The alien invasion is upon us.
Thespians at the International School of Minnesota (ISM) are aiming to transport and terrify audiences with their dramatic interpretation of Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast “The War of the Worlds” and how it frightened the listening public.
Shows will be at 6 p.m. in the Eden Prairie school’s auditorium on Thursday, Nov. 3, and Friday, Nov. 4. Tickets are $5 cash at the door.
Welles’ broadcast was adapted from H.G. Wells’ 1898 science fiction novel of the same name, about a Martian invasion of Earth. The broadcast became famous for reports that it sowed widespread panic among radio audience members who thought it was real breaking news.
Nine ISM cast members and six crew, ranging from eighth to eleventh graders, have been working hard on the production for the past two months.
James Lekatz, ISM’s director of performing arts, said, “It’s really wonderful how these students have come together. The show is pretty complicated. Plus, it’s a radio show, which is really removed from middle schoolers and high schoolers — and even for me, and I grew up in the 1990s.”
He added, “It’s a cool challenge to take this on. It’s quite exciting to see what they’ve come up with.”
The play is performed with a “split screen” effect. Crew member and eighth grader Quinn Mark described the setup, explaining that in the back left is the living room, where the family increasingly panics at the supposed destructive alien invasion.
Mark added, “To the back right is the radio show studio, and in the front right is the ‘imagination space’ where you see what the family is thinking based on what they are hearing on the radio, like the aliens coming.”
Eighth grader Emma Tan, an actor and singer, is performing as a member of the radio broadcast. She will be playing Carl Phillips, who publicly breaks the news of the invasion.
Proving that sometimes the scariest things are what we imagine in our own minds, Mark said, “There won’t be actual monsters — Emma’s going to be narrating it all for people so they can create an image in their heads.”
In addition to the dramatic acting, the show’s set, lighting, and sound effects will help create a suspenseful and, at times, sinister atmosphere.
Junior Langdon Lai, the production’s stage manager, said, “I have an amazing backstage crew of six people. They roll out set pieces, control props, do the fog machine, and more.”
Mark said, “I think the sound and light aspect of it is really interesting, and it’s also kind of fun controlling the chaos backstage.”
Lai said he thinks the audience will enjoy the emotion the actors have put into the production. “I think people will be really excited to see that,” he said. He thinks audiences will identify with both the frightened family at home and the broadcast actors in the radio studio.
Lai said his favorite prop is the vintage radio since it embodies the time period and essence of the play.
He said the performance is perfect for the spooky Halloween time of year. “We have flashing lights, we have different colors that represent things and convey a sense of horror,” Lai said. “If you close your eyes, you’ll be able to imagine what it actually feels like.”
Tan added, “I hope the audience feels excited and scared,” she said. “I really want them to like all of the effects and all of the effort put into it.”
‘The War of the Worlds’
It’s been 84 years almost to the day since Orson Welles’ Oct. 30, 1938, radio drama was broadcast on CBS radio network’s “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” as Halloween entertainment. You can listen to the original broadcast on YouTube.
Unfortunately, there were unintended real-life consequences to the production, due to some listeners missing the show’s introductory explanation that it was merely fictional entertainment.
Many of those who missed the caveat apparently believed that a Martian invasion was actually taking place in the real town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, then spreading to eastern Pennsylvania, New York City, and the rest of the country.
The believable, real-time breaking news storytelling structure was reportedly inspired by Thomas Morrison’s live radio reporting of the May 6, 1937, Hindenburg disaster, which also occurred in New Jersey only 17 months prior.
Although it’s now believed the resulting panic was actually fairly limited, there were reports of tied-up emergency service phone lines and people fleeing their homes in terror.
This prompted outrage in the media, an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission, and demands by Congress to pass laws banning similar broadcasts.
Abject apologies ensued from Welles (whose Hollywood career nevertheless was well and truly launched by the wild publicity). Ultimately, no punitive measures were taken. However, the incident earned lasting infamy as an important cultural event, and the story lives on today.
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