Big Dawg Productions and Panache Theatrical Productions have teamed up to recreate a piece of radio broadcasting history.
On October 30, 1938, radio listeners around the U.S. tuned in to the popular drama anthology series “The Mercury Theatre on Air,” only for the program to be interrupted by reports that martians had invaded New Jersey. The broadcast was not a real news bulletin, but rather Orson Welles’ adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic science-fiction novel “The War of the Worlds.”
Locally, theatre production companies Big Dawg and Panache have faithfully recreated the radio play, using Welles’ original script. It will be available via SoundCloud beginning Thursday, May 21, for a suggested donation of $5 to either company.
Big Dawg artistic director Steve Vernon sees parallels between our current COVID-19 crisis and 1938, when listeners tuning in late to Welles’ drama mistook it for an actual crisis (the New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact” the next day). The controversy was such that Welles, then just 23, had to give a press conference to apologize.
“That was really the first time in modern history where people felt like the media had betrayed them,” Vernon says. He also identifies similarities between the narrative’s structure and the way in which people have processed news of the novel coronavirus.
“It has the feel of something that’s easily dismissed as not being an emergency that becomes a full-blown catastrophe in a short course of time.”
The hour-long, audiobook-style performance is directed by Vernon and features nine actors: Bob Workmon, J Robert Raines, Rebekah Carmichael, Jordan Wolfe, Hannibal Hills, Jamey Stone, Holli Saperstein, Scott Davis and Vernon himself.
Vernon began reaching out to local actors at the beginning of April and spent the next month in Zoom rehearsals and one-on-one recording sessions. Because of the health risks associated with COVID-19, actors were forced to record their parts individually from home, which they then sent to Vernon to compile into a finished product. “It was odd directing eight individuals, but never all at once,” Vernon says. “There was no group directing. That’s certainly unusual.”
Vernon considered recording the show live over Zoom, but the platform’s poor audio quality made it impossible. Vernon’s especially grateful to Scott Davis, who worked on a stage production of “War of the Worlds” at Thalian Hall in 2007. (Vernon resurrected the show as part of Big Dawg’s Halloween programming in 2014.) Davis handled the lion’s share of post-production duties, including creating special effects and adding filters to make the recording sound as though it was being broadcast through a radio.
Vernon is also grateful to Panache, especially artistic director Anthony Lawson and managing director Holli Saperstein, the latter of whom he worked with in producing Big Dawg’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth” at Cape Fear Playhouse in 2016. The company provided marketing support and helped oversee the program’s artistic development. Both Vernon and Panache’s leadership felt it was important to show a unified front during this trying time.
The audio drama has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, thanks to the rise of scripted podcasts such as “Homecoming” and “Wolverine: The Long Night.” For those unfamiliar with the form, however, Vernon’s gambit may feel downright revolutionary.
“Even when I told friends about it, I don’t think they realized quite what I meant when I said we were producing audio theatre,” Vernon says. “It was a pretty intensive process. We want people, when they experience it, to feel like it’s a different kind of entertainment than what they’ve been getting in the past.”
Listeners can make a donation by visiting bigdawgproductions.org or panachetheatre.com and clicking the “donate” button. They must then enter the code “WOW” and provide an email address in order to receive a SoundCloud link to the program. All donations will be split equally between the companies, which have been hit hard by COVID-19.
Big Dawg and Panache have been forced to cancel or postpone their entire 2020 seasons due to social-distancing mandates. Making matters worse, both companies have been burned by so-called “fair-trade ticketing company” Brown Paper Tickets. In March, the Seattle-based ticket broker revealed it would stop honoring outstanding checks for events that have already taken place. While the Washington State Attorney General’s Office investigates, many companies—including Panache, who are owed “thousands of dollars,” according to Saperstein—are left in the cold.
Vernon hopes by offering “War of the Worlds” on a pay-what-you-can basis, audiences will continue to feel invested and connected to local theatre. “A lot of people are looking at unemployment and not being able to go to work and things like that. I know we’re not unique in that respect,” he says. “We’re pretty much at the mercy of whatever things that we can create that people might be willing to spend money on right now.”