With the ever-changing restrictions due to the pandemic, the theatrical landscape continues to adapt. One theatre company embracing the new norm is Chicago’s Theatre in the Dark with an adaption of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds to be presented live via Zoom in October.
But while moving content online may be nothing new in the age of COVID-19, the kicker here is the original audio drama will be produced and performed live by artists in Vancouver, Chicago and New Orleans.
Leading the cross-continental theatrical venture is Vancouver actor and playwright Mack Gordon, who has recently returned to the city.
A fixture on Vancouver stages for ten years following his graduation from the University of Victoria, the dual-citizen moved to Chicago in 2018. Co-founding Theatre in Dark with Corey Bradberry, the indie theatre company has become an extension of the work Gordon began exploring in Vancouver with the critically acclaimed Three Stories Up.
As the pandemic continued to grow out of control south of the border, Gordon found himself back in Vancouver to ride things out. He is taking a wait-and-see approach before considering a return to the Windy City. “It seems like that will happen sooner in Vancouver than it would in Chicago. I’m playing it by ear,” he says.
Already deep into adapting A War of the Worlds, the decision was made to continue with the artists spread across three cities. The pandemic’s realities would also put a new spin on Wells’ story.
“It is set in 2021, but while they don’t speak of the pandemic, it exists and looms over the whole thing,” says Gordon. “It’s almost impossible to avoid, especially considering the way the Martians are finally defeated. We kept asking how do we do it without it becoming a quarantine play because I don’t think people have an appetite to hear that right now.”
The tri-city process has also created some interesting challenges for the actors, including Gordon performing with four actors he has never met in real life, including his love interest in the play.
“I’ve never done anything quite like it before,” says Gordon, just four days into rehearsals at the time of our call. “How do you foster chemistry in a show when you’re never in the same room and never looked into the person’s eyes when you’re saying your lines to them? I think we’ll find interesting ways to navigate that, and we’re in the process of doing that now.”
While A War of the Worlds follows the contours of Wells’ story of a Martian invasion, it moves the action from 1890s England to present-day Chicago and other parts of the state.
“Because it was novel to talk about a martian invasion at the time Wells wrote his story, I think he could get away with not talking about the relationships of the people involved,” explains Gordon. “So what we tried to focus on was those relationships to not only explore what it would be like if there was a Martian invasion, but what would it be like for you.”
Gordon and Bradberry concentrated on stories of some of the people found in Well’s novel to do this.
“For instance, at one point in the novel, there is some narration that says the protagonist drops his wife at their cousins in a suburb in England, and then he comes back to his home and gets stuck in the basement,” says Gordon. “For us, we wanted to explore a lot more about what it would look like to drop your wife off during a Martian invasion. What would she say? How can you justify the idea of being separated in something so high stakes”?
While initially written to be staged with the actors telling the story in-person to an audience in a dark room, much like Gordon’s Three Stories Up, this iteration is performed live via Zoom. And while it may, on the surface, sound similar to the 1938 radio broadcast directed and narrated by Orson Welles, Gordon says A War of the Worlds is not a radio play.
“To me, a play needs to be live; it needs to be ephemeral,” he says. “The people who are listening to it need to all be there at the same time. That is important to us as a company and us as creators.”
To help differentiate itself from a radio play, Theatre in the Dark is encouraging listening parties.
“With a radio play, you plug in your headphones and listen to it as a more isolated experience. With A War of the Worlds, we want to foster community,” says Gordon.
“We are encouraging people to gather together in a living room with the people in their pods. We want them to turn the lights low, make a couple of cocktails and at intermission talk about what they think is about to happen and when the show is done, have a little party after with the Q&A.”
Gordon says the production values in A War of the Worlds are second-to-none, helping to differentiate itself further from other virtually presented plays.
“I think a lot of people these days are using Zoom as a bit of shortcut to do a staged reading and calling it a play,” he says. “We’re putting all of the work that would go into doing this live into doing it over Zoom.”
From original music by Ben Zucker to an audio engineer employed to optimize all of the live and recorded Foley effects for Zoom, Gordon says A War of the Worlds is an audio-only drama with a difference.
A War of the Worlds runs October 15 through November 1. Visit theatreinthedark.com for tickets and information.