Playhouse presents virtual “War of the Worlds”
— Created October 22, 2020 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
The Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor is going back in time to present a modern Halloween treat.
The community theater will present “The War of the Worlds: The 1938 Radio Script” as a multi-camera, virtual presentation at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 30 and 31.
Based on the H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name and adapted for radio by Howard E. Koch, the 1938 Halloween broadcast sparked panic in many places around the country, when listeners who may have missed the opening disclaimer of the Mercury Theatre’s production thought extraterrestrials had invaded Earth.
Whidbey Playhouse has brought the 1938 script back to life in a version updated to fit within the confines and challenges of COVID-19 restrictions.
“This year has definitely been a challenge, and everyone in the arts is especially worried about how long it will be before we can once again have safe live performances,” said Sue Riney, production oversight chair for the Whidbey Playhouse and the show’s director. “As a result, like so many businesses, we’ve had to figure out how to adapt and ‘pivot’ – to be able to do what we can within the current restrictions. We’ve had to work through the technology required to take a show online, as well as the digital rights contracts involved with the publishers. It’s been quite a learning experience!”
In 1938, a television was not something found in everyone’s homes. Radio was the go-to for in-home, mass entertainment. In 2020, one would be hard pressed not to find at least one television or some other digital device that affords folks the opportunity to communicate and watch entertainment. During this pandemic, Zoom has become the way to “do” business meetings and now, how community theaters rehearse safely.
“We’ve been having some online get-togethers via Zoom with Playhouse volunteers over the past months, but…I pulled together a group to brainstorm on ideas for online performances, and this production of “The War of the Worlds” came out of those discussions,” Riney explained. “It was great to actually see each other in person when we filmed this show. I know our performers are anxious to get back on stage, and our audiences are looking for additional entertainment options. So we’re thrilled we were able to pull this production together for them!”
Riney said after some minimal Zoom rehearsals, the cast of 11 was brought “together.” Separate cameras and microphones recorded each performer, with cast members positioned in individual recording cubicles and socially distanced around the edges of the Playhouse stage.
Because the script is written for radio, time normally spent on set design and construction for a stage performance was used to focus on camera and sound work. Actors were not required to memorize their lines, and because they remain stationary throughout the production, there was no blocking to remember, drastically cutting down the rehearsal time needed.
“We had two Zoom reading rehearsals to familiarize everyone with the script,” said Riney. “We then recorded it over two nights, with Kevin Meyer assisting with directing some of the line delivery and characterization of the performers. There were other challenges involved in working with the royalty holders on all that was required to obtain the digital performance rights. And we are required to use their platform for streaming the show as well as selling the tickets, so that involved some new learning as well.”
Because of current COVID restrictions, only 10 people are allowed in the Playhouse theater at one time. Riney said it means future shows will have to have small casts and Zoom rehearsals will be a given.
“For this show, we had to record our first few scenes, and then let some of that cast leave so that additional cast could enter the building to record their scenes,” she said. “The cast was required to wear a mask at all times when they weren’t on stage recording and all others in the production team always had their masks on. All entering the Playhouse complete COVID screening and have their temperature taken.
“These safety protocols didn’t make the creation of this particular show difficult, but it does make it more challenging to identify those shows that are available by the royalty holders for online presentations, would be a ‘draw’ for viewers and which have a cast size we can accommodate within the restrictions,” Riney continued.
Post-production editing and effects will further enhance the cast’s performances.
“There will be amazing sound and video effects incorporated from start to finish, that’s what’s going to make this presentation exciting, and we are extremely lucky to have Chris Douthitt handling the editing and addition of these elements,” Riney said. “Chris is a retired Oak Harbor High School filmmaking and broadcast teacher, as well as a former recording studio sound designer.”
The finished product, according to Riney, is a first-class production audiences will thoroughly enjoy watching – from the safety of their own homes.
“I think we all will be amazed at the production quality that is brought to this presentation as a result of the sound and visual editing Chris [Douthitt] is adding,” she said. “And it will be a fun look back at a story that allegedly caused panic across the United States on Halloween 1938.”
One plus to doing a virtual production – there’s not limit to how many people can “attend.”
“There is no ‘seating capacity,'” Riney said. “It’s available to everyone, anywhere in the world, to watch and enjoy. The show times are set for 7:30 p.m. Pacific time on Oct. 30 and 31, but if you purchase a ticket to either of those viewings you can go online and watch the performance up to 48 hours later. That allows us to include all time zones everywhere to access this Halloween event.”
Tickets are $10 and are available online at whidbeyplayhouse.com.
“I’m thrilled we at the Playhouse are once again able to bring entertainment to Oak Harbor,” Riney said. “This coming February we will mark 55 years of creating live theater in Oak Harbor, and we hope this community will help ensure we are here for many years to come by supporting this show.”