Today I closed my most recent production War of the Worlds at Curtis Theater. To be honest, this show was way out of my comfort zone and I can't totally say that I really embraced the unknown of it. And it was a real challenge figuring out how to stage a story that was written for a different medium.
The script we used was the actual Orson Welles transcript of the 1938 radio broadcast. Welles wanted to do a adaptation of the HG Wells novel but insisted that Howard Koch's script include elements that would make it feel as urgent and real as possible. Which is why there are numerous "news bulletins" and "field reports" (though the whole show was transmitted from the small studio) with all of the Mercury Theater players playing the roles of witnesses and various military personal.
This was my first production at the Curtis Theater and when the manager approached me about this show, I hesitated. The Curtis had done a production of this show about 5 years ago with a director I respect, and with some success - they felt enough time passed to bring it back.
When Kris, theater manager, and I chatted he expressed that he would have loved to create a bit of panic the way the original broadcast did. But how would we be able to mimic the same type of scare with an 80 year old piece of entertainment notorious for being a prank?
I spoke with my set designer Leah Ramilano (who is a fantastic designer and I am thrilled I got to work with her) and we decided to create a prank of our own. Not necessarily an attempt to create panic but just to plant a seed in the mind of the audience about wondering if they should get up out of their seat. It was hard to gauge if we were successful but a number of people told me they were sufficiently spooked for a minute.
In retrospect, I'm glad I stuck with my gut and rejected needing the show to be realistic. The scene in the 2nd act with the Stranger and Professor Pierson I pulled away from the microphones, breaking the convention of the radio show. We moved into a highly theatrical moment and it transcended the story we started. We also pushed the overall acting to incorporate as much scene work into the dialogue as we could. Not necessarily the accurate representation of a radio play that we started with in first few scenes of the production.
I think if I were to direct this show with this concept again I would work at fleshing out some of the world of the Mercury Theater a bit more. I enjoyed the relationships the actors establish in their alter egos but I felt like I missed some opportunities to build in some levity and moments of comedy as part of the backstage culture of the radio station.
I think one of the reasons I felt that this show was outside my comfort zone was that it's science fiction, a genre I'm not particularly familiar with. And honestly, there isn't a lot of sci-fi theater out there. in some ways that felt like an exciting challenge but also ... it did make me wonder if I was the right person for this project. I did a ton of research on both the novel and the radio play. HG Wells states early in the novel that this was his meditation on the British Empire's treatment on native peoples and wondered about their own society surviving a similar attack.
Ultimately I was really taken with the story and I have to say that even if it was a struggle to steer this project (I had lots of unknowns, with only myself to blame), i can acknowledge that we created something completely unique and original. And I feel fortunate to have been able to take the risk.
My program Director's Note:
Hello. Thank you for attending the Curtis Theatre's production of War of the Worlds!
When Curtis Theatre Manager, Kris Kataoka, initially approached me to direct this script, our conversation revolved around the various interpretations of this story and how it has morphed and evolved in various ways. Novel, radio play, films, live stage plays, comics and graphic novels. How could we produce something original to this story? It was a large task.
It's been such an honor and a challenge to take on and delve into, not one, but two of our culture's great storytellers: Orson Welles interpreting H.G. Wells. It asks questions that both men, (Wells and Welles!) in their distinctly different time periods, felt were relevant. Wells, as he took a critical eye to the imperialism of the British Empire, and Welles tapping into the sense of unease with the looming war to come. Both asking what makes a society vulnerable and what defensives would they rely on in the face of an unexpected, unknown adversary?
Our production focuses on what we imagined a bit of the actor's experienced at the Mercury Theater that night in 1938. Dramatic, ridiculous, a little scary, full of enthusiasm and driven by a passion to craft a unique and compelling story. We hope to do it justice.
Thank you for supporting live theater and enjoy the show.