One creative boom that may not have been predicted over the last two years is the resurgence of the podcast. With audio gear and software more accessible than ever, it’s been an easy avenue for an individual with a mild interest in the field to dip their toes in. And while this may have resulted in a slew of less than stellar castoff projects, those of existing narrative skill have also been using it as a fresh avenue to share stories. Sound The Alarm music/theatre company is one such entity that has pivoted into this realm with their new program Theatre for the Ears, and their pilot audio-drama Starman is a gripping and unsettling window into the medium and the times we live in.
Starman, written by playwright Pippa Mackie and primarily performed by Kayvon Khoshkam, is a sobering looking into social alienation and mental health. Opening with the sombre narration of 43-year old main character Daryl before whipping into the first episode of his podcast, we are privy immediately to a man who has locked himself in his apartment and donned the name of Starman, all seemingly in an effort to free himself from society. The tone is set early and easily by virtue of the disconcerting scenario, emphasized all the more by virtue of Starman’s insistence on how well he is doing in his new, cyclical life of podcasting, jumping jacks, and eating pizza.
The mentality that is dug into in Starman is one all too familiar in the modern world. The interconnectivity of online mediums has created one of the simplest ways to disconnect from humanity at large. Through the withered interactions we hear between Starman and his audience, we can see an acidic and dark personality bubbling under his veneer; when hallucinogenics are added to the mix, his volatile mind is all the more clear. Veering between near-manic episodes and bleak spirals as he attempts to cold call a crush from his past, there is a sense of danger to the self conveyed, and an isolated contempt for the world.
Khoshkam’s performance as Starman is balanced on the edge of a knife, and it drives home the desperate mind the audience is experiencing. The timbre of his voice rises and falls in quick succession between a squeak of worry or thin self-assuredness before dropping into a guttural growl of anger towards the world. The natural, cheeky personality that rings so true of a friend’s amateur podcast twists seamlessly into a mind of pain and delusion, crafting a modern, mundane creator of Another Brick in the Wall. It is friendly, familiar, and frightening all at once.
Brent Hirose’s direction of the audio drama truly stands out as well. The ways in which the space of the audio is used for the podcast within the podcast grounds the performance so strongly. Hearing the meandering and exercising of Starman as he moves about the room seats us in the room beside him, and the ways in which reality begins to come undone blossom into a wilting cycle that truly satisfies. Much of the strength of these effects are also thanks to sound designer Malcolm Dow, whose atmosphere is the perfect antidote to the tone of Starman’s delivery—a looming, ethereal presence floating around the forced grin of a man spiralling down.
In every way, Starman is representative of what modern audio dramas could and should be. Crisp and gripping in its sound, believable and bracing in its performance, and stirring and striking in its subject matter. It is a strong first showing for the Theatre for the Ears program, which clearly has the benefit of its audience first in mind with discussions on the piece also available as well as mental health resources from the show’s page. Sound The Alarm has several more audio-dramas coming through the pipeline this coming year, and if they’re anywhere as entrancing as Starman, they’ll be well worth the listen.