In 2003, the forward-thinking little stage company called Bricolage glimpsed its future. And its future was radio's past.
That year, Bricolage Production Co. staged Biedermann and the Firebugs, a radio play from 1953, largely as a live radio play. While the show wasn't actually broadcast, what the theater audience saw was a troupe performing Max Frisch's dark comedy about arsonists as if it were. Actors spoke not facing each other, but into microphones. Performers doubled as sound-effects people, operating gear like a vintage hand-cranked siren and a wind machine. When the script called for a character to walk, the actor playing him wielded a pair of sticks ending in dress shoes, to create the sound of footsteps.
Firebugs was just Bricolage's second show. Under co-founder and artistic director Jeffrey Carpenter, later joined by producing artistic director Tami Dixon, the company would go on to stage new and offbeat work, often taking stylistic risks. For instance, in 2009's Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, a cautionary drama by Jennifer Haley, the actors performed in the physically static style of video-game characters, with halting, affectless voices to match. This year came Speech and Debate -- a comedic drama about high school students, the Internet and privacy, whose subject matter reflected Bricolage's efforts to engage younger audiences.
But even as Bricolage was building a reputation for innovation, it resumed exploring a format thought obsolete before most of its audience was even born.
The turning point was Firebugs and its faux-radio style. "What I really learned was how effective the format was in putting the material in the audience's imagination," Carpenter says. "Because it is such a personal media. It exists in the mind of the listeners."
In summer 2008, the company staged the first incarnation of Midnight Radio, a variety-show assemblage of short plays, audience games and ad parodies it billed as "A Prairie Home Companion on Red Bull." In 2009, Midnight Radio became a summer-long series.
The 2010 series concludes Oct. 21-30 by reviving the best-known radio broadcast ever: 1938's The War of the Worlds, the infamous, Orson Welles-led adaption of H.G. Wells' Martian-invasion classic.
Though it's resetting the action in 1930s Pittsburgh, Bricolage doesn't expect to terrify people the way Welles' show did. But, says Dixon, "We really want to begin pushing the boundaries and envelope of this format to see what our audience can handle."
Bricolage performs Midnight Radio in its intimate 90-seat space on the ceramic-tiled first floor of a former Downtown bathhouse. The set suggests a vintage soundstage, but with risers for a studio audience.
At center stage and stage left, several actors stand at microphones, scripts in hand or on music stands; in-house musician Sam McUmber sits at his electronic keyboard. Stage right is for noisemaking -- Foley effects, in radio parlance. There, Dixon and sometimes a helper dart amongst a workbench and shelves stocked with an array of objects and gadgets, various sound machines and five microphones, ready to summon everything from a ringing telephone to a rainstorm.
For Midnight Radio's 2009 season, Bricolage invited nine local playwrights to each craft a throwback radio-serial spoof in a given genre, like action (think The Lone Ranger), soap opera (The Guiding Light) or mystery. The audience voted which serials deserved a second episode, for the finals.
If that sounds terribly hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show ... well, Bricolage loves making theater a game, and the results can be raucous. Carpenter and Dixon, themselves busy stage actors, regularly draw from the city's top writers, directors and performers. Last season's serials included nationally produced playwright Tammy Ryan's "Alien Within," a science-fiction spoof about a woman who fears her unborn child was conceived during an alien abduction. "I thought they did a hilarious job with it," says Ryan.
She recalls a sex scene whose layered sounds were produced by Dixon twisting the squeaky metal hook on an antique clothes-hanger with one hand (for bedsprings) while with her other hand she slapped her own bare belly, and Carpenter banged a wooden chair against a platform. Actor Wali Jamal, meanwhile, gave the alien the seductive baritone of soul crooner Barry White.
Actors, by the way, "loooove" Midnight Radio, says Carpenter.
"Take out that weird voice," says Dixon, squeakily as a cartoon mouse.
Actor Jason McCune says that even the format's short rehearsal times and frequent trading of roles is exciting. "It forces you to make a big, bold choice and go with that. You don't have time to sit around and intellectualize," says McCune, who'll be in War of the Worlds. "It's very visceral."
Feeding the festive atmosphere, the first Midnight Radio shows (name notwithstanding) began at 10 p.m., or two hours later than most theater. (This year's shows start at 9 p.m.) The series rapidly built a following and now regularly sells out. Season one even got on the radio beyond Bricolage's own podcasts, thanks to WYEP 91.3 FM, which broadcast a special highlights show.
Ryan says Midnight Radio captures what she loves about Bricolage. "Everything is a big party," says Ryan. "Everybody wants to go."
The Shadows Know
This season, Carpenter and Dixon sought a challenge beyond wacky comedy. "Knowing we're going to do more of the same, that's not artistically exciting to us," says Dixon. "When we know we can do something, that's when we throw it on the ground and break it."
June's episode featured "The Zero Hour," a radio play by Anthony Ellis, adapted from an old Ray Bradbury story, that imagines aliens invading Earth with the help of earthling children -- whose clueless parents think all the kids are just swept up in some wacky new game of make-believe. Given its 1950s origins, it could have come off as a campy chestnut. Instead, "Zero Hour" felt genuinely creepy, like an especially good Twilight Zone episode.
In September, Bricolage took things further with a somber, full-length original drama titled The Dark Side of the House. Carpenter and his friend Matthew Adams adapted the script from a 1968 book of the same name. It's the lightly fictionalized account of a bizarre episode in local medical history, in which serial burglar Millard Wright, seeking both to avoid jail time and cure his criminal compulsions, consented to a lobotomy, which was performed in 1952.
The actors played the material straight. Scene one dramatizes brain surgery sonically, complete with suction (mimicked vocally by an actor) and the squeaking gears of a hand-drill.
Carpenter prefaces each performance by telling audiences that to get the full effect, they should close their eyes and just listen. But watching is fun, too, largely because of how making sounds looks. Actors in radio dramas often play multiple roles: Jason McCune, who voiced Wright, also portrayed the judge who sentences him ... and a narrator. Meanwhile, the performers recreated a square dance, with McCumber on banjo. To mimic a gunshot, one actor popped a blown-up paper bag; others imitated chickens.
Still, the Foley star was Dixon. In a scene depicting kids entering a barn, she unlatched the miniature door, quickly dropped to her knees to roll a wheeled board across the floor, then leapt to a voice mic to imitate a dog barking out a warning.
Between acts, the show struck a range of notes from the campy -- silly parodies of mid-century advertisements, like one for "Flo-Tex Sanitary Napkins" -- to the dark, with local alt-country singer Slim Cessna's eerie songs. And not surprisingly, perhaps, Dixon notes that the material can prompt a range of responses in its audience.
Along with Bricolage's usual crowd -- folks in their 40s and younger -- Midnight Radio draws people who actually grew up with radio drama. August's episode included "The Sin Eater," a classic 1962 suspenser about city types stumbling on macabre rituals in backwoods Appalachia. An older audience member "couldn't understand why our audience was laughing," says Dixon. "She was very upset that the audience was laughing at the potential of murder, and this man being buried alive."
Dixon attributes the difference to younger audiences' resistance to the naiveté inherent in some older storytelling styles. "People nowadays don't want to have that innocence, they want to be smarter than everybody else. They want to be in the know," she says. "They don't want to be fooled. ... They don't want to be vulnerable to that."
With Midnight Radio, she says, Bricolage seeks to "pull the rug out and shake things up a little -- to see if there's any way to bring them back to that innocence that we don't have any more."
The country's first commercial radio station is usually said to be Pittsburgh's own KDKA. We're approaching the 90th anniversary of its first professional broadcast, bearing results of the Nov. 2, 1920, presidential election.
While few heard that broadcast (the winner was Harding, by the way), radio's popularity spread with amazing speed. Previously, radio had been the domain of hobbyists and used for seafaring communication. But within two years of KDKA's coup, the government had licensed nearly 600 stations, and radio manufacturers were raking in tens of millions of dollars a year.
By decade's end, the radio was a common household fixture. Then as now, programming was dominated by music, but serials, performed live, were gaining popularity. The medium's first mega-hit, launched in 1928, was a comedy series by the blackface stage duo of Robert Gosden and Charles Correll. At its peak, Amos 'n' Andy drew an estimated listenership of about 40 million -- about a third of the entire U.S. population. During its nightly 15-minute time slot, at 7 p.m., movie theaters stopped their projectors and turned on radios. Factories tailored shifts so workers could listen in.
But radio's popularity wasn't just because it was the first, and for decades the only, form of broadcast home entertainment. Aficionados speak lovingly of the "theater of the mind," the medium's ability to use sound waves to conjure image. In 1938, such images would convince an estimated million listeners that Orson Welles' little weekly radio hour had an exclusive on Martians taking Manhattan. As Welles puckishly put it at show's end, "We annihilated the world before your very ears."
In the U.S., of course, radio plummeted from favor as a storytelling medium in the 1950s, with the advent of television. Popular exceptions like the magazine-style This American Life (launched in 1995) and the newer The Moth Radio Hour, both on public radio, only prove the rule. So does the variety-show revivalism of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion, which began in 1974 and now has the field mostly to itself.
Yet radio drama remains popular in Great Britain, and in fact it was partly British productions that inspired both Prairie Home fan Dixon and Carpenter, 43, who listened to classic suspense serial The Shadow while growing up in 1970s Edgewood. (The couple met in 2003, and have since married.) Before launching Midnight Radio, says Dixon, "We started listening to BBC radio, and just this idea of blind theater -- not seeing anything, just hearing everything."
The concept was attractive partly because Bricolage works on a shoestring: While the company pays its performers, radio plays don't need sets, costumes or long rehearsal times.
But the approach also appeals to the troupe's sense of experimentation -- and a desire to explore the foundations of theater's relationship to its audience. "The nature of Midnight Radio is to turn a coat inside out and look at its seams," says Dixon.
Live radio plays implicitly require more suspension of disbelief than does standard theater (which in turn asks more than film and television). But even watching the magician unmask his own trick, you're still drawn in.
"We kinda try to get at the basis of what's storytelling," says Dixon. "To tell a story you need two people. That's it ... You don't need props, you don't need sound [effects]. You don't need music."
Carpenter explains it from an actor's viewpoint. "There is this sense of freedom where you know it's not about how you look," he says. "It's really about how you sound. It's the ultimate storytelling."
Midnight Radio continues to create fans like Heather Jarrett, and her husband, David Montano, who saw Dark Side of the House. "We were blown away," says Montano, 28. He's an artist who several years back got into old-time radio on late-night KQV broadcasts, stuff like Superman and Burns & Allen. "It seems on the surface more limited than television, but actually I feel kind of the opposite," says Montano. "My imagination is working a little bit more."
Jarrett, 26, first learned about such shows from her father, a lifelong fan. And her mom told Jarrett that in the days before her family got TV, "We all sat around and watched the radio."
"That's why Midnight Radio was so freaking cool," says Jarrett, a marketing assistant at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. "You really did get to watch the radio."
Bricolage chose War of the Worlds for the challenge. At press time, the cast included Michael Fuller, Jeffrey Howell, Jason McCune and Sheila McKenna, with Carpenter and Dixon doing Foley and celebrity guest spots by the likes of Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill Peduto.
But to do radio, you need more than good actors. You need the right stuff. Noisemaking stuff.
The Oct. 30, 1938, Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast used a smart script by writer Howard Koch, who re-imagined H.G. Wells' 1898 classic so the story began as an increasingly alarming series of "breaking news bulletins" interrupting a concert by "Ramon Raquello and his orchestra. With a touch of the Spanish." But the show ultimately relied on the ability of Welles' ensemble to convince listeners they were hearing live news of an actual Martian invasion -- complete with space ships, fighter plane and devastating heat ray.
Bricolage already owns two sets of wooden shelves filled with shoes, metal cans and old electrical appliances. It's got a wind machine (canvas draped over a hand-cranked, wooden-ribbed cylinder). Carpenter and Dixon have even learned that to suggest horses galloping, what's better than coconut husks are the plastic caps of spray-paint cans, clopped in coarse sand spread in a big shallow ceramic bowl.
An old bread-box, with its sliding metal drawer, makes railroad-car clack. "It also doubles as a factory," says Dixon.
She adds, "All of this is just a matter of Jeffrey and I sitting around banging on things."
"And we fight a lot: 'That doesn't sound like that!'" says Carpenter.
The search for new gear has become an avocation. "We try to get a new Foley machine every month," says Dixon. "This year is a car door, a rain machine and our new glass-break box."
"We go to Auto Zone," she adds. "They have a lot of stuff there for us."
They also find sound tips online, and Dixon recently became pen-pals with veteran Prairie Home Companion effects guys Tom Keith and Fred Newman.
Indeed, Bricolage has some War of the Worlds sounds locked down. For instance, canned air (used to clean electronics), if sprayed on the moving blades of an electric fan, is a ringer for the whine of a 1930s fighter plane.
Other sounds remain elusive. The Martian spacecraft demands an ominous hum. Dixon knows of a toy plastic tube that hums when you whirl it around. Two weeks before opening night, she visits a familiar haunt, Downtown toy store S.W. Randall.
The store doesn't carry the tubes. But she does find the "Cosmic Blaster," a toy ray-gun that emits a Dopplering whoop. The petite blonde Dixon grins conspiratorially. "That's pretty good," she says. "I gotta get this."
Hear and Now
When Englishman H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, the late-Victorian blossoming of science and technology, along with Germany's military threats to the British Empire, made the invasion story all too nightmarishly plausible.
Forty years later, American radio nurtured a reassuring audioscape of big-band music and FDR's fireside chats. But it had also carried, in 1937, the first live broadcast of a disaster, the Hindenburg explosion. (Actor Frank Readick, who played an ill-fated reporter in War of the Worlds, studied that broadcast intently for the Welles production.) Too, radio had recently been colonized by urgent newscasts from Europe, where Germany was busy annexing Austria and the Sudetenland -- the latter just weeks before War of the Worlds took to the airwaves.
Still, no less than H.G. Wells considered the unintended panic over the Welles broadcast proof of American insularity. "You aren't quite serious in America yet. You haven't got the war right under your chin," an aging Wells told Orson Welles himself in a 1940 radio show about the broadcast. "The consequence is you can still play with ideas of terror, and conflict."
Alien-invasion narratives peaked in popularity during the Cold War 1950s. Beyond its theatrics, what does War of the Worlds mean in post-9/11, post-Abu Ghraib America?
In good speculative-fiction style, Stephen Spielberg's 2005 film version, for instance, portrayed Tom Cruise and his fellow earthlings as affluent victims of a sneak attack who became dispossessed refugees surviving occupation by an exploitative invader.
Likewise, Dixon and Carpenter consider War of the Worlds timeless. Dixon notes that Wells' book, for instance, pointedly punctures human arrogance about our place in the cosmos.
Moreover, there's the simple, very post-9/11 fear inherent in "the idea that you're being destroyed by someone you don't understand and doesn't want to understand you," adds Dixon, who in September 2001 saw the towers fall from her home in Manhattan.
Carpenter, meanwhile, contends, "The thing that really resonates is the technology -- the fear of the cold, more cerebral, automatic, soulless technology" that the aliens wield.
To many Americans of the 1930s, too, it seemed the suddenly much smaller, much faster new world of radios, automobiles and mechanized warfare was spinning out of control. But if this War of the Worlds hits home, it won't be as a nostalgia trip. Like any good theater, it must jolt us into a new perspective.
Dixon cites recent speculation by Stephen Hawking, who guessed that aliens visiting Earth might treat us much as Europeans treated Native Americans. As Dixon paraphrases, "We better hope they're nicer than we are."
Bricolage Theater Co. presents The War of the Worlds. Oct. 21-23 and Oct. 28-30. 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $20. www.webbricolage.org