Tennessee Stage Company pays tribute to Orson Welles' 'War of Worlds'

Saul Young/News Sentinel
Julianna Sanderson, Sean Dietz and Allison Dietz, from left, rehearse a scene from  Tennessee Stage Company's production of "War of the World's." Sean Dietz is also a co-director.

Photo by Saul Young, 2012 Knoxville News Sentinel // Buy this photo

Saul Young/News Sentinel Julianna Sanderson, Sean Dietz and Allison Dietz, from left, rehearse a scene from Tennessee Stage Company's production of "War of the World's." Sean Dietz is also a co-director.

The influence that media can have on our lives is literally frightening.

Never was that more true than on Oct. 30, 1938, when the radio anthology show Mercury Theatre on Air presented the drama "The War of the Worlds." The Orson Welles-directed adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel caused a panic among listeners, who believed the play's news bulletins about an alien invasion were real.

Tennessee Stage Company is paying tribute to Welles and the classic broadcast by presenting "The War of the Worlds" at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, at the Laurel Theater. The play, set in a radio studio, will be recorded for future, though yet to be scheduled, broadcast on radio.

Welles has been dead for 27 years, and he's primarily remembered now for his first and most famous film, "Citizen Kane," but "The War of the Worlds" continues to be produced regularly.

"The show does get reprised a fair bit, both as a straight reproduction of the original and various attempts at updating it," says Vania Smrkovski, who is co-directing the play with fellow cast member Sean Dietz. "In fact, that's actually the conversation that we had initially when we started this project: Which is the greater homage? Do we pay homage to Orson Welles by doing the show as it was, or do we pay homage by recognizing that Orson Welles updated H.G. Wells' original?

"Ultimately, in honor of Laurel Theater's history of … looking back at some of the finer arts, we decided to go ahead and stick with just making this a straight reproduction of the original. But there's still quite a bit of thought as to if this were to happen today, if Orson Welles were alive today, where would Twitter and Facebook be in the whole thing?"

Tom Parkhill, TSC's artistic director, points out that media hoaxes and deliberate confusion have continued through the decades — consider the Beatles-era "Paul is dead" rumors. More recently, the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, was at first ascribed to anger over an anti-Muslim movie.

"There are things that happen today that all of a sudden they're all over Twitter, and they're absolutely not true," says Parkhill. "For a brief moment, it was, 'The U.S. embassy was overrun because of a movie.' Information gets out, and people buy into it."

The original "War" broadcast, which "reported" that alien beings were invading the village of Grover's Mill, N.J., sounded believable, especially to those who missed the disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast.

"The year before was the Hindenburg (airship) disaster, and that was broadcast live over the radio, and that was one of the first instances of something like that occurring," says Dietz. "So people really tuned in to that and were completely amazed by that technology. I think, to an extent, that is how this gag ended up being so effective."

Dietz praises Welles' showmanship and vision.

"That's what I love about Orson Welles," he says. "If you really think about the idea of this show and what he did and how he did it, it is absolutely brilliant, especially for the time. He was perpetually ahead of his time anyway."

Jacqueline Nunweiler, one of the actors in the play, says knowing that the show will be broadcast has made the production more challenging.

"I've found the radio part the thing that I'm worried most about," she says. "Somebody's going to listen to this and not see me, and I've got to concentrate on so much more now."

Cast member Allison Warren believes in some ways radio listeners will get a better show because they will supply their own visuals.

"Your mind can do a lot more," she says. "You can visualize in your own head how you want it to be."

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'War of the Worlds'

Who: Tennessee Stage Company

Where: Laurel Theater

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30

Tickets: $11 in advance, $12 day of show, $10 students and seniors, $ 6 children 12 and under. Advance tickets available through KnoxTix at 865-523-7521

Info: http://tennessee stagecompany.com/

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