RadioActive.fm + podcast, Wellington

04/07/2020 - 08/08/2020

Production Details

Acclaimed Wellington Theatre Company Tackles First Audio Drama 

Starting from July 4th, Red Scare Theatre Company present their new serialized audio drama Apocalypse Songs.

Premiering on RadioActive.fm on Saturdays and appearing online through the Apocalypse Songs podcast feed a day later, the piece is written by Cassandra Tse and directed by James Cain.

The five episode series follows a local radio station reporter Amy Louise Chen (Cassandra Tse) investigating the tapes of Clara Wilson (Catherine Gavigan-Binnie), an obscure 1960s musician whose cryptic lyrics seem to have predicted the future. Amy joins forces with Clara’s great-nephew Josh (Dryw McArthur) to investigate the mystery of Clara’s ‘Apocalypse Songs’.

These performers are bolstered by an ensemble of some of New Zealand’s finest acting talent, both onscreen and on the waves; Allan Henry (Mean Mums), Lloyd Scott (RNZ Midnight, Barry Crump Ads), Bronwyn Turei (Go Girls) and Hilary Norris (The Light Between Oceans) and many others. The series also features original music composed by Katie Morton.

Although the script for Apocalypse Songs was written in 2018, production didn’t begin until Aotearoa entered lockdown. The Red Scare team realised that this project, which could be recorded under Level 4 restrictions if need be, could provide entertainment to New Zealanders all over the country from the safety of their own homes. After receiving grants from both Creative New Zealand and Wellington City Council, Tse and Cain recruited an impressive roster of cast and crew to make the story come alive.

“I wanted to write something that felt perfectly suited to the audio medium,” says Tse, “and something about the supernatural thriller genre works so well when it’s all in your ears. Apocalypse Songs is an original take on an urban legend story, but I like to think it asks some interesting questions about fate and free will as well.”

“It all starts with the writing,” says director James Cain. “It was clear Cassandra had realized something genuinely spooky that pulled you deeper in, exactly how the characters describe the whirlpool effect of Clara’s music.”

Cain was inspired by recent narrative podcasts that have been pushing the form, works like Homecoming, Limetown, Alice Isn’t Dead and Wolverine: The Long Night. “They play with the aural possibilities in a really fascinating way, combining great writing with an ability to really situate the listeners within the environment.” James credits audio engineer Patrick Barnes and sound designer Maxwell Apse as helping him create these ‘aural environments’ in Apocalypse Songs. 

The podcast feed will be available early for listeners to subscribe. For those hungry to know more about the story of Apocalypse Songs, additional minisodes will be dropped on the podcast feed that won’t be aired on RadioActive. If you’re keen to know the full story, be sure to subscribe to Apocalypse Songs on Apple Podcasts or any podcast app.

The first episode of Apocalypse Songs airs on RadioActive.fm on July 4th 2020, with weekly instalments for a total for five episodes. The podcast feed is available here and on your favourite podcast app: https://anchor.fm/apocalypse-songs

Episode One – A Clarion 

Episode Two – A Mad Genius 

Episode Three – A Whirlpool

Cast for Episode One:
Cassandra Tse – Amy Louise Chen
Catherine Gavigane-Binnie – Clara Wilson
Allan Henry – Phil Heremaia
Hilary Norris – Judith Wilson
Lloyd Scott – Rob Milden

Patrick Barnes – Audio Engineer
Maxwell Apse – Sound Designer, Editor.

Cover Image by Cosmo Bones.

Theatre , Audio (podcast) ,

32 mins per episode

Episodes 1-5: A real milestone for this genre

Review by John Anderson 04th Aug 2020

Since I first heard about it I had been looking forward to Apocalypse Songs dropping. I’ve found Red Scare Theatre’s productions like The Bone Thief and Gutenberg! The Musical! varied, inspiring and engaging.

Tonight I slip on my headphones to hear the final episode of this supernatural thriller. Reporter Amy Louise Chen (Cassandra Tse) is chasing down the mysterious past and death of troubled sixties musician Clara Wilson.

The five episodes are quite a journey through this fictional history. There is an air of menace through the whole piece ratcheted up by Clara’s tortured music – written by Katie Morton and ably performed by Catherine Gavigan-Binnie, Ellie Stewart and Logan Keggenhoff.

We follow Amy Louise Chen as she pursues the mysteries of Clara’s great-nephew Josh (Dryw McArthur) to the last. The episodes walk the knife-edge of tense drama while still finding warmth in the many interviews which help Amy unpack and uncover the story.

The audio quality and sound design by Patrick Barnes and Maxwell Apse is really its own character, changing from ancient cassettes to modern recording studios. It really helps drive the narrative forward.

Morton’s compositions also tighten the screws on this intriguing drama. The outsider style art created by Wellington Artist Cosmo Bones is the icing on the cake.

The overall quality of Apocalypse Songs easily equals other international fictional podcasts like Within the Wires and I think is a real milestone for this genre in Aotearoa.


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Episode 3: A real milestone for this genre in Aotearoa

Review by John Anderson 22nd Jul 2020

Since I first heard about it I have been looking forward to Apocalypse Songs dropping. I’ve found Red Scare Theatre’s productions like The Bone Thief and Gutenberg! The Musical! varied, inspiring and engaging. The idea of a home-grown supernatural thriller is indeed my cup of tea.  

The third episode opens with reporter Amy Louise Chen (Cassandra Tse) reflecting on the contradictions of the music of 60s underground artist Clara Wilson (Catherine Gavigan-Binnie) and her own growing obsession with it.  

As Amy puts it herself, “The music of Clara Wilson repels and entices in equal measure. Harsh and beautiful. Rough and complex. It crawls inside you and stirs some previously unknown emotion. It demands repeated listening.”

This episode follows Amy Louise Chen and Clara’s great-nephew Josh (Dryw McArthur) as they dig deeper into Clara’s music and Josh’s family history.

The flow of this episode is artfully written by Cassandra Tse and directed by James Cain. It allows a rawness to the exchanges between Amy and Josh that deepens the growing sense of unease and menace. This discomfort rubs up against the more straightforward elements like Amy’s warm and focussed interview with psychologist Dr Joyce Hopper (Sameena Zehra).

The audio quality and sound design by Patrick Barnes and Maxwell Apse is really its own character, changing from ancient cassettes to modern recording studios. It really helps drive the narrative forward.

The compositions written by Katie Morton and ably performed by Catherine Gavigan-Binnie, Ellie Stewart and Logan Keggenhoff also tighten the screws on this intriguing drama. The outsider style art created by Wellington Artist Cosmo Bones is the icing on the cake.

The overall quality of Apocalypse Songs easily equals other international fictional podcasts like Within the Wires and I think is a real milestone for this genre in Aotearoa. 

The story could go in so many directions, but it is impossible to ignore the prickling at the back of my neck – something is deeply wrong in this imagined world. I really can’t wait to immerse myself in it again this weekend. 

Until 8 Aug 2020 [32 mins per episode]


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Episode 2: Strong performances but where’s the thrill?

Review by Adam Macaulay 12th Jul 2020

We need to remember that this audio series was, we are told, entirely produced under Covid lockdown conditions. It’s unreasonable to address any purely studio/technical issues.  But having said that, the quality of recording and mixing of this second episode is of far higher quality. The technical differences between the episodes are such that it’s difficult to believe that both episodes were produced under the same lockdown conditions.

Let me begin boldly by saying quite simply that Episode 2 should have been the opening episode of this series and that the original Episode 1 is, on a number of levels, pretty well superfluous. The maxim, ‘a good drama/story starts late and finishes early’, applies here. We do not learn anything in Episode 1 that we don’t learn in Episode 2, nor that we couldn’t learn – and that indeed might be more effectively learned – in a later episode. 

Although it seems to get a little lost and implausible late in the piece, the writing in Episode 2 is far more measured and crafted for effect. It begins to show a better understanding of what we might call the ‘tolerances’ of this special medium. It also better addresses the documentary investigation-style podcast genre. Early in this episode we get a sense that the investigation is being driven, controlled and story-shaped by the fictional producer/presenter, Amy.  But towards the close, the script drifts into unnecessarily reminders from Amy about things we already know, over-speaking from the other characters and an uncertainty around what is driving Amy in her investigation. 

What exactly is she investigating?  What intrigues her? What worries her? What’s the quest we’re going on? This particular investigative podcast form works best when the audience is enlisted as confidante and companion – as fellow investigator. To even think about going along, we need to understand what it is that the investigator – in this case Amy – wants to find out and why.

When the overwriting creeps back in later in the piece, scenes become implausible within the meta-world of this story. Unmotivated, extended answers to non-existent questions would not make it through to a final cut of a produced podcast – or at least, if they did, they’d be carefully chosen to be included and then explained or framed in a studio-recorded link from the presenter.  And those presenter links are craftily written and designed by podcast writers and producers to strengthen our connection to the presenter as fellow-investigator and/or to keep us on track.

There are some strong moments of writing for this form. One is Amy’s in-studio description of what she’s seeing on the page from Bex’s lyrics notebook. Simple but totally believable use of an audio convention, smartly placed in the narrative. I also want to mention the strength and appropriateness of the writing in Amy’s introduction and outro to this episode – I feel like I know what to listen for and where we’re going. Classic podcast stuff to draw a simple map for the poddies.

The absolute standouts in this episode are the acting performances from Cassandra Tse as Amy Louise Chen, Dryw McArthur as Joshua Marshall and Janelle Pollock as Bex ‘Wrathful’ Delaney. All are relaxed and very believable despite, on some occasions, having to deal with far too many words to say for no good reason. McArthur’s Joshua is particularly impressive.  A nod here also to the directing of those performances at the microphone, to the recording quality, and to the post-production placement of the voices within the audio landscape.

I am intrigued by the claim that this series is a thriller. Thrillers demand the elements like fear, danger, suspicion, high tension – perilous circumstances in which something very unfortunate (death?) could result. With an expectation of thrills in mind, I do get my hopes up when the overly-friendly and morbidly confessional Jushua appears to stalk Amy when they are going through his Carla collection in his home. I swear I can hear some suggestive ‘creepy’ underscore coming. But it must have been the drone of a truck on the distant highway, because it comes to nothing.

So, I’m yet to be thrilled and have so far been able to garner few clues as to where I should look to satisfy my thrill-seeking imagination.  This is two episodes into a five-parter, so tension should be rising, or at least audience suspicion of something worth getting tense about should have arrived.

Overall, this is a much stronger and more focussed episode from Red Scare and well worth a listen even if just for the acting performances. And it is great to see this company taking risks to find out how audio storytelling can work. 

At the close of the review of the first episode I suggested that anyone thinking of venturing into audio should listen to it as a good reference point for discussion around how this reviving genre works – and when it doesn’t work so well. And Red Scare seems to have welcomed the invitation.  Bravo!  It’s a healthy way for us all to get better at whatever we are doing in performance – more open and honest discussion around how we do what we do and how we might do it better. Respect to Red Scare for coming back with a stronger episode and with even more to talk about. More scare to their readiness!    

A final suggestion. I see that Theatreview has a comments and forum function on its site – it would be fabulous to have others listen to Red Scare’s first excursion into the wilds ofaudio and actively join in the discussion around how it’s shaping up.

Listen here: https://anchor.fm/apocalypse-songs 

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Episode 1: A great start to a very good idea

Review by Adam Macaulay 07th Jul 2020

I’ve listened to more audio stories, dramas, comedies, satires and mockumentaries than I care to remember but it hasn’t dulled my excitement about the magic of audio storytelling. I’m always excited to hear of new projects and new ideas being worked in the audio space – particularly if the story is new, original and, especially, fictional.  

Red Scare Theatre’s first excursion into the audio-only space with their series Apocalypse Songs is a strong idea and begins very, very effectively. In the first couple of minutes this story catches the ear and imagination and it needs to: audio is dangerously turnoffable. Unlike theatre or film, or even family and friends small-screen viewing, there’s simply no social pressure to continue listening if you don’t like what you’re hearing.

Getting us hooked in those first few moments is essential, and Apocalypse Songs does this. Red Scare shows great judgement in launching their story straight up with a sufficiently bootleggy-sounding recording of a tortured song performed by, what we are soon to learn, is a very troubled ‘outsider artist’ from way back in the 60s.  Carla Wilson, the troubled artist in question, sounds just that – troubled.

I’m intrigued and want to continue listening to find out who Carla is and why I’m hearing her. As I say, great start. And things rock along, still believably, for around three minutes before they begin to drift into the less-plausible and oft’-traversed area of too many words in the mouths of the characters. It’s a common misunderstanding about audio storytelling, and a trap.

Here’s a truth worth noting: a good audio piece most often has a lower dialogue word count than the equivalent stage script of the story.  Yes, audio storytelling, paradoxically, needs far less dialogue. Why? Well, I’ve though a lot about this and I think it’s to do with the power of audio to evoke meaning rather than tell in words. At its simplest, when audio is the only clue available from which to make ‘story’ it seems to create a sort of hyper-awareness in the audience, so every sound, not just the voice, has significance.

Humans are already obsessed with making meaning out of things and, with sound-only stories, they are hyper-obsessed, so that very little is required (words particularly) to provoke the imagination into making story. Knowing this presents us with amazing opportunities to play in the audio space with sound effects, music, atmosphere, pace, silence, scene changes and words to weave a story tapestry.

I have a sense that Red Scare could have made better use of the elements available in this special medium and explored other, more evocative ways to deliver the story. 

The way an audio story is constructed – where the information comes from – is a complex of elements, only one of which is the spoken text. It’s as if audio is hard-wired straight into our brain and our imagination. Because audio really is a theatre of the imagination: the audience’s imagination. The trick for a creative writer, director, actor, and sound engineer is to know, or learn, what combination of the elements is required to make us see the story.

Audio is the most visual of all theatre forms because it uses the best video/DVD/MP4 player available: the mind and imagination of the listener! Screen and theatre tells you what to see; audio asks you to see – to imagine, to make your own, personal images. Magic. I often feel like saying, “We already know what you mean, we know where we are and we know who’s speaking, so stop telling us.”  Or sometimes simply, “So why do I need to know that?”

Sometimes we just don’t need to know. Sometimes it really doesn’t matter exactly who said what where and when, only that someone said it. So you can lose some of that introductory and outroductory dialogue from a presenter/narrator.  

Less is more? Not exactly – it’s more like, “Tell me more but with less dialogue.” And perhaps more so in audio, the rule ‘start scenes late and finish them early’, applies. Carla’s song at the very beginning of this episode is exactly right and really, it doesn’t matter if we don’t learn who Carla is for 10 minutes or so. 

Timothy West once wrote a review/satire for the permanent company of BBC radio.  It was called, This Gun That I Am Holding in My Left Hand is Loaded. The title alone says it all about overwriting in audio. 

Yes, it’s risky and we’re always playing at the edge of how and when to release information, so we maintain the continuum of intrigue and keep the imagination active. We’re struggling with that all that at the same time as aiming for a clarity of story.  But hey, what fun!

By the end of this episode of Apocalypse Songs I think I know something about Carla Wilson but I think I know more about her sister – played by Hillary Norris who shows a deep understanding of how to play in this medium; how to normalise her delivery to make us believe she could indeed be Carla’s sister. It might be some indication of her experience and talent that Norris does this despite being given far too many words to say. 

Lloyd Scott is also convincing, but again, shackled by too many words to say thereby ranging into implausibility in the world of this play. The other standout performance is Carla’s songs – they’re weirdly compelling and, as mentioned, a very strong, believably realised, idea on which to hang a story.

But I have to confess to not quite being sure who or what is at the centre of the story in Apocalypse Songs. I first thought it was going to be about the influence of Carla’s ancient recordings on New Zealand music (I was excited), then about Carla herself, then about Carla’s sister, then Carla’s suicide, then Rob’s brother’s suicide (much less excited by this time). And then there is a lack of clarity from the presenter at the close that leaves me wondering if I’ve just heard the first in a whole series about Carla or whether this is the only episode about her I will hear. This is one moment when absolute clarity in words is required. Don’t evoke anything, just tell us exactly where we are and where we’re going next. And, just incidentally, I wish we’d heard more of Carla’s songs – that strong idea seems to get lost along the way.

I’m left feeling that the fictitious radio station/podcast maker hasn’t taken that very necessary step of deciding what story they want to tell and then carefully shaping the audio to tell that story. The very best documentary, and mockumentary, podcasts go through a number of written drafts, and detailed direction, and recording takes and mixes so that the end product tells a particular story in a particular way. And audio makers are increasingly using the whole arsenal of audio storytelling weapons.  

Finally, if we are going to play around in the meta-world world – and nothing wrong with that – we simply must get the basics right to support plausibility. It’s quite distracting to repeatedly hear the studio presenter committing the cardinal sin of ‘popping’ on mic. That simply would never have got through to the airwaves nor the final mix in a real radio station. But in this case we need to take into account the home-based recording and production environment under what was probably Level 4 lockdown – it’s unreasonable to focus on the purely studio-technical aspects of the story. But it is worth remembering that were it recorded in much better circumstances technical detail like that would be crucial as part of the meta-world ruse – part of the supporting ‘information’.

Red Scare’s Apocalypse Songs is a good first step on what I hope is a continuing journey into the amazing world of audio storytelling. It’s a strong idea slinging a story around Carla’s lost tapes – or do I mean found tapes? Anyone thinking of extending their work into audio storytelling should listen to this series. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing where Red Scare goes when they take their next steps out into the air and over towards the edge of audio possibly.

Listen here: https://anchor.fm/apocalypse-songs

[Adam Macaulay is the former Executive Producer of Audio Drama for RNZ and now the Commissioning Editor of drama, book readings, satire, comedy and kid’s stuff. He is also consultant director/producer at creative support outfit Shortwood Creative in Wellington.]


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