on the seas. There really do seem to be networks of tunnels running beneath Portland, which once connected the opium dens, brothels and casinos of Chinatown. They were likely not commonly used for ‘Shanghaing’, but that doesn’t serve discredit Bobby’s story, only his knowledge of local history. The episode ends with a credulity stretching tale from Mark Simm’s partner Ruben. Ruben describes finding Mark standing on the window ledge of their apartment in sleep walking daze, a couple of weeks before his disappearance, staring into space repeating the line ‘They’re coming’.

The Polybius Conspiracy is a part of Radiotopia’s ‘Showcase’, a rotating channel of one off podcast series. The programme started life as a kickstarter to create a film documentary. The trailer for the original documentary features a variety of figures from the Portland gaming community, but makes no mention of Bobby Feldstein or child abductions. A google trawl returns no Bobby Feldstein walking tour in Portland, and no Polybius walking tour. In fact no Bobby Feldstein appears in a google search at all. There are only 8 Bobby / Robert / Robyn Feldsteins publically listed on Facebook and three on Twitter (none of whom have ever tweeted). Producers Todd Luoto and Jon Frechette claim to have heard about Bobby’s walking tours from a friend. A key claim made by Bobby in the show is that he gives his walking tours in part in the hope that he’ll find his mysterious saviour, the boy who rescued him from the forrest tunnel. If that’s the case he’s done a remarkably poor job promoting them. Unlike the other arcades mentioned in the series, variants of Willy King, and Coin Kingdom return no results on google, either in it’s former incarnation as an arcade or its supposed current one as a laundromat. Needless to say the same is true of Mark Symms / Simms. So we have a missing protagonist, a missing location, and a missing ‘missing person’. But google is not omnipotent, perhaps Bobby’s tour has never made enough of an impression to be mentioned on the web, or depicted in photographs on flickr.

Dylan Reiff, a Portland based comedian and game designer, is listed as a ‘character’ on the website, but a ‘field producer’ in the show notes. Dylan is a real person, here he is at a storytelling event in 2016 talking about his passion for gaming and an alternate reality experience he created that convinced one ordinary teenager he was the saviour of the world. Dylan was also one of the documentarians behind the original kickstarter.

Joe Streckert, described as a Portland tourguide, gives regular talks about the Polybius myth and was filmed performing in front of a live audience for the abortive documentary, at an event hosted by Dylan Reiff. Joe’s a writer and host of the weird history podcast, as well as the author of The Legend of Polybius book. None of this is a smoking gun, but it does speak to deeper links between the producers and their guests than are made explicit in the show.

The nail in the coffin of The Polybius Conspiracy, for me, is this paragraph, from a 2015 article on Eurogamer about the proposed documentary film.

The film didn’t start as a documentary. Originally Luoto and Frechette were hoping to make a fictional sci-fi film touching on similar themes. It was only upon doing the research for that project that the filmmakers realised it would be both more interesting – and more cost effective – to follow this already existing myth. “We realised that truth in a lot of ways is stranger than fiction,” Luoto says. “Once we started reading more and talking to people we realised ‘this is fascinating. We shouldn’t wait for people to give us millions of dollars to do this. We should just do what we can.'”

Did the producers found another way to tell their story, one that didn’t require millions of dollars? Notably Radiotopia’s site is careful not to call the show a documentary, but rather “the complex story of two men united by a decades-old urban legend”. So is this a masterfully crafted docudrama, mixing real interviews with scripted fiction? Or is the Polybius Conspiracy a sincere and chilling investigation into a real abduction: One with life long consequences, that helped create a myth that persists to this day? The story of a mysterious arcade cabinet, that drove innocent Portland kids to a lifetime of addiction, and perhaps ultimately death? Tune in to find out.

No More Workhorse Interview

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I spoke with David Turpin for No More Workhorse about the making of ‘The Wall in the Mind’, and the real historic incidents that inspired the programme.

The Wall in the Mind is a historical drama series, dealing with the consequences of an Irish woman’s imprisonment in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  What attracted you to this subject?

I made a documentary a couple of years ago about the Irish experimental music scene. One of the highlights was an interview with Ewan Hennelly (HERV / ZPG), who’s this under appreciated genius of Irish electronic music. He told me this incredible story about narrowly escaping arrest when climbing in the foothills of the Grunewald forest outside Berlin. There’s a mountain there called Teufelsberg, literally built from the rubble of the Second World War. The allies had a listening post on top of it – part of the old CIA ECHELON system they used to spy on the Eastern block. Ewan made the place sound almost magical, this forgotten ruin of the early days of the modern surveillance state. That was the seed I think, this image of an abandoned outpost of empire looming over the east, churning in my head.

Check out the rest of the interview here.

Behind the Wall – 6 – Rehearsal

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DownloadBehind the Wall – 6 – Rehearsals

A look behind the curtain at the rehearsal process, in todays episode of ‘Behind the Wall’.

Behind the Wall

Behind The Wall is a series of special feature podcasts accompanying ‘The Wall in the Mind‘, an ambitious new on-location drama series, coming to Newstalk and podcast starting on Saturday the 16th of April @ 7AM & 10PM. Each episode features an interview or behind the scenes clip. Think of it like the ‘making of’ special features on a DVD or Blu-Ray.

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You can subscribe to these bonus episodes, and download or stream the podcast of ‘The Wall in the Mind’ at the following places – iTunesRSSSoundcloud.

Credits – ImagesCast & CrewDead Medium Productions.

Behind the Wall – 5 – Shryan Gosling

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DownloadBehind the Wall – 5 – Shryan Gosling

In today’s Episode of ‘Behind the Wall’ we return to the audition process. We take a look a the demands recording an ‘off book’ script places on actors. James O’Connor describes the intricate psychological manipulations involved in the casting process.

I’m joined in this episode by actor / director James O’Connor

Behind the Wall

Behind The Wall is a series of special feature podcasts accompanying ‘The Wall in the Mind‘, an ambitious new on-location drama series, coming to Newstalk and podcast starting on Saturday the 16th of April @ 7AM & 10PM. Each episode features an interview or behind the scenes clip. Think of it like the ‘making of’ special features on a DVD or Blu-Ray.

subscribe-to-podcast1

You can subscribe to these bonus episodes, and download or stream the podcast of ‘The Wall in the Mind’ at the following places – iTunesRSSSoundcloud.

Credits – ImagesCast & CrewDead Medium Productions.

Behind the Wall – 4 – Location Scouting

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DownloadBehind the Wall – 4 – Location Scouting

In episode 4 of our making-of series ‘Behind the Wall‘, we travel down to Martinstown House in the Curragh of County Kildare, to location scout for the drama series, in the company of Andrew Booth. Why would you record a radio series on location? How do different places sound? How is making drama on the radio like making a feature film? All this and more.

I’m joined in this episode by chef Andrew Booth, who cooks and caters marvellous dinners for guests and visitors to Martinstown.

Behind the Wall

Behind The Wall is a series of special feature podcasts accompanying ‘The Wall in the Mind‘, an ambitious new on-location drama series, coming to Newstalk and podcast starting on Saturday the 16th of April @ 7AM & 10PM. Each episode features an interview or behind the scenes clip. Think of it like the ‘making of’ special features on a DVD or Blu-Ray.

subscribe-to-podcast1

You can subscribe to these bonus episodes, and download or stream the podcast of ‘The Wall in the Mind’ at the following places – iTunesRSSSoundcloud.

Credits – ImagesCast & CrewDead Medium Productions.