There is an old joke in public broadcasting: when is the best time to broadcast a soap opera?
Now we can add another year to that: 2020, as WGLT and WCBU will simultaneously be releasing a recreation of a famous (dare we say infamous?) Halloween airs from 1938. It’s “War of the Worlds”, and airs at 8 pm Oct. 30 on both public radio stations.
The new production gives Heartland Theater Company a chance to find her voice in the midst of the pandemic.
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles Mercure Theater on the air presented a production of HG Wells’ sci-fi classic, “War of the Worlds.” But it wasn’t just your standard radio drama. Welles and his team had the good idea to stage their dramatization like a typical live music radio show that is increasingly interrupted by live reports from the field that ultimately reveal that Earth is being invaded by Mars.
Some people joined in the tense drama, believing Something was happening in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. There is still controversy over the panic that actually ensued among radio listeners, but the show had such an impact that it continues to fascinate us today.
It’s not panic, but excitement that Heartland Theater hopes to inspire with its new recreation of the classic radio production, said Rhys Lovell, Artistic Director of Heartland Theater Company. And that excitement started with the actors, who jumped at the chance to participate.
“We had the microphones 12 feet apart. And we had yours with Clorox wipes, wiping the mics off after each actor approached the microphone.”
“I was overwhelmed with the turnout at auditions,” said Lovell, who is duplicating as the director of the drama. “I had almost 50 people who sent me audition tapes. To put that in perspective, for a typical show, we might have between 15 and 20 people auditioning. ”
The allure of doing a radio drama as opposed to a standard play was certainly a draw, Lovell said. But most of all, he explained that the actors are just hungry right now – hungry to come out and perform again.
“This is what nourishes our souls, this act of creation. So, we thought outside the box. It made sense to me that radio was the way to go, ”he said.
“One of the biggest questions we faced in the beginning was how much do we want to be faithful to 1938 in terms of the fidelity of the recording?”
Due to the interest, the roles in “War of the Worlds” have been doubly interpreted with liners as a kind of inoculation against possible Covid-19 infections.
“I had such a huge audition attendance that I was able to perform the show twice with solid gold actors in both actors, the main cast and the backing cast,” Lovell said.
To maintain social distancing, rehearsals were held on Zoom. It was a little difficult at first, Lovell admitted, but the actors quickly adapted to the technology and they were quickly ready to record. And again, safety procedures were strictly followed.
The first and only time the cast met in person was for the massive recording session held in the Great Community Hall at the Heartland Theater.
“We had the microphones 12 feet apart. And we had yours with the Clorox Wipes, wiping off the mics after each actor has approached the mike. We all stayed socially distant and it all went like clockwork, ”Lovell revealed.
Acting is only part of the equation in radio drama. Lovell also expressed his gratitude to his sound and recording engineer, Aaron Paolucci, who used 21st century technology to help record sound as if it had time traveled since 1938.
“When listeners tune in on October 30, they will be blown away by what he has done in terms of mixing sound effects that sound like they’re state of the art,” Lovell enthused. “One of the biggest questions we faced in the beginning was how true to 1938 do we want to be in terms of record fidelity. Did we want the end product to have all these crunches, hisses, pops and stuff like that? ”
Yes they have.
“I have worked with Aaron Paolucci so many times and I trust him implicitly. I leave it to him. I said if you used all these great new effects that weren’t available back then, if you could use them, but still run them through some sort of filter to make it sound like a radio old-fashioned, that’s what I’m going for. And that’s what he delivered.
The Mid-Atlantic accent that was so prevalent on radio and film in the early part of the 20th century also plays a big part in “The War of the Worlds”. It’s a cultivated accent that mixes American and English accents, with softer British vowels and painfully cut ‘T’s.
(Think Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby.” Better yet, watch Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby.” It’s awesome.)
“Fortunately, Connie de Veer was chosen as one of the main presenters,” said Lovell. “Connie is a voice teacher at Illinois State University, so she was able to work with me and some of the other actors to find that Mid-Atlantic accent.”
Lovell hopes audiences will find the Heartland Theater Company’s production of “War of the Worlds” a great distraction in a year that demands only moments of distraction.
“I hope they have fun, and I hope that for an hour their minds will be taken away from what is going on in our world,” he said. There are too many horrible things that happened in the last year, and I want it to be a fun and entertaining diversion.
“And I hope people are finally encouraged to know that Heartland Theater is still here and sending you good things.”
Lovell added that Heartland Theater hopes to reopen in the New Year, starting with a production of Molière’s comedy, “Tartuffe,” in February.
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