Standing in front of a large, appreciative crowd of science-fiction fans, performing live radio drama with a terrific group of friends and enjoying a tremendous reception... all in all, a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
I think it's safe to say RED SHIFT: INTERPLANETARY DO-GOODER went over well at Arisia 2007.
We were applauded, lauded, and I was even threatened with bodily harm after the show1.
Overall it was quite a success, and encouraging enough to fully commit to producing a podcast series.
(Just not... right... now... so tired... so very, very tired...)
For those who weren't behind certain creative LJ filters, RED SHIFT was the live radio drama project I had been working feverishly on since the beginning of December. I admit I was loath to give away so many details, publically or otherwise, in my neurotic fear that the more my works-in-progress are observed, the greater the chances are that the project won't come to fruition. It's some kind of crazy quantum neurosis and it's wholly irrational, but if it helps encourage me to complete a project, so be it. I have way too many unfinished projects as it is, and the incredible feeling of completion and accomplishment I felt on Sunday when we took our bows was profoundly moving. I'd actually seen something through, from original concept to development to execution. Even when facing creative obstacles and other such boondoggles, I didn't "put it on the back burner" in favor of something newer and shinier to play with. I've squandered too many opportunities in the past to feel that sting of failure once again (sup argentla, and sorry.)
Enough with the personal development. RED SHIFT: INTERPLANETARY DO-GOODER is the name of the series I've been developing for the Post-Meridian Radio Players, the great radio drama group Neil Marsh formed in the fall of 2005. The show is a broad parody-slash-homage (a "parodage", if you will, and you probably won't) of the pulp science-fiction serials of the 30s and 40s, with a dash of 50s television to taste. It features the adventures of Red Shift, a freelance "do-gooder" charged by the Intergalactic House of Truth, Freedom and Peace to patrol the Milky Way Galaxy, seeking out (and here's where I steal my own writing) "wrongs to right, evil plots to foil, and injustices to unjustify." Accompanying him on his journeys is his friend Harrison "Lumpy" Bradbury, the best darn mechanic in seven star systems.
On their first serialized adventure, The Terror of Terra-Khan, Red and Lumpy crash-land on Earth (currently in the year one thousand, nine hundred and thirty nine) and unwittingly pick up two Earthling stowaways: the irascible Doctor Alberts, head scientist at the nebulously-named "Research Institute" and plucky Penny Parker, Girl Reporter, the best investigative reporter the Kane Daily Press has ever had. Unfortunately, as contact with Earth is strictly forbidden by the Galactic Council (and taking Earthlings into space is even forbiddener) Red and Lumpy realize they need to hide their newfound friends while devising a plan to return them home. And that's where Terra-Khan, the Official Convention for Earth aficionados, obsessives, and assorted sympathizers, comes into play. Where else to hide Earthlings at an event where everybody dresses up as one? Well, why not? We were performing at a con...
Along the way our heroes encounter the currently-exiled Queen of Venus, a by-the-book officer of the Galactic Patrol who dislikes freelance Do-Gooders almost as much as she dislikes Earthlings, an overstressed Khan organizer with a clear-cut exit strategy in the face of mounting crises, and the evil Lord Draith, the most monomaniacal malcontent this side of Mars. All this and continuous ad pitches for extra-sugary cereal.
The first two chapters of our serial focus on the planning and other such minutiae; the good stuff happens in the third chapter cause that's all about the performance.
CHAPTER 1: THE PITFALLS OF PLANNING
I hadn't planned on RED SHIFT first appearing as a live show. The original plan (and the plan we're still pursuing) involves recording each serial in three or four 15-minute chapters, each of course ending with a cliffhanger. As each chapter is produced we'd release it individually via podcast in an okay-quality format. When the entire story arc is finished and Red and the gang emerge triumphant, we'd sell a high-quality version of the entire serial on CD, along with special extras. I'm thinking anything from outtakes to "deleted scenes" to even physical "feelies", such as your very own Red Shift Honorary Do-Gooder In Training Membership Card & Decoder Thingy (and entitlement to all the benefits thereof. Be sure to
So I figured what we'd do is start studio production work, get RED SHIFT established 'n podcasted 'n stuff, and then perhaps use the show for the PMRP's 2008 production at Arisia, should we be invited back. And since we'd be performing at a con, I had pitched an idea to Neil about a one-shot episode written especially for Arisia, perhaps about, well, an Earth con. But first! I said, rather presumptuously. First we record! Fate, however, had different plans and when a Situation arose, Red, being the Do-Gooder he is, leapt up and offered his assistance. The Situation in this case was the question of what the PMRP was to do for Arisia 2007. After lots of deliberation, it was decided we couldn't reprise our Tomes of Terror Halloween show, like we had done the year before with Chicken Heart. The logistics weren't right. Unfortunately, it was now December, and suddenly we didn't have any material.
So, faced with this dilemma and with only a month's worth of production time, I said I could very well adapt the first Red Shift story to a live, four-chapter serial, throw in the con story I'd wanted to do for 2008, and direct the darn thing. The lovely and incredibly talented Renee ably stepped up to the producer's role (she ran the show, she really did, kept us messyheads organized and in line) and with Neil at the technical helm, we three began thundering our way, rumba rumba snort rip, through the production. We quickly held auditions and picked a very capable cast, all of whom I knew we could count on in the face of an extremely abbreviated rehearsal schedule. Now all we needed was a script.
CHAPTER 2: THE WOES OF WRITING
I know I mentioned this before when I discussed Tomes last year, but writing under a strict deadline can really give you quite a rush. Luckily I'd had the benefit of a little planning beforehand, so I figured it couldn't be THAT hard. We'd gotten a 10-15 minute slot at Arisia's "First Night" event, and then an hour on Sunday afternoon. No problem. I figured I would write four 15-minute chapters, perform one as a "teaser" at First Night, then perform the rest on Sunday and have time left over. (I figured wrong; we ended up running long. Go fig.)
I laid out the story by cliffhanger, as that's the best way to plot out a serial. You always know which goalpost to reach next and, if you're lucky, how much time you have left to reach it. The first two chapters were practically written anyway, and with some additional material, I was able to easily adapt them to the new format. We began rehearsals and thankfully we all found our characters pretty quickly -- then again, broad parody doesn't exactly mean deep soul searching for your character's motivation. Unless you're Moses Grover.
Renee gave my scripts a second pair of eyes and helped out with some serious editing. My tendency, of course, is to overwrite ("It's better to go over in rehearsal than come up short on the air") and I was so glad to have someone reel me in when I went out too far. (Even when I defended some of the stuff she wanted to cut; turns out I was right on some and she was much more right on others.) The need for a good editor was best illustrated when I rushed the last two episodes in time for a rehearsal (I wrote about 400 lines of dialogue in one night; please don't try this at home) and there wasn't any time for Renee to give 'em the once-over.
The penultimate episode ran 23 minutes on our first reading, way over its alotted running time. I didn't even bother with a reading of the final episode. After a few post-rehearsal hours of panic, I sat down with pen in hand and started making cuts. I completely gutted the final episode, keeping only the climactic battle which I knew had to be the focus and the only focus. I took a good six or so minutes out of the penultimate ep, restoring the cliffhanger as planned, and Renee's extra cuts brought things to a reasonable length. The final ep was re-written from the end on back, and it turned out quite tight. I was very pleased when, at our very next rehearsal, I brought forth the polished two scripts and they worked. We had achieved full serialdom.
CHAPTER 3: THE PERILS OF PERFORMING
"Our "Arisia Teaser" performance at the Friday night festivities was an interesting and potentially nerve-wracking affair. We were due to perform on a small stage set up in a quarter section of the Cambridge Hyatt Regency's ballroom. This wasn't an Official Sit Down And Watch It All ceremony; more like an ongoing sideshow of events and con-goers could come and go as they pleased. The Great Luke Ski, who has made quite a name for himself on the Dr. Demento show as a song parodist (well, you're obviously destined for stardom if your parents named you "The Great") started things off and attracted quite a crowd. So far, so good. Then there was a bellydancer and a fire twirler who had to use glowsticks instead of fire lest she torch the place down, and they kept that crowd. Again, very good. We were set to go on after the next act... which turned out to be a swordfighting demonstration held outside the performance room.
Cursed swordfighters! This was the second time our radio troupe had to follow a sword demonstration. In 2006, our Chicken Heart performance was postponed when the swordfighters before us ran way too long (but were we gonna pipe up, armed only with microphones and voices? Nooooo...) Now, it seemed, the swordfighters were poised to draw all the audience out of our performance space and there was no guarantee any of them would return. This could not be! Delegates were posted outside to loudly give us some much-needed bally once the sword people were done being all swordy. We recouped most, but not all of the BiS (pronounced "audience") and went on to do a pretty good performance. Gilly, our erstwhile narrator, was observing Shabbat and couldn't use an electric microphone; instead she stood in front of the risers and ProJECTed! It worked (and we didn't even have to find a cheerleader's megaphone like we had thought.) The audience was appreciative -- our first real laughs! and I left feeling pretty good about the whole thing.
Sunday eventually came around and after a shuttle bus ride whose driver blasted the only country radio station in Boston, I found myself in our new performance space, which was exponentially larger than the Friday space. We had mics across the stage, Calliope's sound effects equipment in front, chairs in the back upon which to sit, water to drink, scripts to read, costumes to wear, and when the house finally opened, just about a full crowd. This was daunting. Much larger than last year. And bright! Boy, was it bright. Or maybe I was just sleep-deprived. Well, off we went, 'midst snow and ice, with banner bearing strange device: Excelsior!
I had packed about as much sci-fi references and geek-slash-con humor as I could into this little story, from the Khan Leader's readiness to flee at the signs of a crumbling empire to Lumpy's complaints that the last time he saw a movie, there were these robots in the theater who just wouldn't shut up. Jude had helpfully given me some special con references to drop if given the chance, and it was interesting to hear which parts of the audience got what jokes. It was exhilirating to hear the laughs, the unexpected big pops (I knew Penny's recitation of Dr. Alberts' technobabble would be good for a laugh, but I was thrilled to hear it get applause) and the collective groans over the sure-fire horrible puns ("Xanadu... that's where they hold the Kubla-Khan, isn't it?") and the recognition laughter when certain sci-fi cliches were trotted out and thoroughly beaten. Of course, there were some two-percenters thrown in here and there, but I was told after the performance that I had done a good job of keeping the in-jokes spread out so that the story remained first and foremost. I felt real good when I heard that. (It was also suggested that a concordance of all the refs and in-jokes be compiled. Might as well start on it before someone more obsessive than I takes it on.)
Next comes the part where I start glowingly gushing over the folks I had the privilege to work with. Put on your boots!
We performed amazingly well. Mare's annoying little know-it-all kid, who knew more about the RED SHIFT canon than the Narrator, quickly won the audience over once she started rattling off episode numbers and trivia during a commercial read. I hadn't created the Queen of Venus the way Mare played her, but once she got into the role (with accompanying Sycophant and Royal Lorgnette) she fit right in. Michael played Red with just the right amount of Shatneresque bravado, but not too smarmy. I knew I could count on him to do the right thing. Josh, who played Lumpy, jumped right into the role of the eager sidekick and comic relief; I knew I had done the right thing by writing the two as peers (and not making Lumpy, say, a young lad.) Josh also effortlessly read his way around an awesome amount of alliteration. Renee's Penny Parker was bright, quick and charming; her heroine turn at the end of the story earned her a great ovation and I'm glad she was right about one key line. She gave Penny an excellent presence right from the start, a force to be reckoned with and shrewd enough to keep Dr. Alberts in line. Brian threw himself into not only the cackling, sneering, borderline-hysterical villain role (who desperately needs to break out of jail and return for revenge) but provided several other distinct characters as well; he is a real utility player and an amazingly good Valet-Bot.
Joye developed a great voice for the Khan Leader and did a lovely turn playing her with great authority, then breaking her defenses down to the last act of desperation, but quickly rebounding once Red offered to supply the Khan with coffee. Jude's deadpan Officer Starkiller was just what I had hoped for; her timing after a crucial sound effect was flawless and the utterance of "Shift." had just the right menace when it was needed. Calliope handled the live sound effects brilliantly, and nearly stole the fight scene with her enthusiastic Henchbot pie-tin smashing. Neil, spot-on as usual, took care of all the digital effects and music and I'm still not sure how he got so much musical mileage out of one classical overture, but he did. And Gilly's thrilling narration tied the entire thing together neatly. She had the audience on her side right from the start, so much that they joined in on her final pitch for "COSMO-FLAKES, the Breakfast of Humanoids!" I had not expected that. I had totally not expected that. That's when I knew we had done something good.
Ironically enough, the radio drama group after us was called Second Shift, and their pilot performance was much more serious adventure than broad parody, but with a good sense of humor nonetheless. It was easy to tell that the series' creator had taken a lot of care to build a new fantasy world with its own set of rules, rifts and magic (even down to creating an actual language, apparently.) After creating this world she threw three Regular Folks into it, then efficiently laid down the groundwork for her main character's Heroic Journey. I also liked how she wrote an athletic character who was also an avid gamer, and while he was comic relief and slightly reactionary at times, he didn't fall into either the "dumb jock" nor the "gaming nerd" stereotype. That was admirable, and the next time I fire up iTunes I'm going to add their podcast to my collection (was getting tired of only having The Writer's Almanac and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me to look forward to.)
After a panel discussion which I swear I remember almost nothing of, owing to the adrenalin and endorphin rush of a Job Well Done, we went out to a celebratory dinner with the Second Shift crew and quickly made some new friends and connections. Up until now the PMRP and radio drama in general had been a great side project for me, something fun to do in between Theatre@First productions. Now I was able to see our place in this medium; we're just one of a whole new breed of drama companies, finally able to utilize the Internet most efficiently to get our ideas and worlds and stories out there.
The night I finished the last RED SHIFT script ("for reals this time I mean it guys I'm not calling it 'final' but I ain't writing any more") I had a brief moment outside where I looked up to the stars. Stop rolling your eyes, I did. I looked up to the stars, what little can be seen in the Metro Boston area, and thought you know, guys, there's a lot out there for you to explore. I was mostly talking to Red, Lumpy, Doc and Penny at that point, merely thinking ahead about future storylines and what worlds I could create for them, but the more I think about it, the more I think it applies to much more than just that. Radio drama ain't dead, it just moved one block over.
And you know, guys, there's a lot out there for us to explore.
1. The exact quote in question was "So, are you the one I have to threaten with bodily harm if this is not made into a regular series?"