One of the very best working storytellers today is Jon Ronson. His recent BBC Radio series, Things Fell Apart, which focuses on the human stories at the centre of the culture wars, is an absolute gem. Expertly crafted tales of people’s stories that have had huge ripples on our culture and communities. Equally interesting is the conversation between Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux, where they explore their unique brand of storytelling and what drives them to tell them in their specific original way. Fascinating insights from two masters of their craft. The link here is to the BBC website, but it is available on most podcast platforms.
After many years of honing my craft as a sketch writer and performer at The Brownbread Mixtape, I pieced together the body of work into a full-length play. After an initial sold out run at the 2016 Dublin Fringe festival, we reassembled as a cast and did a weeklong run at the legendary Project Arts Centre in 2017. The show was a parody of those “week in review” type shows where the host looks back at the best bits on the radio station from that week, which gave us a lovely framing device to switch between sketches and have a central through line with the self-absorbed host Sneachta Ni Mhurchu. Eva Bartley did a masterful job in the lead role with her dizzy, brilliant characterisation. Myself, Gus McDonagh and Sean McDonagh played all of the other parts (upwards of 80 characters) in the original run, and then when we moved to the Project Theatre unfortunately Sean had to drop out due to issues with his vocal cords, so Gus and I rejigged it slightly and took on all of the additional roles. It was such a delight to switch and flit between the weird and wonderful variety of characters, from lofty pompous Government figureheads (The Minister for Mackerel and Knitwear) to acclaimed film director Werner Herzog, with many more besides. In between we sprinkled ridiculous fake commercials for ludicrous products like Guinness Sport and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s BBQ sauce. Accompanying the entire endeavour were world class musicians Orla McDonagh (piano) and Ailbhe McDonagh (cello) who provided original jingles, ambient soundtracks and so much more. Our good friend John Morton (critically acclaimed writer of the Dead Still tv series) offered thoughtful and vital direction to the piece. Overall, it was one of the most enjoyable and funniest things I have ever worked on, and the audience responded in kind with a sold out performance every single night. I will post up the recording at some point, although it doesn’t do true justice to the show. For now, I’ll let you savour the brilliant sets of posters and promotional images designed by Lorenzo Tonti and photographed by my wife Jessica at the RTE Radio studios.
At my monthly Brownbread Mixtape show I would regularly write radio style comedy sketches to be performed by myself and our resident sketch troupe The Brownbread Players (Gus McDonagh, Eva Bartley and Sean McDonagh). I have been a huge Werner Herzog fan for many moons and something tickled me about trying to do one of his earnest and odd documentary style pieces about inner city Dublin. Gus also did a great Dublin accent and so I wrote it specifically with him in mind for the part. It started to flow pretty quickly as I wrote it, but then something wasn’t fully clicking. Suddenly the Joycean elements popped in my head and it came together really sharpy then. The closing monologue lifted from The Dead by James Joyce really elevated the piece from pure silly parody to something slightly more profound, just like a proper Herzog piece. It was one of the most odd and surprisingly popular sketches we ever did. The original live version can be seen here.
Enda Roche who ran the monthly Brownbread Mixtape show with me was studying audio engineering at the time at Windmill Lane, and decided to do a studio version of it as a project one semester, and so the studio version above was born. The sparse twangy guitar lends a lovely feel to it (and echoes the Herzog film soundtrack to Grizzly Man very nicely), and the sound effects of the chipper give it a nice documentary feel.
The sketch subsequently got incorporated into my award nominated Fringe show The Definitive View with Sneachta Ni Mhurchu, and a slight rewrite made it slightly softer and more empathetic to the skanger character. It had never fully sat right with me that he was an object of pure ridicule of the piece, and in the new version I made him more a victim of the harsh Irish government and society. In that show we had an ethereal piano piece to accompany it, and I felt it lifted the piece even further into a poignant piece about the forgotten faces on our streets.
It is still a piece of writing I am very proud of and it really proved to me that even the most obscure reference points can prove to be hugely popular if framed in a comedic setting, as the audience doesn’t need to know who Herzog is in this case, but if they do, it adds an additional layer. Plus I love doing Werner Herzog impersonations. I think it’s my true artistic calling in life.
Back in 2014, the poet Dave Lordan, was serving as guest editor for Penduline Press – a publication from Oregon in the United States. He commissioned a special audio broadcast from me to showcase some of the very best contemporary performance poets in Ireland. I had never really tried something like it before but I was really excited about trying to piece something that was representative of the many great voices in Ireland at the time, as well as making it an audio piece that was enjoyable to listen to, maybe even informative, and maintain a good energy and rhythm to it, so it actually flowed like a proper album. There was also something nice about taking the time to go back through the archives of the endless hours of audio from all of the many poets at the brownbread mixtape shows, and handpicking some of the standout moments. (I was even cheeky enough to put one of my own poems in there from the Fringe show “Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About”. More on that show and the unique creative process of writing a show collaboratively in this post.) The curation process was really hard and ended up being super subjective of course (but isn’t all curated content?) and I decided to not script my interludes, but instead to speak from the heart about how these poets and their work had connected with me. That conversational tone felt right for the piece and it flowed relatively well. Then once I found the haunting simple piano piece by Irish musician Elder Roche, it all seemed to click into place. The end result was something I am really proud of and I totally stand over today. I actually think it serves as a nice snapshot of the variety of spoken word in the country at that time. And it is a proper document now. Many of the poets have deservedly gone on to greater success as performers and published writers, which is so brilliant to see. They are listed below. Seek them out, they are all legends.
Here’s what Dave Lordan said about the documentary at the time:
“[the brownbread mixtape] is a very professionally run cabaret and it has featured many of the most engaging and entertaining live arts practitioners in the country. Kalle is an excellent host and curator, a fact proven by the popularity of the monthly event. Everybody wants a gig at The Brownbread Mixtape. [ … ] Kalle probably has the closest to an overview of performance poetry in Ireland and he was the obvious choice to make a showcase selection for Penduline.” – Dave Lordan, Guest Editor, Penduline
Here is a list of the poets in order of appearance:
1. Stephen James Smith – “The Gardener”
2. John Cummins – “Brink”
3. Abby Oliveira – “the television”
4. Karl Parkinson – “The Positivity Manifesto”
5. Raven – “High John”
6. Erin Fornoff – “Hymn to the Reckless”
7. Brian Conaghan – “Waiting for the penny to drop”
8. Colm Keegan – “Ireland Is”
9. Fergus Costello – “Extract from a letter to the fella that used to be married to my sister”
10. Kalle Ryan – Excerpt from “Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About”
Here is the original link to the publication in Penduline Press: