Sometimes an interesting artistic idea is just an interesting idea. And sometimes, that idea can take on a resonance that even the person who had it could never have predicted. The 2002-2003 theater season includes plenty of attention-grabbing material, from premieres by local writers (Julie Jensen’s Wait! at Salt Lake Acting Company) to award-winning nationally-known shows (Miss Saigon at Broadway in Utah, Copenhagen at Pioneer Theatre Company). But one of the choices on Plan-B Theatre Company’s schedule grabs attention both for what it’s doing, and the context in which it arrives.
For Jerry Rapier, Plan-B’s artistic director, it just seemed like an interesting dramatic notion: re-creating the legendary Oct. 30, 1938 Mercury Theatre on the Air radio broadcast of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, directed by Orson Welles. Welles reinterpreted the story as a Martian invasion of Grover’s Mill, N.J., in a style mimicking news alerts. The production famously inspired genuine panic among listeners who missed disclaimers that the broadcast was just a radio play, yet a contemporary audience probably knows it better for what it did than for what it was. “What we discovered,” Rapier says, “is that people know about [War of the Worlds], but they’re not familiar with it. It’s just a reference.”
It was an idea Rapier had been mulling over for a couple of years—long before Sept. 11, when the concept of a terrifying attack by unknown forces became frighteningly real.
“After Sept. 11,” Rapier recalls, “it became clear that [War of the Worlds] was more topical than ever.”
“The bottom line is, you want to tell a good story,” adds Joyce Cohen, a veteran Salt Lake City actor who will be directing her first ever show with War of the Worlds. “But this is a story about being invaded, when you never expected to be invaded.”
It is also a story that will be presented on one night in the same medium it was presented 54 years ago: over the radio. On Saturday, Oct. 26, the show’s evening performance will be broadcast live on KRCL. It’s a return to something Rapier experimented with in the early days of Plan-B, including a Radio Macbeth broadcast.
The chance to direct a radio drama is actually what drew Cohen to her first directing gig. “When Jerry asked me to direct this piece,” she remembers, “I thought he was asking me to direct in a studio. If he’d said, ‘Would you direct a stage production?’ I probably would have said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”
“People used to say, ‘Let’s go hear a play,’ not ‘Let’s go see a play,’” she adds. “Works like these remind us of how primal hearing is. I remember when I was really little, driving through the country listening to The Shadow. I’m looking outside at farms and cows, and then they’re gone. Just gone. The imagination is just so powerful.”
Powerful, yes, but powerful enough to create the same kind of reaction that listeners experienced in 1938? Though more recent verité dramas have also confused some viewers—like the 1983 faux-newscast TV-movie Special Bulletin, about a nuclear terrorism crisis—it’s hard to imagine a more media-savvy American public being caught in the grip of a performance.
Probably not with this particular performance, agrees Rapier. Since the production is being constructed as a period piece—complete with 1930s-era commercials, news headlines, and the original, unaltered text—it seems unlikely that the KRCL broadcast would send people screaming into the streets.
“And certainly,” Rapier adds with a laugh, “the live audience isn’t going to be convinced.”
But Cohen still believes in the impact of well-crafted theater. “I’m really hoping … that if people will let go just to get the story,” Cohen says, “then some of that resonance will get triggered. It could become a very real, emotional, frightening thing.”
Whether that frightening response takes people uncomfortably close to the events of Sept. 11 remains to be seen. Rapier and Cohen both insist that no conscious attempt has been made to draw parallels between the material and current events, and that sticking close to the text and to the idea of a period re-creation made that easier to accomplish. But they know that “it” is there, hovering around the periphery. “I do think about it all the time,” Cohen admits. “I can’t help it.”
There’s also a sense that those connections are important, and shouldn’t be ignored entirely for fear of making the audience squirm. Of her research into the historical background of the original story, Cohen notes, “When H.G. Wells was writing, he was very upset with Britain invading other countries. He was looking at what it would feel like to be invaded yourself. Our country got to feel like what it was like to be invaded. Then we look at what we’re talking about today with Iraq, and one wonders about whether the lesson was learned.”
In theater seats and over the radio, listeners may have a chance to learn some lessons from War of the Worlds. Or they may just run screaming into the streets—if theater, like reality, still has the power to scare you silly.