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.

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Hugo Ball Photoshoot

Photoshoot for the Rapture of Hugo Ball, by Roger Gregg.

The Rapture of Hugo Ball is a dark comedy staged as a radio show with live music and sound effects. A satire tracing a performance artist’s unsuccessful struggle to gain recognition and acclaim in an independent world. The protagonist finds himself thwarted at every turn by an arts culture rife with the rivalry of competing egos, choked by academic jargon and administered by indifferent bureaucratic gatekeepers. Though set in the realm of performance art, the tale equally applies to all the creative arts wherein the individual artist has to struggle to establish a viable career.

The show has been staged twice, initially a the Collaborations in Smock Alley and again at the Ranelagh Arts Festival. If you’re interested in the show coming to your venue or festival get in touch with Roger.

The Bee-Loud Cabaret on RTE Lyric


Download: The Bee Loud Glade – EP1 – Gerry Murphy

To subscribe to this series and lots more from Roger Gregg, check out the brand new Crazy Dog Audio Podcast

The Bee Loud Glade Cabaret is a series of twelve bite-size programmes bringing some of the best of the contemporary Irish spoken word scene to radio. Each episode will showcase one beautifully produced spoken word performance, and one ‘backstage’ interview, featuring emerging & established Irish poets. The series represents an exciting new approach to poetry on radio in Ireland, mixing studio performance, music and soundscapes, to recreate the excitement of the live poetry scene. It will bring poetry as a living spoken form to a new audience, and promote the work of a new generation of emerging and contemporary Irish artists. The Bee Loud Glade will take the word off the page and reimagine it using original music and soundscapes. Created for RTE Lyric FM. Funded by the Broadcast Authority of Ireland with the Television Licence Fee.

The Art of Television

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Download: The Art of Television

The A.R.T of Television is a historical comedy about censorship, set in the early years of Irish TV broadcasting. A time when government and church fought young broadcasters struggling to innovate on the nation’s fledgling television channel. American writer Claude Chabert lands a job on the early Irish soap opera ’Home Farm’. Claude finds himself trapped between the political pressures and rigid censorship of late 1960’s Ireland. Attempting to kill the show, he resorts to improbable storylines rooted in Irish mythology, creating an unexpected hit. Now Claude must balance the demands of crafty civil servants, a meddling church and an unruly cast.

Continue reading “The Art of Television”

Sightless Cinema 2017

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Gather in the darkened cinema for the première of a programme of short radio plays in surround sound, where all the pictures will be in your head! This third presentation of new work by the successful Sightless Cinema project is a lively mix, devised and performed by groups of blind and visually impaired people led by director Ciarán Taylor. The short pieces include hospital comedy ‘Off Your Trolley’, an historical drama on Ireland’s worst railway disaster ‘Train Wreck’, the chilling ‘Leonna’, and comedy of errors ‘Robbing Blind’.

I worked with theatre director Ciaran Taylor and the White Cane Theatre Group to develop these scripts, and a surround sound mix of each play. This may be the only time these plays are available in 5.1 sound, so be sure to check it out.

Sightless Cinema is funded by Dublin City Council, hosted by the National Council for the Blind in Ireland, with recording facilities provided by Dublin City University, and is a Dublin City Council Social Inclusion event.

When:  Wed 27 September 2017
Time:  18:45 – 20:30 PM
Where: Lighthouse Cinema, Smithfield.
Price: € 5
Tickets: Eventbrite

The Muse Unbidden

Download: The Muse Unbidden

The Muse Unbidden is an exciting one off drama from Roger Gregg, one of Ireland’s most influential radio dramatists. The play, a success on stage at the Collaborations festival in Smock Alley theatre in 2012, follows a group of would-be poets enrolled in a performance poetry workshop led by a charismatic and unconventional teacher. Using music and dream diaries, the participants are cajoled into finding and surrendering to their personal muses. As the workshop progresses they travel a rollicking odyssey of confession and self-revelation, giving voice to their obsessions, desires, wit, pain, and memories. For some their uninhibited self-expression leads to joyous catharsis, for others to grief and loss. The play satirises the world of performance poetry, blending music and poetry to create an original and entertaining programme. This satire on modern poetry and self-discovery, written and directed by Roger Gregg features original musical score performed and recorded by a cast of multi-talented actor-musicians.

The show revolves around the artistic journeys of five students and one teacher: each embodying an archetypical poetry workshop attendee. Mags is confused about her marriage, Liz suffers from anger problems, Hillary believes herself to be next in line for Heaney’s throne, Cathy is experiencing depression, Theo thinks he can change the world. Their identities are in flux during the ten weeks we are shown of their course; as they grow and change and develop through their creations. Peter, the teacher, is passionate to the point of being overzealous. His fear and under-qualification to deal with people’s emotional trauma is something all teachers can relate to.

The students each struggle with finding and taming their muse: in most cases, the muse takes the form of their desires and demons – leading them to something they need in their lives which is much greater than a piece of poetry. The Muse Unbidden addresses poetry as therapy. Poetry allows people to work through their conflicts and emotional issues.

Anyone who has attended a poetry workshop or facilitates one, or even maybe only picks up a pen from time to time will find something to relate to. Even listeners who’ve never written before will be lured in with the promise of what might become if they dare reach out to their muse. The Muse Unbidden explodes with energy, and fearlessly touches sore areas of Irish culture’s attitude to canonical poetry in ways that might sting but will leave listeners thinking.

CREDITS: ‘The Muse Unbidden’ was executive produced by Gareth Stack, writing / direction by Roger Gregg, recording by Colette Kinsella. The cast were Morgan Jones, Tiernan Kearns, Angel Hannigan, Sinead Fox, Katie McCann, Karen Ardiff and Roger Gregg. Music by Roger Gregg.

Funded by the Broadcast Authority of Ireland with the television license fee.

The ART of Television – All new comedy drama, coming soon!

Download: ART Trailer

Dead Medium Productions Presents ‘The A.R.T of Television’!

It’s winter 1968, the long hangover after the Summer of Love. A.R.T is Ireland’s finest, and indeed only television station. But the nations flagship soap ‘Home Farm’ is failing as viewers frog march towards the satanic protestant seduction of the BBC. American ad man Claude Chabert is hired to turn the show around. With help from TV chaplain father Terry O’Mahony and feminist firebrand Maureen Masterson can Claude raise the ratings? Or will he fall prey to the machinations of sinister Controller of television Carvel Kiddler? Find out in The A.R.T of Television, a totally made up and completely fictional, not true at all, not even a little bit historical comedy about censorship, stupidity and Irish television. Coming to Phoenix FM and Soundcloud soon!

Dead Medium Productions history

Dead Medium Productions, founded in 2009, is an independent producer of drama and documentary. We have released numerous radio and podcast series. We have produced programmes for Newstalk, RTE Lyric FM, Radiomade, Dublin City FM, and Near FM. Our previous series include ‘Choices’ a surreal comedy about mental health, ‘Any Other Dublin’ a satirical look at the death of the Celtic Tiger, dark cold war drama ‘The Wall in the Mind’, and ‘Mad Scientists of Music’, an award winning documentary about experimental Irish music.

Writer / Director

Gareth Stack is a writer who develops work for radio, theatre and screen. Gareth Stack is a writer, director and pioneering Irish podcaster. In 2005, while senior producer at Trinity FM, he co-created the first Irish internet TV show ‘Technolotics’. Since then he has developed numerous radio documentaries, dramas and podcasts for channels like Newstalk, RTE Lyric FM as well as local and regional radio. Including the award winning series ‘Mad Scientists of Music’, which explored the Irish experimental audio scene. He has worked as arts correspondent for programmes like Culture File & the Dave Fanning show, developed programmes for digital channels like Radiomade, and served as communications officer for the Association of Independent Radio Producers Ireland (AIRPI). Gareth currently teaches courses in Podcasting & ‘Storytelling Through Sound’. Recently he has begun creating work for stage. His last play ‘Mic Drop’, received great reviews at the Scene & Heard festival.

Starring legendary radio actor / producer Roger Gregg!

Roger Gregg is an award winning playwright, composer, audio-producer and actor. Over the past 25 years he has written for Crazy Dog Theatre, Dublin Youth Theatre, TEAM, The American National Audio Theatre Festival, Graffiti Theatre, The Razor Edge, Oberon Theatre and The Gaiety School of Acting. His plays have also been produced by New York University, the University of Missouri, the Theaterpedagogisches Zentrum in Nuremberg, Germany. His Crazy Dog productions have won many international awards including; 3 American Mark Time Science Fiction Awards, 2 Ogle Fantasy Awards and 2 AUDIOFILE Golden Earphone Awards. In 2006 in a special feature reviewing his work, BBC Radio 4 hailed him as ‘one of a handful of truly great radio dramatists’.

Cast

Roger Gregg as Claude Chabert.
Sebastian Connellan = Carvel Kiddler
Seamus Stackpoole = Brendan O’Riordan / Miley O’Cumman
Gareth Stack = Eamon Chabert, Felix (in Sales), A.R.T News Anchor
Tara Cush = Shiela O’Riordan / Maraoid O’Common, Selkie
Niall Bruton = Alan O’Riordan / Ciaran O’Dowd
Thommas Kane Byrne = Fr Terry O’Mahony, Fiacra, Irate Reader
Pamela Flanagan = Maureen Masterson / Lug
Roisin Rankin = Laura O’Mahony, Banshee, BBC Presenter
Aislinn O’Byrne = Saoirse Chabert, Bridget Minerva, Irate Reader

With sound design / recording by Hearsay award winning producer Brendan Rehill (An Klondike, the Wedding Tree).

Thanks, hope you tune in!

BAI CREDIT

Little Black Lies – The Webseries

How can an undead villain search for love in the age of tinder? What if you were socially awkward and a monster? Join one sexy vampire, OK maybe not that sexy, as he tries to find the love of his life, again. This anachronistic horror comedy takes its cues from the eighties feel of recent work like ‘It follows’ and ‘San Junipero’, and springs from the lively Irish comedy scene. The writer and director preciously collaborated on absurd comic shorts like ‘Lads’ and ‘Spaghetti D*ck’, and the series co-stars rising Irish talent like Nicole O’Connor (‘FACTS’), Joe O’Neill (Little Shadow Theatre Company), as well as legendary Irish actor Roger Gregg (‘About Adam’, ‘Space Truckers’).

Continue reading “Little Black Lies – The Webseries”