Franklin News - Feature Story

Feature Story

Update of Orson Welles' classic War of the Worlds to be performed as live radio production by University of Georgia theatre students

Friday, September 28, 2007

Philip Lee Williams

706-542-8501

Athens, Ga.  – Mars attacks!

Its minions will be coming to Athens on Oct. 13, and a crew from a fictional public radio station will be on hand to bring you the grisly march of aliens across the landscape.The new invasion is a radio play, which will be staged at the Classic Center in Athens before a live audience, bringing back the days of radio drama, complete with sound effects and acting from a troupe of University of Georgia theatre students.

This time around it’s not Martians per se, though Orson Welles, who terrified America with his classic radio drama The War of the Worlds in 1938, would recognize the story. Instead, the invaders in this new adaptation of the story are simply from “out there,” and they’re not coming to New Jersey where Welles had them land, but to Athens, Atlanta and the world at large.

“Seeing the show live, you have the advantage of either listening with your eyes closed, imagining the alien creatures devouring the earth as you know it or watching the controlled chaos on stage that serves to create this imaginary world,” says John Kundert-Gibbs, an associate professor in the department of theatre and film studies at UGA who wrote the adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel and will direct the production for the University Theatre.

The War of the Worlds, which also will be aired live on WUGA-FM, will be performed one night only at the Classic Center on Saturday, Oct. 13, with audience seated by 7:30 p.m. No late seating will be available. Admission is $10 for orchestra, $7 for parterre and $5 for balcony seating. Tickets are available at the Classic Center box office Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., by phone by calling 706/357-4444 or 800/864-4160, or on the web through the Classic Center at www.classiccenter.com/box-office.php

Orson Welles’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds, which aired on radio on the night of Oct. 30, 1938, set off panic across the nation. Though the broadcast began with an announcement that it was fictional, many people tuned in late, and the stunning recreation of “Martians” landing and wreaking havoc on New Jersey and then elsewhere scared Americans witless.

 “We though at first about just updating the original Welles production, but the more we considered that, the less realistic that seemed,” says Kundert-Gibbs, whose areas of expertise include 3D computer modeling and animation, sound design and modern drama.

Instead, Kundert-Gibbs completely re-imagined the story using the original book and the script for Welles’ Mercury Theatre production from 1938. The result is a present-day story that takes place around the Athens area and deals with a subtext that isn’t funny at all (terrorism), just as the encroaching threat of World War II wasn’t funny in 1938. Here’s how Kundert-Gibbs’ script starts, with a radio reporter’s tense on-the-scene commentary:

“We have a report from Winder that a large meteor has fallen near Fort Yargo State Park. Police are asking residents to stay away from the impact area until properly trained personnel can ascertain the safety of the meteor and the surrounding area. Police report possible property damage; there is no word yet on casualties. Residents who have phoned in say there are several small fires in the area as a result of the meteorite landing. Fire crews have been dispatched to the scene. We have a reporter on his way to the site, and we will have further updates as more information is made available.”

Actors for the show include graduate students Amy Roeder and Brandon Wentz, along with undergrads Kim Fasone, Bradley Golub, Anna Wilensky, Katelyn Foley, George Akers and Martin Smith. Sound design is by Brian Arnold.

The special, one-night-only performance will also mark the University Theatre’s first collaboration with Athens public radio station WUGA, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.  Steve Bell, station manager at WUGA, said the staff was delighted to be involved.

“This project gives us a chance to do something very exciting in radio,” he said. “This is a show that challenges the mind. Doing a live show like this, before a live audience, is as good as radio gets. The thrill of doing a major production such as The War of the Worlds is one of the greatest technical challenges in radio production. Doing this with students makes the program doubly special.”

Amy Roeder, an MFA performance student who will be providing the voice of three characters in the show, agrees.

 “I'm excited to have the opportunity to work simultaneously in the realm of both theater and radio,” she says. “It's also incredibly exciting to be part of the process of bringing an original script to production. Not a lot of actors get the chance to work on an original script, so I think we're terribly lucky.”

One UGA grad who heard the original Welles broadcast in 1938 is looking forward to the new version.

“In 1938, we were a pretty innocent world, and people believed a lot of what they heard on the radio,” says Marshall Williams (B.S. ’48, M.Ed. ’55). “I heard it from the very first, so I knew it wasn’t real, but I’ll have to say it was quite realistic for its time and so different that it’s not hard to understand why it caused such a panic. I went to bed after listening to it and didn’t even know about all the chaos until the next day.”

The broadcast rattled Athens, too.

“Many homes in quiet Athens were thrown into a greatly upset state as radios picked up the CBS program,” said the Banner-Herald in a front-page story. “Telephones in the homes of Banner-Herald employees rang consistently, listeners wanting to know what was happening and whether it was true that New York was being evacuated [and if] 7,000 people [had been] killed.” The reaction in Atlanta was even stronger. The story made the front page of the Atlanta Constitution, too.

“Atlantans by the thousands were caught last night in a swirl of emotions arising from the ‘too realistic’ radio dramatization . . . Consternation, stark fear, indignation, the gamut of emotions were reflected in the barrage of telephone calls that blocked the switchboards of the Constitution, the Associated Press, and every radio station in Atlanta. Many persons called the police.”

One woman, in what was then called Atlanta’s “West End,” on hearing the broadcast, ran on to her lawn and rallied her neighbors into a prayer group. In Macon, a young man listening to the broadcast reportedly “tore loose surgical stitches when he jumped from the bed.”

Newspapers in Macon, Savannah and Augusta were flooded with calls.

On the more placid campus of the University of Georgia, then a relatively tiny school, students were interested in other things. The student newspaper, The Red & Black, only came out on Friday, so the broadcast, which happened on Sunday night, was old news by the next weekend.

This was the news on campus, as reported in “Petticoat Parade” by one “Weetie Tift”:

“Mr. Hugh Hodgson proved his amazing appeal to the opposite sex in his new experiment of a Freshman Girls’ Glee Club when fifty-five tried out for membership. This should prove enjoyable for both Mr. Hugh and the girlies, but we do sympathize with this poor man having to hear fifty women crooning ‘Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.’”

While the broadcast of The War of the Worlds is remembered, so is Hugh Hodgson: he founded UGA’s school of music, which is now named for him.

Part of the joy of the new production of The War of the Worlds for the live audience at the Classic Center will be just watching the story unfold.

“You can see the actors racing from mic to mic, changing characters as they do,” says Kundert-Gibbs. “Or you can watch the sound effects people hitting fans or spinning kitchen appliances to create eerie effects or explosions as the creatures take down tanks and helicopters right before your ears.”

Kundert-Gibbs notes: “As Orson Welles put it at the end of his broadcast, this is an early Halloween boo, a scary tale on a cool autumn evening to give you shivers, gasps and even a few laughs. There’s nothing like a good fright to make the world seem just that much more precious and lovely on the drive home.”

To listen on-line on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m., go to http://www.wuga.org/listen_online.html.

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(Note: Vanessa Ford, publicity coordinator for the University Theatre, contributed to this story.)

For more information contact John Kundert-Gibbs, 706-542-2836, jkundert@uga.edu; Vanessa Ford, 706-542-2836, publicity@drama.uga.edu.

  

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Philip Lee Williams

706-542-8501