The 2016 production of It Can't Happen Here at Berkeley Rep Credit: Courtesy Berkeley Rep

Is life on Earth doomed?

That’s the question at the heart of H.G. Wells’s science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, originally published in 1898, and then adapted for radio by Orson Welles in 1938. When Welles’s version originally hit the airwaves, listeners who unwittingly tuned into the broadcast were convinced Earth was actually being invaded by Martians. 

It wasn’t, of course, but the dark allure of such a possibility remains. Beginning October 15, Theatre in the Dark will premiere its own live 21st-century iteration of the sci-fi classic, one with a modern-day twist for a Chicago (still) in quarantine. 

The company is one of a handful of Chicago-area theaters paying homage to the golden age of radio drama this fall, both as a necessary adaptation to the restrictions of COVID-19, as well as an exploration of subject matter applicable to these “uncertain times.”

Beginning October 19, Steppenwolf for Young Adults is presenting Animal Farm as a radio play (a first for the program) as part of the 2020/21 season, adapted by Steve Pickering for radio from Althos Low‘s original stage adaptation and directed by Lili-Anne Brown. And on October 13, Northlight Theatre is taking part in a nationwide, simultaneous broadcast of Berkeley Rep’s radio play adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here.

In the 82 years that have passed since the initial radio broadcast of Welles’s The War of the Worlds, Martians have yet to invade Earth, and the planet has somehow managed to remain intact, at least in form (if not function). 

As the threat of COVID-19 persists, and theaters plan for the reality of no-audience productions through the 2021 season, the resurgence of radio plays are an experiment in form meeting function. In step with the Great Depression, radio plays achieved widespread popularity during the 1920s and 1930s as a way for families to entertain themselves cheaply in between bouts of news about the weather and the economy. The genre remained the leading form of entertainment through World War II. 

In Theatre in the Dark’s A War of the Worlds, adapted from H.G. Wells’s original by artistic producer Mack Gordon and producing artistic director Corey Bradberry, H.G. Wells (played by Gordon) is recast as a Chicagoland science journalist covering an attack from Mars at the turn of the 21st century. Gordon and Bradberry began working on the script at the end of last year, but the events of 2020 have certainly given new significance to the themes of colonialism H.G. Wells was exploring as far back as 1898. 

“Having gone now through the pandemic, the quarantine, the protests over the summer that are still continuing—it’s been a very reflective time for us (as artists),” Bradberry said. “All of the sociopolitical themes [in The War of the Worlds] have become increasingly more and more relevant. What I’m hoping people walk away with is a story that is not about our times, but that is a metaphor for our times, that resonates past just October or November of 2020. This stretches back to 1898, and beforehand, and I think these are going to be things that we’re going to continue to grapple with nationally, culturally, locally. And so it’s very interesting for Mack and I as playwrights to try and figure out how Chicago would deal with this insurmountable obstacle.”

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is an allegory about revolutionizing in the face of unchecked, consolidated power. When Steppenwolf for Young Adults produced Animal Farm as a stage production in 2014, the accompanying educational programming for students centered around the idea of historical revolution, challenging them to think about important uprisings they’d potentially heard about or learned about in school. But now, the idea of revolution is much more immediate. 

“When we were doing Animal Farm [in 2014], it felt like we were asking young people . . . to think about the historical implications of, for example, the civil rights era,” said Megan Shuchman, Steppenwolf’s director of education. “And now . . . there might be young people that will say, ‘I was just out marching last week about the unjust murder of Breonna Taylor and the implications that came down from the grand jury.’”

The scale of revolution doesn’t feel strictly historical anymore. 

“I think the idea of reaching back for examples is potentially three days ago, and so I imagine that that will feel really immediate in a way that isn’t about just pulling from history,” Shuchman said. “And I hope what we can do is still have that conversation about the micro, because I think there are young people who do see that action happening, and they take part in it, and then I think there are young people who see that action, and they’re not quite sure where their role is. Something that the arts offers is a way to be like, actually, we can all participate in a way that’s meaningful to us. And how do we use the arts as the entryway for that?”

The political, cultural, and social landscape we as a society are navigating now is just as (if not more) terrifying than either of the eras in which radio plays and the content they championed first flourished. There’s a reason a resurgence in radio theater has arrived in step with these stories, specifically. 

Berkeley Rep first performed It Can’t Happen Here in 2016. The last performance of the show—adapted from Sinclair Lewis’s novel about an idiot elected to be America’s president amidst the rise of European fascism—was one week before the election in which Donald Trump became president. Berkeley Rep’s associate director, Lisa Peterson, who directed the 2016 production, collaborated with Berkeley Rep’s former artistic director Tony Taccone to devise their original production for radio (Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen did the adaptation), which will stream for free through YouTube on October 13 (and is then available on demand through November 8). Northlight Theatre is one of the nonprofit theaters across the country participating in the simultaneous broadcast. (Goodman, Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, and the Columbia College Chicago theater department are also listed as local broadcast partners.)

“Right now, things are so crazy that it’s hard to know how to make art out of it yet,” Peterson said. “And so I think that both audiences and artists may be looking back to reflect on the way that artists 100 years ago in this country were thinking about the dangers of fascism. It’s uncanny with It Can’t Happen Here, how much the character of Buzz Windrip, who is this idiot that runs for president . . . The comparisons between him and our current president are so unbelievable.”  v