The Podcast Repertory Theater 2008, part 1: CHASING THE BARD

The world of Internet-based audio has seen many firsts: the first podcast novel (Tee Morris’s MOREVI: the Chronicles of Rafe and Askana), the first podcast-only novel (Scott Sigler, EarthCore), the first audio drama (Children of the Gods was the first I heard of, but doubtless there were others), and the first podcast author to get a book deal with a major publisher (Scott Sigler, Infected). The field continues to evolve — and now we’ve reached a new step.

Not long ago, Net-based storytellers who previously recorded “straight reads” of their work began experimenting with guest voices, music, and sound effects, after the manner of broadcast-radio drama. On the whole (and unsurprisingly), the results been quite successful. Since many of these storytellers know each other, it wasn’t unusual that some would lend their vocal talents to others’ works. But lo and behold, we have now — already — developed a situation where Authors A, B, C, and D all wind up as guest voices on each other’s novels. Four writers, in different locations, have met in cyberspace to perform in works created by each other, and these works are all in production at this moment (and, may I add, all worth your time). The result is a circle of creators that I’ve labeled The Podcast Repertory Theater:

In this and the next four articles, let me introduce you to these four creators — and, in the last, to an additional writer who also appears in all but one of their works. Rather than try to rank the stories in any kind of order of quality and skill (you take your life in your hands to attempt that: one author carries a mean rapier; another is a master of biotoxins; still another wields a devastating pair of red stiletto heels), I’ve instead placed them in order of the story’s explicit historicity, if you will: imagine an h-axis on which you can write “historical account” in one direction and “complete fabrication” in the other. Thus, the first story covered has the most ties to the history of our earth, and the fourth — well, we’ll get to that in due time.

Production #1: CHASING THE BARD

  • Philippa Ballantine: Sive the Shining, Puck the Trickster, et al.
  • P.G. Holyfield: Auberon, King of the Fey
  • Chris Lester: Mordant, Sive’s husband and antagonist
  • Tee Morris: Will Shakespeare
  • Web site:

Two worlds face destruction, one of them ours. The key to rescuing both lies in the hands of a descendant of the gods. And you know his name.

Many have used the Fey characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in their stories, some good, some not. Only two fantasy writers, however, have written stories that have involved me deeply in the relationship between the world of the Fey and the English playwright who invoked it. One is Neil Gaiman, with the World Fantasy Award–winning “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an episode in his Sandman graphic novels. The other is Philippa Ballantine, with Chasing the Bard.

Ms. Ballantine impresses with the scope of her vision. The universe, as she presents it, contains three parts: our mortal realm, the realm of the Fey, and what is now the Shattered Realm. Presumably the third had not existed as a separate space until the appearance, ages ago, of the Unmaker, whose plans would have rendered the universe inimical to life as we know it; in a titanic conflict, mortals and Fey united to defeat the Unmaker and seal him off in his own region of existence. In the times that followed, the limited interaction between mortals and the Fey laid the foundation for ancient mythologies: one of the original Fey, Anu, made her way into the Babylonian pantheon as the (male) god of the heavens. Her daughter, Sive the Shining, was known to mortal men as the Egyptian/Ugaritic war-goddess Anat, the Babylonian Ishtar, and the Greek Aphrodite (I suspect Pallas Athena and Artemis the hunter were modeled on her as well). It should go without saying that if “Fey” makes you think of Tinker Bell, you’d best reconsider.

One other item from mythology deserves mention here: namely, the tendency of the gods to indulge in dalliances with humans. Liaisons between Fey and human resulted in a measure of Fey blood making its way through the generations of humanity, appearing in perhaps surprising places. One whose veins contain Fey blood is Elizabeth I of England (one wonders whether she received it from Henry VIII or from Anne Boleyn; if the latter, then executing her might not have been the wisest of moves). Another, Elizabeth’s subject, has enough of his Fey ancestors in him to receive not only their characteristics but also their power — their Art — which has manifested in him as a strong bardic talent.

He is William Shakespeare, and the Fey desperately need him. For the realm of the Fey is stricken with a malaise that could extinguish it, and the Unmaker may not stay locked away for long. Mortal and Fey therefore must again reunite. One of the Fey has foreseen that Will is their best chance, if not their only chance, for survival; not only does he have in great measure the Art that they are losing, but he possesses the divine gift needed to overcome the Unmaker. Sive has therefore determined that she will enter the mortal realm once again, oversee the rearing of young Will, and, when he comes into his Art, secure his service for her cause.

Yes, I said “secure,” not “solicit.” Sive doesn’t think that way. She is, after all, a goddess — the kind who would dismiss Philippians 2:6–8 as a sick joke.

Not only does Chasing the Bard feature excellent storytelling, it pleases in two other respects as well. It is one thing merely to include a historical figure as a character in a story; it is quite another to focus the story on the life of this figure and research it so well that, even though the story is fantastic in quite the literal sense, it respects all the established biographical facts about its object. In other words, it’s tricky to tell a story that entangles Shakespeare with gods and magical forces without somehow producing a different Shakespeare from the one we know. And yet, according to as loyal a Shakespeare follower as blogger “Shakespeare Geek,” this is just what Ms. Ballantine has done. She cares about her storytelling, she cares about Shakespeare, and she is so skilled a researcher that she has done justice to both. Brava, Pip!

And then there is the reading itself. I have been a fan of Philippa Ballantine’s silver-filigree voice ever since I heard her in Tee Morris’s production of Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword. Her vocal training, combined with her marvelous New Zealand accent, enable her to sound like Royalty when she so desires. (Specious rumor has it that she has been contracted to read the Wellington telephone directory for public television.) When her Sive, the Dark Goddess, gives you an order, you don’t ask questions. What’s more, she lends her talents to several other characters in the story, most notably Puck the Trickster (no doubt the prototype for Hermes, Loki, and Coyote; he steals not only hearts but scenes, and comes perilously close to making off with the entire book), all of whom are clear and distinct.

Nor is she the only talent in evidence; the whole cast is accomplished, including the other three players discussed here. Tee Morris, Shakespeare-trained actor that he is, is in his usual fine form. P.G. Holyfield and Chris Lester provide particular surprises, cast against type: As Auberon, the King-at-leisure of the Fey, Holyfield portrays the kind of lounge-lizard slacker that can easily be seen not-leading his people into disaster. The normally genial Lester, for his part, plays Mordant, Fey agent of the Unmaker, as a sadistic, truly evil antagonist; his Mordant’s laugh is the first I’ve heard in a long while that sounded less like the caricature of a demonic laugh than like the demonic laugh itself. (And this man is teaching high school biology. People, a word of advice: Do that homework. Trust me.)

William Shakespeare’s works have endured for four centuries, and many there have been who would have sworn that his insight and poetic talent were gifts from the gods.

Who knew?

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