Boxing clever with theatre podcasts that punch above their weight
A series of podcasts by actor Aonghus Óg McAnally has proved more popular than those of ‘The Archers’
On the internet, there seems to be no such thing as a niche. How else could a series of 52 podcast interviews with Irish theatre practitioners become more popular than those of the BBC radio soap The Archers?
The first Rise Productions podcast is an unapologetically enthusiastic love letter to the Irish theatre industry. Its introduction is appealingly unpolished and comfortable, as though the speaker is vamping while looking for a script.
That opening patter became the script, settling into a cheery mantra for the series.
The self-appointed cheerleader-in-chief of Irish theatre, Aonghus Óg McAnally, is the host. He is a 15-year veteran of the Irish theatre scene and a third-generation theatre maker. It isn’t the only place where McAnally, an amiable and distinctly self-motivated actor in a profession not famed for autonomy, has offered his credentials as the grandson of the renowned actors Ray McAnally and Ronnie Masterson (whom he interviewed in episode 21) and the son of broadcaster Aonghus McAnally (who interviewed him in episode 50).
His solo show Fight Night, a gruelling physical piece developed in 2010 by Fishamble’s Show in a Bag programme and used to establish his company Rise Productions, also invoked that pedigree, casting him as a third-generation boxer struggling to emerge from the long shadows of his family.
To some, the project might sound like the ultimate theatrical cliche given an online update: the luvvie download. That doesn’t quite square with McAnally’s uncommon sincerity and canny sense of self-promotion, though, which helps to explain the podcast’s unlikely inspiration: American professional wrestling.
“There had been a trend [in Pro Wrestling USA] of massively unlikely people imposing themselves into positions they wouldn’t have ordinarily reached,” recalls McAnally, a wrestling nut. One such figure was Colt Cabana, a fighter on the fringes of the mainstream, who began a hugely successful podcast in which he interviewed fellow tumblers out of character.
“I ripped off, from start to finish, the format of his podcast,” smiles McAnally, whose introduction and sign-off pay homage to Cabana’s pumped-up spiel.
The success of the podcast, which exploited social media and well-connected interviewees to dominate the iTunes performance art chart from its early days – regularly scoring above The Archers or RTÉ’s Drama at One podcasts – almost ruined McAnally (at one point he was working 22-hour days to meet his deadlines), but it earned thousands of listeners for his weekly sales pitch for current shows, unsparingly described career routes, and several gigabytes worth of anecdotes.
Promotion, promotion, promotion
But the podcasts contain bigger lessons about how to reconceive a traditionally ad hoc performing career within a beleaguered industry.
There were two strands to the podcast, he says: “to promote, support and celebrate Irish theatre, but also to get word out about Rise and about me. You can’t get away from the fact that it is, in essence, an hour-long infomercial about me as a freelance actor, and for the company, going out into influential ears.”
Founded with Brian Melarkey, Rise Productions has had to be innovative within tight constraints. The podcast, for instance, was edited on McAnally’s laptop and, on more than one occasion, was recorded in his car – “our outside broadcast unit”.
Without funding for further theatre productions, Rise’s future “micro-projects” include radio drama and work for camera, disseminated to their large base of subscribers. Yet the last thing McAnally really wants to do is diversify. “No, the goal is always to get back to the stage. I think of everything we make as being theatre.”
But even though he’s been doing the interviews for a year, and is a second-generation broadcaster, he is surprisingly uncomfortable with the role. “The worst thing that could happen is that I would become known as an interviewer rather than an actor,” he says.
He agrees that his interviews, which invariably begin with a gush of praise for his subject, hardly count as a grilling. “Absolutely. I pulled my punches throughout and I had to for a number of reasons. It wasn’t the job of the podcast to be critical. It was the job of the podcast to support. It has to be that simple.” Such boosterism, he says, even cost him a few guests.
But McAnally was motivated by something deeper too: an urge to get ephemeral voices on the record. “It’s just the transient nature of the work,” he says. “It’s not like film. It’s not there forever. Theatre people disappear. If you’re lucky you’re left with a memory.”
The result, then, now stored in digital memory, stands as an affectionate, often sentimental and frequently revealing archive of Irish theatre, in which you get a year in the life of the stage and many lives contained within the year.
The Rise Productions Irish Theatre podcast is available on iTunes