Breaking news: Reports are coming in about the possibility of an alien invasion in the Miami Valley on Halloween night. Thankfully, there’s nothing to fear.
The threat is not real but rather a promotion for a new radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds.” The joint production between Wright State University’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures and WYSO-FM (91.3) will be presented live over the air at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31.
The local update was conceived by Joe Deer, the chair and artistic director of WSU’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures. Soon after the pandemic hit, he pitched the idea to his friend Luke Dennis, the general manager and president of Miami Valley Public Media, which operates WYSO.
“Luke and I have known each other for a very long time,” Deer said. “We get together every now and then and say, ‘Gosh, what could we do together?’ This idea of a radio drama seemed like such an obvious thing. We’ve been sort of dancing around it for a number of years but the timing never worked out. Well, everything is tossed up in the air this year so necessity is the mother of invention on our side.”
A radio play created under safety protocols for the COVID age was the perfect solution for students unable to perform in packed theaters. However, it wasn’t the type of production the current WSU faculty had ever attempted. For Deer, the public radio station in Yellow Springs was the perfect partner for the program’s first venture into radio drama.
“YSO is so great about being responsive to community needs and also looking for interesting and innovative programming,” Deer said. “It was sort of perfect, so I reached out to Luke right as the pandemic began. I said, ‘Hey, I think this might be the right time to do it.’ This would’ve been back in March or April and we’ve been strategizing since then.”
Deer contacted his old friend at an opportune time.
“We were looking for a creative project we could do safely during the era of COVID,” Dennis said. “When Joe reached out again, we really made it happen. He’s been great to work with.”
The science fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds,” was written by British author H.G. Wells in the late 1890s. The story about an alien invasion of England was first serialized in “Pearson’s Magazine” in the United Kingdom and “Cosmopolitan” in the United States in 1897. It was published as a standalone novel the following year by William Heinemann.
Orson Welles famously adapted the novel as a radio drama, which he directed on CBS Radio’s “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” in 1938. It was presented in the style of a radio news report and, according to legend, caused a massive panic among listeners who mistakenly thought extraterrestrials were actually attacking the U.S.
“This is probably the most famous radio drama ever put on,” Deer said. “Of course, it was a great splash for Orson Welles when he was a young man. That script is still available. From my point of view, it is one of the funnest stories out there with a science fiction and Halloween theme.”
Deer adapted the original radio script with input from Dennis.
“We decided to set it in the Miami Valley and update it to this time,” Deer said. "Thank goodness, the people who license the script said, ‘Sure, do all of that.’ We messed around with it in a few different ways but it’s still basically the script a guy called Howard Koch wrote back then. It’s pretty durable. When you read it, it’s still really fun.
“After I did my little updates, I ran it by Luke,” Deer continued. “He knows the geography out there in the Yellow Springs area better than I do so he looked at it and he made a couple of suggestions. It was primarily me but it becomes a situation of, ‘Ooh, wouldn’t it be neat if …?’ Pretty quickly you become 12-year-old kids making a movie with your parents' video camera.”
Dennis downplayed his input.
“I did collaborate with Joe early on to adapt the script but it’s really a light updating,” he said. “The Mercury Theater language from the 1938 original is so rich it really works as a radio drama so we didn’t make substantive changes.”
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
The cast features 12 students and in the age of COVID, a small crew from WSU and WYSO. Deer is producing the show and it is directed by Marya Spring Cortes, an associate professor at Wright State and the head of the acting program. Music director Wade Russo has created an original score inspired by composer Bernard Hermann’s original.
“We are going live from the YSO studios at 8 o’clock that Saturday night,” Deer said. "The program begins and whatever happens is going to go out over the air live. Hell or high water, we’re doing it live. There is a degree of excitement like they used to talk about with live TV.
“My students are used to doing live performances,” he continued. “That’s what they do but that is limited to 3- or 400 people at a time. This is many, many thousands of people listening in and that ups the stakes a lot. It’s a little scary but it’s a lot exciting.”
Dennis stresses this is appointment radio because WYSO won’t be rebroadcasting the production or posting it later as digital content.
“This is not something you can listen to on-demand if you miss it,” he said. “The way the licensing works is we pay the licensing fee and it’s a one-time broadcast. It’s like the old days, you really do have to gather around the radio at 8 o’clock on Saturday night if you want to catch it. It’s totally live. It’s like walking that tightrope in front of everybody, which is very exciting.”
Deer echoed that sentiment
“Any of us who go into theater or into this kind of storytelling, if you’re lucky you never lose the love of the magic of it,” Deer said. "When you put on a great story in a dark room and you light up part of it and you put people out there and create these wonderful imaginary worlds, you’re six years old again. You’re just a kid in love with that kind of storytelling.
“This is just another part of that,” Deer added. “For me, it’s really gratifying to get to try new things and to see my students get to stretch muscles they didn’t know they had or that they rarely use.”
More info: www.wyso.org.
Contact contributing arts and music writer Don Thrasher at firstname.lastname@example.org.