It was 75 years ago this October 30 that the young (and surprisingly baby-faced) actor/director Orson Welles caused panic across America with the radio broadcast of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air series, the show chronicled, in an apparently much too realistic style, an attack on Earth from outer space. Listeners across the country mistook the radio play, which was presented in a "we interrupt this program for breaking news" style for an actual news broadcast.
"People didn't listen carefully to the broadcast, and word started getting around the country that the world was being invaded by spaceships," says Philip Lehl, co-artistic director of Stark Naked Theatre and director of this production, part of the company's 2013-2014 Reading Series. "People heard just enough of what they thought was a news broadcast to panic," says Lehl. "Some people went out hunting for Martians; some people said, 'Let's get out of town.' Everybody panicked.
"I've always loved...what happened during the broadcast, I've always loved the script, and I thought it would be fun to do [for Halloween]," Lehl continues.
The Stark Naked Theatre performance, which is being sponsored in part by the Houston Press, is a bare-bones production echoing a radio studio broadcast with little in the way of sets or costumes. Five actors, including KUHF radio personality Andrew Schneider (performing the same role as Orson Wells originally read), 2013 Houston Theater Awards Best Supporting Actor winner David Matranga and Lehl, a finalist in 2013 Houston Theater Awards for Best Actor (Macbeth) and, along with co-director Kim Tobin-Lehl, for Best Best Artistic Director - will portray multiple characters.
There's little chance Stark Naked's staged reading will prompt an outbreak of panic (a paying audience sitting in a theater watching a performance should be clear on what's going on, we think), but if it did, it wouldn't be the first time the episode has repeated itself. In 1949, a similar radio broadcast in Quito, Ecuador prompted widespread panic and, unlike the American broadcast, resulted in an estimated 20 deaths. (Crowds, prompted by fear and on-air pleading by supposed city officials -- "People of Quito, let us defend our city" initially rushed into the streets. They eventually realized it was a radio broadcast, but, thinking they had been purposefully fooled, the crowds turned into an angry mob and stormed the radio station's building.) Baring a similar response from the Stark Naked audience, organizers are hosting a "Survivor's Champagne Toast" after the reading.
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The reading of The War of the Worlds starts at 7:30 p.m. Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. For information, call 832‑866-6514 or visit the Stark Naked Theatre website. $10.