When Michael Weber wrote “The War of the Well(e)s” a decade ago, he was thinking about how the public's panicked reactions to the infamous Oct.30, 1938, radio broadcast of Orson Welles' The Mercury Theatre on the Air's adaptation of H.G.Wells' novel “The War of the Worlds” related to the phenomenon of “fake news'—of people buying into news outlets' completely different versions of events.
He shopped the play around to storefront theaters with workshop readings but found no takers. Then he became artistic director of Porchlight Music Theatre, and the play, which wasn't a musical, was put on the back burner.
Fast forward to the second night of shelter-at-home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Lawrence Grimm, A Red Orchid Theatre ensemble member, was pondering the difficulties of artistic life and alternatives to Zoom. It occurred to him that it might be a great time to revive audio drama, because it relies so much on imagination.
Then he remembered “The War of the Well(e)s.” He'd participated in a couple of workshops, including one for A Red Orchid, which had considered producing the play. The way the drama, which interweaves excerpts from “The War of the Worlds” broadcast with what was happening behind the scenes, dealt with fear, mass hysteria, and an invisible enemy seemed perfect for our times. The fact that so many colleagues were on forced hiatus and available opened up casting possibilities.
Grimm researched the technology available and found Source-Connect. Like a recording studio (only free), it facilitates high-quality recording of multiple voices over the Internet. Next, he approached Weber about adapting his play for audio.
A long-time fan of the Golden Age of Radio drama, Weber liked the idea of allowing the audience to imagine being in the recording studio and then transported to the scene of the Martian invasion, just like in the Mercury Theatre on the Air original. He also saw correlations between the United States grappling with Nazi Germany on the cusp of World War II and the Trump era of the big lie and doubling down on it.
Grimm and Weber collaborated on the adaptation, with Grimm making the changes and running them by Weber. “We had to find audio alternatives for things like stage directions describing glances between characters, which was fun and challenging,” Grimm explained. “We also made some cuts, replaced visuals you'd see in the theater with descriptions, and added sound effects.”
The biggest change was that the play had 10 actors playing multiple roles while the audio version has 25 actors and doesn't rely on doubling for the most part. “I wanted to get as many actors involved as possible,” Grimm said, “and I was amazed how many said 'yes' and were willing to do it for free as a fundraiser, which was even kinder.”
Jonathan Wagner as Orson Welles, Tom Hickey as John Houseman, and Travis Knight as Howard Koch (who wrote “The War of the Worlds” radio script) head the ensemble, which also includes Will Clinger, Jeff Still, Lance Baker, Michael Patrick Thornton, John Lister, and Michael Shannon, among others. Mierka Girten, one of only two women, plays Mercury sound designer/foley artist Ora Nichols. Weber portrays an eyewitness to the Martian attack, and Grimm is the Narrator, one of the roles taken by Welles in the original.
Grimm, also the director, recorded the scenes, most of which involved two or three actors, though one had eight. They were in different time zones all over the country, and he was on Source-Connect with them, so he could do multiple takes. “The actors could hear but not see each other, so it was like conference calls but for recording purposes,” he said. “Putting it altogether and editing it was very time consuming and took me about two months after I put the kids to bed each night.”
The recording then went to Grimm's brother Matthew Grimm, the supervising sound editor. A video games sound and foley designer for a Silicon Valley gaming company, he added the sound effects and music and was able to filter out things like background noises. “He created the environment of people coming and going into and out of rooms and of 'live' versus 'radio,' “Lawrence Grimm explained. “That's what allows our imaginations to go to these visual places.” A third brother, Colin, handled the production artwork.
Grimm said the biggest challenge was the time it took to compensate for the distance between the actors and their different levels of technology. “Some had state-of-the-art computers. Others were using laptops from the 1990s,” he said. “At one point, I had to plead with Michael Shannon not to throw his laptop across the room.”
The biggest reward for Grimm was being connected to artists whose shelter-at-home situations were very different from his (his studio is a closet, literally) in order to create a really intimate piece of storytelling. “I hope listeners will forget everything and be transported to the recording studio of Welles, Houseman, and the others,” he said. “And when the actors in The Mercury Theatre's 'The War of the Worlds' are exploring war-torn New Jersey, I want 'The War of the Well(e)s' audiences to be right there with them.”