Reading Plays – Episode 14 – The Cripple of Inishmaan

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Download: Episode 14 – The Cripple of Inishmaan

Martin McDonagh’s 1996 play ‘The Cripple of Inishmaan’ is the first in a loosely defined and as yet unfinished Aran Island Trilogy. Set on the most banal of the islands, Inish Maan, in the early 1930s, the play is a violently farcical examination of family, social exclusion and the noble lie. Cripple of Inishmaan was recently revived on Broadway in a production starring Daniel Radcliff, and Pat Short, winning six Tonys. Another sterling success for a playwright who once said “Theatre isn’t something that’s connected to me, from a personal point of view, I can’t appreciate what I’m doing.”

Reading Plays‘ is a discussion show, featuring Gareth Stack and James Van De Waal. Each week we do a close reading of a modern play, discussing it’s merits, themes, issues raised, and so on. You can play along by reading or watching a production of the play before you listen to the show.

Next weeks play:

Music – Amor & Psyche – by Bitwise Operator.

Reading Plays – Episode 13 – The Piano Lesson

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Download: Episode 13 – The Piano Lesson

A family history entwined with the legacy of slavery. Black urban poverty in 1930’s Pittsburg. Criminality and working class aspirations. Intersectionality and the patriarchy of the poor. August Wilson’s Piano Lesson is an issue play, and winner of the Pulizer prize. Does this relentlessly grim parlour drama descend into stereotyped kitsch, or lend it’s denigrated characters a nobility transcending their circumstances?

Reading Plays‘ is a discussion show, featuring Gareth Stack and James Van De Waal. Each week we do a close reading of a modern play, discussing it’s merits, themes, issues raised, and so on. You can play along by reading or watching a production of the play before you listen to the show.

Next weeks play: The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh.

Music – Amor & Psyche – by Bitwise Operator.

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Culture File: The Laugh laughing at the laugh – Tim & Eric

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Download: Tim & Eric

From the primitivist pederasty of Henry Darger’s ‘Realms of the Unreal‘, to Mark Hogancamp’s theraputic Marwencol dioramas, recent years have seen an ironic mainstreaming of ‘outsider art’. In a culture obsessed with commodifying novelty, a secretive graffiti tagger, self taught architect or precocious infant painter can be instantly thrown into the limelight. All that’s needed is novelty, and of course the imprimatur of cash.

Nowhere is this more evident than in comedy. Dedicated fans ensure the celebration of the most original and obtuse comedic nuggets. Over time a paradoxical popularity can grow – and the most underground comedic talents gain mainstream acclaim. British satirists have spent two decades remixing and restaging news footage and subverting advertising with wilfully crude CG. The Situationists called this detournement, turning the expressions of capitalist media culture against itself. Brits like Chris Morris, Adam Buxton & Joe Cornish, and of course the Pythons, laid the groundwork for this often bleak, but always surreal Frankenstein reconstruction of television.

In America, experimental comedy has always been less avowedly political, more nihilistic and well, silly. A generation of media production graduates have applied skills honed making adverts to the creation of nightmarish cartoons, youtube skits and ironically terrible television. The centre of the visual comedy renaissance is cable network called Adult Swim. In the tradition of all things American, the channel is ultimately owned by global media colossus Time Warner. That hasn’t stopped Adult Swim from broadcasting some of the most subversive programs of recent years, from the gratuitously grotesque Super Jail, to Dan Harmon’s critically acclaimed Rick and Morty.

Which brings us to the darlings of Adult Swim: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. The pair got their break a decade ago with animated sitcom Tom Goes To the Mayor, but it was their second show Tim & Eric: Totally Awesome Show Great Job, that saw the pair becoming, well if not household, then certainly dorm room names.

Tim & Eric’s world can seem initially impenetrable. Sketches fly by at a break neck pace, mixing absurdism and grotesquery in equal measure. Characters are often played by unconventionally attractive performers, seemingly recruited from some disused rolodex of fame thirsty freaks. It can feel exploitative, and it certainly isn’t always clear whether we’re laughing with or at these unselfconscious oddballs, numbly reciting the tag lines to faux late night infomercials. Watching Awesome Show is (quite intentionally) like stumbling across a medley of awful late night television, populated by preening madmen and unnecessary graphics. As though the VHS camcorder effects of the 1990’s had kept evolving, their capabilities becoming ever more garish, crude and hallucinogenic.

Awesome Show has drawn guest appearances from the illuminati of American comedy – everyone from Will Ferrell to Ben Stiller queuing up to gain kudos satirising exactly the kind of staid fodder that made them millionaires. Their work remains divisive. A 2012 movie version Awesome Show led to a mass walk out at Sundance – pleasing the two no end. The films dismal box office might have had a slightly less amusing irony. Despite this, the duos influence continues to grow. You may have simultaneously enjoyed or been horrified by the recent Tim & Eric influenced viral ‘Too Many Cooks‘, in which an endless sitcom opening sequence becomes a grizzly bloodbath.

Solo projects have been more successful. Heidecker’s dark film ‘‘The Comedy’ was perhaps the best of the recent spate of autobiographical pictures about wealthy, psychologically distressed, middle aged white men. The film serves as a critique both of the little princes of American hipsterdom, and ironic distance as a value. His comic songs have expertly skewered fringe presidential candidates: Culminating in 2011’s most niche record, the Herman Cain themed ‘Cainthology‘. Meanwhile Wareheim has directed visually inventive music videos for artists as diverse as MGMT, Major Laser and Depeche Mode. Notably the pair have shown little reluctance to lend their ironic hyperawareness to advertising campaigns for everything from video games to pizza rolls.

Their work is a product of the age of narrowcasting, beautifully intricate, wilfully awkward and designed to annoy anyone over thirty. By focusing on the techniques, rather than the content of bad commercials and TV, they can seem culpable and cruelly patronising, violating the golden comic rule – always aim up. Yet their fixation on weirdoes and tragic misfits speaks to an affection and camaraderie with outsiders, all too often missing from conventional comedy. Underlying their cruelty, condescension and cynicism may be a kind of disappointed love. A love for the noble ignominy of bad television, kitsch advertisements and above all failures. An acknowledgment of emptiness. The kind of laughter Beckett called ‘the laugh laughing at the laugh’. But it really doesn’t matter what you think. Smug cynics or wickedly original geniuses, Tim and Eric continue to redefine television comedy.

Reading Plays – Episode 12 – Some Girl(s)

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Download: Episode 12 – Some Girl(s)

Some peanuts are eaten, some water bottles empties, some hotel rooms vandalised. Outside of that Neil LaButes ‘Some Girls’ is a less than action packed look at relationships. Love through the eyes of an immature ‘every guy’ whose self absorption drives his quest to reexamine a history of failed relationships. There are plenty of plays featuring assholes, but this is perhaps the first play we’ve read primarily about one. Instead of seven dwarves this sleepwalking beauty has four girls, each of whom seem more than happy to meet a self satisfied ex-lover unbidden in an anonymous hotel room.

The version we read of the play – the printed piece, is as written – but not as performed at first run (starring David Schwimmer of all people) – when it was ‘streamlined’ to make the protagonist a little more palatable. A film version of the play, starring the OC’s Adam Brody premiered last year at South by South West.

Reading Plays‘ is a discussion show, featuring Gareth Stack and James Van De Waal. Each week we do a close reading of a modern play, discussing it’s merits, themes, issues raised, and so on. You can play along by reading or watching a production of the play before you listen to the show.

Next weeks play: The Piano Lesson by August Wilson

Music – Amor & Psyche – by Bitwise Operator.

Culture File: Amanda Coogan on Silence

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Download: Amanda Coogan on Silence

My final piece for Culture File’s series on ‘Silence‘, is an interview with performance artist Amanda Coogan. I don’t want to preempt the piece by writing too much about it. I will say that of all the conversations I’ve had this year, both on mic and off, this was perhaps the most personally meaningful. Amanda is an unusually sincere person who seems truly present in the moment. There are people I occasionally meet, whom I feel honoured to send time with, because they are present without pretence or defence. Perhaps those moments are why I’ve gravitated towards jobs that involve attempting real conversation – psychotherapy, music journalism, whatever the heck I do now. In those moments I’m reminded that life can be more engaged and meaningful than our fears and shibboleths usually allow.

Below is a transcript of the Culture File piece, and I’ve also made available a largely unedited recording of our interview. Our discussion spanned a variety of topics from the relationship of performance art to shamanic practice, to Irish societies treatment of the other, the evolution of performance art, as well as embodiment, the abject, and the phenomenology of performance.



Download: Amanda Coogan Interview (unedited)
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Memories of Hearsay 2014

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Download: Robot Jam

I really had no idea what to expect. Where is Kilfinane? Why is it so far away? What has it got to do with radio? The Hearsay Festival turned out to be chock-full of talented folk obsessed with sound in all its forms. Rachel Ni Chuinn’s talk about her intricately wrought documentary ‘The Shape of Sounds To Come‘ was one highlight. Steve Fanagan‘s overview of the sound design of ‘Frank’ was another. I’ve always felt the best cinematic sound design is on a different level of sophistication and subtlety to radio work. Steve’s talk only confirmed my suspicions. There are so many lessons I’ll take from his approach to using sound to build story, take the audience on an emotional journey, and reinforce character and POV.

Storytelling through sound was a facet of all the Hearsay Prize winning pieces. I’ve attended awards shows or contests where the choice of winner is inexplicable or downright outrageous. The opposite was the case here. Every single winning entry had something new to teach.

‘One Time’ is the gorgeously subtle and heartrending account of Julia Barton‘s then infant son’s life threatening illness. The piece wove archival recordings together with Zach’s response to hearing them as a precocious eleven year old. It managed to be personal, fearless and lyrical.

Kaitlin Prest’s (Audiosmut / The Heart) piece ‘A Kiss’, managed a similar feat, recounting the last kiss of lost love. The piece reveals an intimate moment in a manner both simple and surprising.

Karen Robin’s ‘Lasagne Days’ (available at her site) used a memory of childhood meals to explore the story of her broken home. I could listen to this piece all day, utterly poignant and bewitching.

‘All For Nothing’ is a mini documentary by filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne, with original music from Anthony Ing. The piece tells the story of the eccentric director Rolfe Kanefsky and his decent into, well if not madness, at least amusingly tragic delusion. The piece was confounding and compelling in the way the best This American Life stories used to be – developing a general point about art and ambition from one unique and memorable story. The accompanying full length album is well worth listening to.

Brendan Rehill’s beautiful soundscape ‘Aran Of The Saints’ cast us under the waves and across the sea on a journey that explored an Aran natives relationship to the perilous waves.

Finally Conor Reynold’s picked up a much deserved prize for his almost wordless drama ‘News Is Proximity’. I won’t spoil the story, but this brilliantly put together audio fiction came along at just the right time. This morning I had the opportunity to facilitate a script doctoring workshop at Colaiste Dhulaigh, and ‘News Is Proximity’ was the first thing I played. The students seemed to really respond to it’s audacious approach to narrative.

I filled dozens of notebook pages with ideas, techniques and inspiring radio pieces to listen to. I met many many amazing people, whose work I look forward to following over the coming years. Huge congratulations to Diarmuid, Mairead, Greg and Mary at Grey Heron Media, who put together a genuinely worthwhile weekend.

The piece at the stop of this post is an outtake from my documentary ‘Mad Scientists of Music‘, which was shortlisted for the Ballyhoura Award at the festival. It features the voices, music and robots of ‘Deathness Injection‘.

The piece below was made during the festival, and won a tiny award for best story in the In The Dark audio scavenger hunt! It features Pat Herbert of the Hurdy Gurdy Radio Museum, the sounds of the Hearsay Festival church heater, and György Ligeti’s ‘Requiem’.


Download: Stardust

Culture File: Trevor Agus at SARC

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Download: Trevor Agus at SARC

In this penultimate episode of my series of interviews on silence, I speak to Trevor Agus of SARC. Belfast’s Sonic Arts Research Centre is a world class facility for the study of sound. I’d met some SARC staff at the Happy Days Beckett Festival in Eniskillen, including the composer and sound designer David Bird. So it was an enormous privilege to visit in person.

SARC was also recently the subject of an incredible binaural documentary by Clare Cronin, for RTE Lyric.

Trevor Agus’s interest in sound goes back to an adolescence composing computer music. This led to the study of human perception, and his current research – how humans recognise and differentiate sounds. We spoke about the adaptive utility of quiet, the possibility of silence and the pain of tinnitus.

Speaking of silence, Anand Jagatia, one of the attendees at the recent Hearsay Festival in Limerick, has a fantastic piece about silence and tinnitus. Paolo Pietropaolo also produced an incredible piece about his own tinnitus, which Brendan Baker (of Love & Radio) included in his ‘Ears Forward’ listening evening in Brooklyn last year.