From Horsell Common to Grover’s Mill: a Second Life for a famous broadcast

I think everyone expected to see a man emerge–possibly something a little unlike us terrestrial men, but in all essentials a man. I know I did. But, looking, I presently saw something stirring within the shadow: greyish billowy movements, one above another, and then two luminous disks–like eyes. Then something resembling a little grey snake, about the thickness of a walking stick, coiled up out of the writhing middle, and wriggled in the air towards me–and then another.

“The Cylinder Opens”, Chapter 4 of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds

October 30th 1938, and across the airwaves originating from New York City, comes the familiar announcement  to thousands of radios within receiving range: Mercury Theatre on the Air is once more live and broadcasting. But this was to be no ordinary presentation by the company co-founded and led by the rising young genius, Orson Welles.

Orson Welles
Orson Welles

War of the Worlds has gone down in history as one of the most famous radio broadcasts ever made. Transplanting the story of a Martian invasion from 19th century rural England to the east coast of America in the 1930s, the Mercury Theatre on the Air gave a dramatisation that was – by some at least – taken all too literally as it reached out across the airwaves (although it appears much of the upset linked to the show actually occurred in the days after the broadcast, rather than at the time).

The confusion that did occur during the broadcast was most likely the result of Welles’ own clever structuring of the show, which was presented as a series of eye-witness accounts being reported-on “live” from a number of locations in upstate New York and in the city itself, and which saw the first “breaking news” announcement timed to coincide to the period when many listeners would re-tune their radios to CBS after listening to a popular show on a rival station.

On Friday November 1st, and with special permission of the estate of Howard Koch, one of the two co-writers of the original script, the Avatar Repertory Theatre (ART) staged a performance of Welles’ War of Worlds to mark the 75th anniversary of the original broadcast.

The production, which had first been performed in Second Life in 2011 by Seanchai Library and friends, brought several of that production’s cast back to the stage, together with new faces and voices from the ARTs team, all of whom once again filled the original stage set.

War of the Worlds, Avatar Repertory Theatre
War of the Worlds, Avatar Repertory Theatre

The set for the production was simplicity itself; eight members of the cast standing in the windows of what appears to be a broken and shattered building, perhaps a shop-front in one of the towns the Martians passed through en route to New York or which might even be the ruined remnants of one of that city’s towering skyscrapers. The wall behind the actors changed as the production progressed, displaying various backgrounds which helped enhance the story and offer visua cues as the settings for the unfolding tale changed.

Kayden Oconnell as Professor Richard Pierson
Kayden Oconnell as Professor Richard Pierson

Reprising the role of Professor Pierson, Kayden Oconnell stood a little forward of the main set, framed by an empty doorway.

Given Pierson, the pivotal character in the piece, had been played by Welles himself back in 1938 and already regarded as an actor, director and producer of some considerable renown, any adaption of the radio play needs a lead who can fill Welles’ shoes with confidence. Kayden Oconnell is just such an actor. In reprising the role, he brought with him the same gravitas, tone and authority he presented to audiences in 2011.

Alongside of him, the rest of the cast, often performing more than one role, also presented the material with authority and skill, so much so that if you closed your eyes, it was easy to imagine yourself back in a war-jittery America, listening to the most chilling “news” being broadcast on a dark, early winter’s night.

But the production wasn’t all words; great care had been taken to add both aural and visual effects, as with the original broadcast. Thundergas Menges provided the sound effects and music, the latter of which did much to recreated the feel of the original broadcast through the inclusion of pieces Welles had used to  represent the various bands playing during the “regular broadcasts” from CBS which his “news bulletins” would periodically interrupt at the start of the piece.

The visuals with the piece were once again a treat, and added another famous ingredient to the mix. As the Martians started on their attempted conquest of the Earth, a huge fighting machine taken from Jeff Wayne’s more recent but equally famous adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel, reared up over the audience, heat-ray menacing and ready to fire.

"They were inside the hoods of machines they'd made. Massive metal things on legs ... giant machines that walked..."
“They were inside the hoods of machines they’d made. Massive metal things on legs … giant machines that walked…”

I thoroughly enjoyed War of the Worlds when first presented in-world in this format back in 2011, and found myself equally enthralled this time around. In both cases, the cast presented a piece that offered us a window into the past and those chilly October nights when the fear of war was once again on the minds of many people, while at the same time presenting us with an aural and visual treat we could enjoy simply as a re-telling of one of science-fiction’s all-time great stories.

My only regret is really that this was only a single performance; it’s a piece I’d happily sit through again, and would, were it possible, encourage everyone to go see and enjoy.

Bravo to all involved!

The heat-ray strikes!
The heat-ray strikes!

War of the Worlds was staged at the Avatar Repertory Theatre’s New Theatre. It was directed by Caledonia Skytower and featured the voice talents of Corwyn Allen, MadameThespian Underhill, Ada Radius, Avajean Westland, Sodovan Torak, Em Jannings, Thundergass Menges, and Caledonia Skytower, with Kayden Oconnell as Professor Richard Pierson.

War of the Worlds returns to Second Life

Two years ago, Seanchai library and friends set themselves a towering goal: to re-create one of the most famous radio events in history. One which, legend has it, caused panic across the United States as that great nation, like the world at large, suffered its share of pre-war jitters.

Orson Welles’ adaptation of H.G Wells’ allegorical classic, War of the Worlds sits in the annals of history as one of the most remarkable adaptations ever undertaken of a work of fiction – even though it would appear that some of the panic it was said to have caused at the time was perhaps not quite so widespread as later claimed. As such a famous piece, it has down the years frequently been recreated in various forms; not that this popularity has made it any easier a broadcast to recreate in any medium.

WotW 2013Staged in time for Halloween 2011, the Seanchai Library’s adaptation, however, was nothing short of marvellous. So much so that additional performances had to be scheduled.

Now, on Friday November 1st, 2013 at 17:00 SLT, the Avatar Repertory Theatre will be staging a single performance of War of the Worlds at their New Theatre at Cookie. The performance  will see several of the cast from Seanchai Library’s 2011 production return to the microphone, together with a host of new (to the play) voices from ART.

As with the Seanchai Library production, the ART performance will be taking place with the blessings of the estate of Howard Koch who, with writing partner Anne Froelich, wrote the original 1938 script.

Caledonia Skytower, who directed things in 2011, will be producing this very special performance to mark the 75th anniversary of Welles’ original Mercury Theatre production, which went out over the airwaves on October 30th 1938. In it, Welles transferred the events of the novel in both setting  and time from England in the late 19th century to New Jersey and New York in 1939.

Welles during his October 30th 1938 broadcast
Welles during his October 30th 1938 broadcast

Producing the show as well as performing in it, Welles is said to have deliberately structured his adaptation so that the first “news broadcast” from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, would occur some 12 minutes into the show, knowing full well that it was around that time that those listening to NBC Radio’s The Chase and Sandborn Hour would frequently re-tune their radios to listen to his Mercury Theatre on CBS. Thus, they would immediately be caught-up in the drama as if it were real-life events unfolding before them through their radios – a move which perhaps worked a little too well, as subsequent real life events would demonstrate.

The ART production will feature the voice talents of Kayden Oconnell, Corwyn Allen, MadameThespian Underhill, Ada Radius, Avajean Westland, Sodovan Torak, Em Jannings, Thundergass Menges, and will also include dynamic effects. Because of the latter, and in order for lag in general to be reduced as far as possible, members of the audience are asked to refrain from wearing heavily scripted attachments, to remove HUDS and meters, prior to arrival, etc.

The performance is free to attend, although donations are welcome.  I’ll likely see you there!

Join the cast of ART on Friday November 1st at 17:00 SLT to mark the 75th anniversary of Orson Wells' War of the Worlds broadcast
Join the cast of ART on Friday November 1st at 17:00 SLT to mark the 75th anniversary of Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds broadcast

H.G. Wells and Orson Welles met only once in real life, and that was after the infamous 1938 broadcast. However, in 2008, a group of students from the Vancouver Film School presented a short film which brought the two men together in a fictional 1938 radio interview, the events of which just might have given Orson Welles a certain seed of inspiration. I’ll leave you with it in order to further whet your appetite.

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Seanchai Library: The War of the Worlds – a review

War of the Worlds is a novel I’ve always enjoyed for both its allegorical nature and for being a chilling tale first encountered at school. I also very much enjoy Jeff Wayne’s musical version (thanks to both Dad & my own discovery of Wayne’s brilliant Spartacus back in the 1990s). I’m also more that a little familiar with the tale of Welles’ 1938 Mercury Theatre Hour broadcast – but then, who isn’t?

Given all this, attending a special presentation of War of the Worlds in Second Life by the Seanchai Library is something I’ve been looking forward to ever since Bear Silvershade passed me details of the production, together with an invitation to attend.

I did actually try to make the opening night, on Saturday 22nd, but issues with Voice and Media put paid to that for me, with the result that I felt most frustrated. Sunday’s performance proved to be a lot better – although it did prompt a hasty re-install of a Viewer to allow me to hear things clearly. So it was that I settled down into a beanbag in a packed audience at Haunted Fruit Islands to await the unfolding of events at Grover’s Mill.

Bear Silvershade as the ill-fated Carl Phillips, and who invited me to the performances

Yes, Grover’s Mill, New York, not Horsell Common, Surrey. Given this is a Halloween presentation, this is not just any adaptation of War of the Worlds, it is a presentation of the original script use by Welles and his company in 1938. What’s more, it is being staged with the full approval of the estate of the late Howard Koch, who wrote the script for the infamous 1938 broadcast.

So it is that the story is relocated from rural England and bustling London’s at the end of the 19th Century to rural New Jersey and the towering metropolis of New York. Thus, we open with a scene-changing voice-over that condenses Wells’ original prose and aids with the change in setting from the late 1890s to the latter years of the Depression in the United States.

Of course, Second Life is a visual medium – so how do people go about trying to recreate an audio broadcast? Acting the piece is clearly impossible, not with all that goes on; but having a group of actors standing listlessly on stage isn’t the answer either.

Seanchai Library deal with the issue very cleverly, using a simple but effective set. This has the members of the cast standing in the windows of what appears to be the ruins of a building somewhere – perhaps the remnants of a New York high-rise, so hauntingly described as being cut down as if by the hand of a giant in the broadcast. Kaydon O’Connell – who takes over the central role of Professor Richard Pierson from Orson Welles – takes up the centre of the set, standing in the “doorway” of the building.

The stage: simple and effective

It’s an exceptionally good arrangement; the cast are posed without the risk of AOs distracting the audience, helping to focus attention on what is being said. It also allows those in the cast who have several roles within the piece (i.e. everyone but Kaydon O’Connell as the lead), free to adapt to their various roles quickly and smoothly.

Kaydon O’Connell

As Professor Richard Pierson, Kaydon O’Connell has a considerable pair of shoes to fill. While only 22 when he produced War of the Worlds, Orson Welles was already a director and producer of renown. In 1934 he had directed what became known as Voodoo Macbeth in rapturous reviews that lead to it touring the United States. By the time he co-founded the Mercury Theatre Company, he’d built a considerable reputation as an actor in a number of CBS productions, perhaps the most notable of which was Hamlet, in which he took the lead role as well as serving as Director.

In War of the Worlds, Welles’ authoritative tones do much to establish the character and credibility of both the play and of Professor Pierson, and his closing monologue is particularly chilling. Taking on the role, Kaydon O’Connell brings the same authority and, as we reach the end of the tale, achieves the same mix of confusion, despair and bewilderment Welles evidenced in his portrayal. In this he is an ideal choice for the role; his tone is natural, the emotions behind his words clear – and he carries the core of the play superbly.

The young Orson Welles, circa 1937/8

Alongside the main stage set, there were some additional visual effects planned for the production. Unfortunately, this being a Sunday night, the players had to deal with something Wells nor Welles could never have conceived: an attack of SL Weekend Gremlins. These put a stop to some of the effects, and caused a short pause in the proceedings – although they failed to dampen the audience’s enthusiasm!

The visuals we did see were a treat – as I said at the start of this review, I’ve always enjoyed Jeff Wayne’s musical interpretation of War of the Worlds, and so was delighted when, in a very nice nod to that work, a familiar Martian Fighting Machine appeared above the audience, heat ray extended, and which then spewed forth a black, cloying “smoke” in time to the unfolding events of the play.

“The chances of anything coming from Mars, are a million-to-one, he said”

Some of the readings are at times a little rushed or stilted – hardly surprising, given the cast here don’t have the luxury of being in the same studio with one another and so lack the benefit of having visual or directorial cues to follow. But that said, the cast as a whole handle the material exceptionally well.

Indeed, it’s fair to say it is a brave group that takes on a piece as infamous as Welles’ War of the Worlds, but the Seanchai Library and friends do so with verve, gusto and success. Given we all know the book and the story of the original radio broadcast, attempting to recreate the atmosphere the audience of 73 years ago must have felt is nigh-on impossible. However, the cast are to be congratulated in the way that, despite our foreknowledge, they nevertheless provide us with a window into the past through which we can gain a sense of what it must have been like on that dark night of October 30th 1938, as people huddled around their one link to the world at large only to hear what seemed to be news of a fearsome invasion unfolding as they listened.

Of course, Welles’ intention was never to panic anyone – and today there is still much debate as to whether the original show actually caused the degree of panic claimed to be the case during the broadcast, or whether it was in fact the press reports in the days after the broadcast that created the major frenzy. Welles’ intention was simply to entertain people on a chilly Halloween evening – a point he later discussed with H.G. Wells himself in a 1940 radio broadcast.

So, if you do enjoy a good tale for Halloween, you might like to pop along for the final presentation of The War of the Worlds, which takes place at 19:00 SLT this Wednesday, the 26th October, at Seanchai Library. All things being equal, I’ll see you there, as I hope to be back as well to soak up even more!

In the meantime, courtesy of the Vancouver Film School, and to whet your appetite, here’s a short film of how Welles might have been inspired to adapt Wells’ novel, had the two men met before the events of October 30th, 1938.

Production

WotW Director Caledonia Skytower

Cast:

  • BigRed Coyote – Harry McDonald / Gunner
  • Marian Dragovar – “Announcer Three” / Mrs. Wilmuth / Observer / Operator 4
  • Derry McMahon – “Announcer” / “Operator 1”
  • Shandon Loring – General Montgomery Smith / The Artilleryman
  • Kaydon O’Connell – Prof Richard Pierson
  • Elder Priestman – Captain Lansing / Officer
  • Bear Silvershade – interviewer Carl Phillips / Lieutenant Voght
  • Caledonia Skytower “Announcer Two” / Secretary of the Interior / “Operator 2” / “Operator 3”

Script

  • Koward Koch (original adaptation of the novel)
  • Anne Froelich

Production

  • Caledonia Skytower – Director
  • Shandon Loring – SFx

All proceeds from performances of War of the Worlds will be donated to the Susan G. Komen Foundation as a part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Seanchai Library brings War of the Worlds to SL

“We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s, and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
“With infinite complacency people went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small, spinning fragment of solar driftwood which, by chance or design, man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space.
“Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
“In the thirty-ninth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30th, the Crosley service estimated that thirty-two million people were listening in on radios.”

So opens one of the most famous radio broadcasts of the last century, Orson Welles’ famous interpretation of H.G. Wells’ allegorical classic War of the Worlds.

Welles during his October 30th 1938 broadcast

Set in 1939, but actually broadcast on October 30th 1938, the adaptation was part of Welles’ own weekly (and largely dramatic) Mercury Theatre on Air presentations for CBS Radio.

So real did the show seem, that many who tuned-in after it had commenced broadcasting – so missing the opening announcements – took it for genuine reports of an unimaginable invasion, rather than the usual fictional offering from Welles.

It has been claimed that Welles structured his adaptation specifically so that the first “news broadcast” from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, would occur some 12 minutes into the broadcast, knowing full well that it was around that time that those listening to NBC Radio’s The Chase and Sandborn Hour would frequently re-tune their radios to listen to The Mercury Theatre on CBS, and this added to the confusion the show created among listeners.

While history suggests that the show may not have caused quite the panic that newspapers at the time suggested (at least during the actual broadcast), that it did have an impact both while on-air and in the days that followed cannot be denied. Certainly, it became something that was – a notable event in history, one that is still known to many the world over even now, some 73 years after the original broadcast.

The New York Times reporting on Welles’ broadcast the following day

And it is this history that is about to come to life in Second Life this month.

To mark Halloween this year, the Seanchai Library will give three performances of War of the Worlds in Second Life. What is more, thanks to the gracious permission of the family of playwright Howard Koch, the performances will be and adaptation of the 1938 screenplay Koch and writing partner Anne Froelich produced for Welles’ broadcast.

The production is being directed by Seanchai’s own Caledonia Skytower, and will feature the voice talents of Shandon Loring, Bear Silvershade and Kayden O’Connell, Crap Mariner, Elder Priestman, BigRed Coyote and Caledonia Skytower herself among the cast.

Commenting on the production, Caledonia said, “I remember hearing the L.A. Theatreworks production of this script in the 1990s and imagining what it must have been like to have been listening that October evening in 1938. Orson Welles and company presented it in keeping with the spirit of the Halloween season.”

“War of the Worlds scared the pants off people back in the ’30s, using the power of voice to persuade folks this was real,” Derry McMahon, Seanchai’s chief librarian, added enthusiastically, “We plan to generate that same feeling with our production.”

This is definitely not something to be missed. War of the Worlds – be it the novel, the radio broadcasts (and its many later adaptations) or Jeff Wayne’s glorious musical version (also recently revived on stage) – is a fabulous tale with an allegorical heart that may still hold as true today as it did in Wells’ own time. The Seanchai production promises to continue the tradition set by its predecessors and, in the process, help to raise money for charity. Given this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is fitting that the nominated charity is the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Seanchai Library presents War of the Worlds