ANDREW BURASHKO

April 29, 2011 | By

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Preamble & Play Review

2011 marks the 100th centenary of Bernard Herrmann’s birthday, and Toronto’s Art of Time Ensemble recently mounted a live performance of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

That alone sounds like a handful, because it would have to include a live band, live foley artist, and contemporary actors recreating the original cast as they performed Howard Koch’s script for eager audiences – some of whom knew the drama was mockumentary of Martians invading Earth, plus a small minority who believed little green men were in fact landing in the United States for real.

Of the select hysterical masses, some members apparently believed the Martian sightings were actually Nazis infiltrating America (it was 1938, after all). That frankly makes those paranoid people look even more silly, because somehow in their little brains existed a short circuited, quick witted judgment call: that little green men in crashed metal saucers were actually Nazis, dressed in some new type of aircraft suits; and that the saucers were super-deadly weapons of mass destruction capable of shooting death rays.

When Welles was informed by CBS bigwigs that a few noodle-heads were convinced the Earth was being invaded by aliens, he chose to continue without any station identification / special caveat announcement for listeners until the play’s concluding soliloquy – a move one could argue was Welles being an artistic prima donna, desiring to maintain the integrity of his theatrical troupe; or a crafty mind who felt a little infamy wasn’t bad for ratings, for juicy P.R., and his own ego.

What better etching to have on one’s tombstone than ‘He made people believe in Martians’ ?

Certainly the reams of news reports that followed made Welles a national / international star, paving his way to glide on to Hollywood.

The original broadcast was in fact recorded on a transcription disc (like this one), and over the years has been a available on every kind of media format, although I’ve always felt the original discs needed some speed adjustments, as everything seemed to sound a wee bit too fast.

The estate of Howard Koch still owns the original script, and every so often someone remounts a live version of what may be the most famous radio show in history. That alone makes that 72 year old production a perfect intro into the world of dramatic radio, where the brain does part of the work in convincing the listener what the actors look like, where the scenes are occurring, and whether Martians are in fact real.

Unique to the Art of Time Ensemble’s production is the way it was mounted: you, the audience member are merely a fly on the wall of the very same CBS recording studio where Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe arrive for another shift, slowly getting ready for another’s day’s work.

To recreate the events on stage, the stage rear was allotted to the live band, whereas up front to the left rested the foley artist and his array of odd metal objects that would create a farmer’s field, and sweeten ‘live news feeds’ from within an observatory, buildings in NYC where the rest of the invading aliens are swarming down, and a farmhouse where one man opines on Mankind’s future.

To the right was step-like Art Deco stage, upon which the actors could perform into the microphones. A large gap in the center stage allowed the actors to converge and vocalize an army on the march, an irritated general barking orders to his troop, and hysterical locals transfixed by the crashed Martian ship.

A clock was suspended from the ceiling, and would begin to tick from 8pm – 9pm, the same time slot during which the drama was performed; and a red ‘On the Air’ sign would glow, letting us know we had an hour of fun.

Nicholas Campbell (Da Vinci’s Inquest) represented the veteran radio actors that populated air waves as well as feature films, often performing narration like Paul Frees, who acted in the 1953 film version of War of the Worlds and provided that film’s narration with his magnificent voice. Campbell was the first person to enter the scene, picking up a fallen newspaper, checking the time, and reading a folded paper while occasionally taking sips from a pocket booze tin.

Once the show begins, Campbell’s actor removes his rumpled, folded mess of script pages, and at one point adjusts his fly because the job is simply that mundane. Don McKellar (Last Night) ostensibly plays Welles, the director and coordinator of the show, making sure everyone meets their cues, follows a few suggested tweaks.

‘Welles’ also maintains a close eye and ear on the musicians, making sure they start and cut out on time – the latter quite important, since the period songs are supposed to suggest a live ballroom that’s switched over to increasingly dire news briefs from Grover’s Hill, where the first Martian craft has crashed into the earth.

The play’s first half is faithful to the original drama, and the only major change has Campbell’s dramatic soliloquy being supported by actual score – absent in the original radio drama.

The musicians, which switch from chamber orchestra to period jazz band, performed wonderful arrangements of Herrmann’s music from “The Lonely,” a sad episode from the Twilight Zonewhere a stranded astronaut starts to fall in love with a female robotic companion he initially despised. The music is a statement on solitude and of an uncertain future, and Dan Paar’s arrangements (with beautiful bass clarinet) capture the emptiness Campbell’s actor feels as a lone survivor of humanity who contemplates his future, and soon finds he’s not completely alone.

McKellar’s Welles is more of a hint of the stentorian, mischievous icon, so that the actor can concentrate on being a ringleader among diverse creative fields in the ‘live’ studio. His best moments are the subtle exchanges among actors and the foley artist, but the audience never hears their words: it’s all pantomime to maintain the illusion of witnessing a moment in pop culture history.

John Gzowski performed his foley work live, and his character’s intro is actually quite clever. In addition to inspecting his own gallery of ‘instruments’ he also knocks over a hollowed shell casing, which is later used to evoke the sound of the trap door falling off the Martian craft onto the ground prior to the aliens’ appearance.

A Slinky toy, suspended and stretched between two poles, formed the alien death ray; a small electrical fan was a military fighter plane losing engine power as it tries to attack an alien craft; and a hung metal sheet was useful for generic crashes, booms, and bangs. There was also a phonograph, from which canned sound effects were spun.

It’s worth contrasting Burashko’s dramatic recreation with the partial attempt done for “The Night America Trembled,” a 1957 episode of Studio One that focuses on the mass-hysteria among select gullible listeners. Like the 2011 play, the 1957 teleplay has the actors gathering in the studio, and a Wellesian figure coordinating the musicians, actors, and foley artist – the latter also spinning canned effects between original sound effects.

And it’s also worth noting how many of the performers smoked like chimneys; in Burashko’s production, cigarettes were lit and smoked occasionally, and the grey residue gave the studio’s a ‘misty’ atmosphere.

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The Curtain Rise: A Tapestry of Bernard Herrmann’s Film Music

As noted in the programme materials, prior to the arrival of the actors and the play’s proper commencement, the audience was treated to a roughly 30 minute suite of Herrmann themes taken from approximately 20 separate works.

In his intro to the audience, Burashko explained the curtain rise music was a salute to Herrmann’s birthday, and the music was sync’d to a video mash-up of scenes and dissolves of more or less corresponding images, either from the films, or stock images suggesting the original sources.

Dan Paar’s musical mash-up had themes being played in whole or part, wafting back into another theme for a few bars, and the swirling suite was performed by an excellent orchestra.

Part of the fun was seeing Herrmann’s music performed live – a rare treat for any Herrmann aficionado – and hearing Paar’s clever arrangements of themes for new instrumental groupings.Psycho, for example, was played with brass, piano and xylophone, whereas Twisted Nerve was performed with a lead whistle (even though the sustained, extreme high notes proved a bit challenging for the musician).

For the Herrmannites out there, the order of themes went sort of like this:

Citizen Kane / Taxi Driver / Garden of Evil / Naked and the Dead / Day the Earth Stood Still / Man Who Knew Too Much / Mysterious Island / Twilight Zone: “Where is Everybody?” / Vertigo / North by Northwest / Psycho / Cape Fear / On Dangerous Ground / Twilight Zone theme / Sisters / Day the Earth Stood Still / Vertigo / Fahrenheit 451 / Vertigo / Sisters / Twisted Nerve / Vertigo / North by Northwest / Citizen Kane.

The themes from North by Northwest and Vertigo were a bit overused and extended the suite perhaps 5-10 mins. longer than necessary, but Paar’s arrangements were tremendously fun, and he deserves extra credit for showcasing a few Herrmann scores often overlooked by critics.

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An Interview with Director Andrew Burashko

On stage, Andrew Burashko functioned as emcee, director, and conductor of the orchestra, taking on the role of Herrmann himself, conducting the orchestra through period ballroom tunes and score material, and on Friday April 1st (you know, April Fool’s Day) the cast stayed after the show for a Q&A session with the audience.

To compensate for being unable to attend that specific performance, what follows is a Q&A with Burashko, who details some of the aspects in mounting a play that enjoyed sell-out performances during most of the play’s performances between March 31 – April 3, 2011.

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Mark R. Hasan: In your introduction to the audience, you mentioned the idea for mounting War of the Worlds stemmed from Dan Paar’s insistence that something ought to be done to celebrate the centenary of Bernard Herrmann’s birthday.

Andrew Burashko: It wasn’t even that emphatic. He’s a Bernard Herrmann fan.

MRH: Were you a fan of the composer, in addition to Orson Welles?

AB: Oh, absolutely. I’ve never presented anything that I didn’t feel passionate about or had a real connection to. The key to out success, I think, is everything comes from a very genuine place.

MRH: Had you heard a lot of Herrmann’s music, and for that matter, even a number of Welles’ live radio broadcasts?

AB: Regarding Bernard Herrmann’s music, absolutely… I didn’t hear [the Welles] broadcast until the idea came to me to do War of the Worlds [WOW].

When I discovered how little music there was in it, I considered doing maybe other radio plays full of underscoring – the soundtrack is a very big part of every other play that they did – but there was just something about that play, and all the myths surrounding it.

MRH: Much has been written about the original broadcast and Welles himself, and there have been dramatizations of that night, including a 1957 teleplay (The Night America Trembled) and a 1975 TV movie (The Night That Panicked America), but their focus was on the mass hysteria caused by the broadcast. Welles & his cast & crew were only seen in vignettes.

I liked the way you essentially recreated the 1938 recording environment for the audience. It was a very different concept that I thought worked, and perhaps you can elaborate on where it emanated, and whether it was difficult to organize.

AB: It wasn’t difficult. This is the first time I’ve directed anything, [but] I know a bunch of people in the theatre world, and I’ve worked directly with set design and lighting design.

It was all somehow organic. I wanted to create that environment of the studio and to find that fine line in terms of how it looks: between it looking very realistic so that the audience felt like they were voyeurs, and at the same time (especially towards the end of the play), to transform it into something completely different.

MRH: You background is originally a composer and musician?

AB: As a concert pianist, actually. That’s what I did for about 14 years.

MRH: For the directing itself, did you rely on any associates for pointers or tips or suggestions?

AB: Absolutely. On all the actors, I had a really great guy named Christopher Stanton assisting me. He was an invaluable help. It was [also] my first time conducting, and I’d worked with all the musicians as a musician, [so] I felt comfortable with all of them. I didn’t have anything to prove to them… Every guy in that band gave me direction about what works, what doesn’t work, what’s helpful, what’s not helpful. It was a huge learning experience for me.

MRH: There’s one aspect of the cast that I really enjoyed, and that’s right at the play’s beginning, where the actors were playing their historical counterparts arriving for what’s essentially another day on the job.

AB: Totally.

MRH: And then just mimicking the camaraderie, and what everybody goes through in their normal morning routine.

AB: That was again part of the vision in the beginning. Basically, all the broad strokes were mine – how it was to look, the fact that it would begin that way, the fact that we would be waiting for Orson.

I didn’t expect anybody to get it, but when he did this radio broadcast [in 1938], he was hustling like crazy to try to keep his theatre company afloat, so he would be doing 3 or 4 radio shows a day and then rushing back to and from rehearsals at the theatre to these radio gigs, and he actually used to rent an ambulance; there was no law to prohibit the use of an ambulance for brevity or whatever.

[So] the waiting for Orson was there, and the archetypes of the characters were there, and the fact that the foley would be a major part of the theatre was there. All those moments got filled out by the actors, and it was just a question of keeping the gems and directing them if something wasn’t working.

MRH: I’m curious if you had an extensive rehearsal time, because the performances were like musicians in a jazz band – glancing over and seeing if the other actor was ready, how they would enter a scene, and when to let someone take over in a fluid action.

AB: Do mean like a jazz band in the sense that it was kind of improvised as we went along?

MRH: I guess maybe behaviorally improvised, where everyone was waiting not just for timing, but entering and exiting a scene in spite of occasionally adding a few touches if it felt right, or to compliment an actor’s prior bit of business. The Orson Welles character at one point walks over to the foley artist and makes suggestions, such as playing the Martian death ray beam a little harder to give listeners a good shock.

AB: Absolutely… There are many moments where it needed to feel like they were looking for cues or for timing, or at each other. I mean, they were pre-determined, but it was different each time. They were such a great cast in terms of their spontaneity, and kind of playing in the moment.

MRH: I particularly liked the way they stayed in character. Don McKellar basically played a busy-minded, obsessive workaholic; Marc Bendavid was a vain matinee idol, and Nicholas Campbell was my favourite because he played this salty veteran who arrives first into the studio but didn’t remember to pull up his fly until the broadcast was already underway.

AB: The Orson Welles character was really directing and controlling everything; he was the one with the vision; he was the one who knew how he wanted it to sound, and the timing and the rhythm of it…. Marc was supposed to be kind of the eager-beaver ingénue.

MRH: For the original radio broadcast audiences, they were used to listening to a few sounds and visualizing the drama in their minds, regardless of the setting or type of drama, but for contemporary audiences, we’re used to having a visual component which we seem to need because without it, a radio drama may seem sort of boring.

As an audience member, your whole production seemed cinematic because not only was it a glimpse through a historical window, but there were specific stage elements which, as an audience member, you could focus on whenever you wanted while ‘the film’ was going on.

You could follow an actor and a small gesture, and then glance over to the musicians who were having their own wry chatter when not playing any music, and to the left see the foley artist prepping his audio props and making sure the wiring was tight and nothing was tangled. The fact everyone stayed in character and simulated small behavioral gestures made it easier for modern audiences to watch the recreation of a live radio drama.

AB: I’m glad. I would be lying if I said that was calculated, but we were all kind of there to deliver this play. [The characters on stage were] busy because they were all focused on what was going on, and I knew that people would get a kick out of the foley… It was very deliberate to put him right down stage so that everybody could see how he was making those sounds.

MRH: For myself, the foley was the final hook that drew me into the play because when I read the description, I though ‘Oh! They’re actually going to have a foley artist and a live band’ When you see his paraphernalia, it’s just amazing.

AB: John Gzowski’s job would have been infinitely easier if I wasn’t so obsessed by everything at least looking like it was from 1938. In the end we had to cheat in many ways, but that tied his hands a little bit, you know what I mean? But it also made it more interesting, like the Slinky thing [which] I don’t think was invented until World War II.

MRH: Most of the writing in Welles’ productions was very prosaic, and I wonder if it was tough for the actors?

AB: Most of the writing in WOW is not Welles. Welles weighed in for sure, but it was mostly Howard Koch. The thing that gave me confidence to direct this was that all the characters were essentially two-dimensional – they were all pretend.

We’re trying to make people believe that the Martians have landed, and it’s all about characters, right? The character of the Captain, the character of the Professor – [it] was more about capturing a voice than a full, complex character, so in that sense the text was not difficult, or it wasn’t intimidating in any way.

MRH: The actors must have gotten a kick out of it, because while it was essentially a handful of people on stage, they were responsible for creating all these different characters which were men of differing ages and dialects, a group undergoing collective mass hysteria, or a foot-stomping army troupe.

AB: I hope so. It looked like it.

MRH: For Bernard Herrmann’s music, I noticed score elements were applied in the play’s second half, and being a Herrmann nut myself, I couldn’t help picking out pieces of music. I’m pretty sure it was “The Lonely” suite from The Twilight Zone that you adapted for the second half.

AB: Yeah, that was all Dan Paar’s doing, and also something the pianist also pointed out. You know, my attention during rehearsal was going in a million directions, and I don’t know if you remember, but the first 3 notes of the underscoring on the bass clarinet – again, it’s like a testament to Dan’s cleverness – but they were from the Holst suite The Planets, from the movement “Mars” which he snuck.

MRH: The curtain rise suite was more of a mash-up of Herrmann motifs with themes carefully woven together, and every so often going back and quoting or riffing something heard earlier.

AB: Exactly, and superimposing and using themes from one movie, or sneaking them back in once we’ve already gone on to another movie. That was all Dan’s doing.

MRH: He also focused on a number of scores that aren’t well known. I liked the fact The Naked and the Dead (1958) was woven in there, and the pilot episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is Everybody?” (1959).

That particular episode is emblematic of the simple writing Herrmann used to convey some really eerie moods, and moments of human vulnerability, particularly the sense of a character slowly discovering something horrible, and reacting in gradual stages.

Last question: For the production itself, most of the shows were pretty much sold out. Was WOW a difficult production to mount, and do you have eyes on another production in the near future?

AB: Yeah, it was the biggest thing we had ever attempted until that point, just in terms of scope and money. It was a milestone of sorts for us, but we do 6 or 7 projects a year. Next season is already planned, and we’re going to do another big theatrical thing which is completely different, [and] that Daniel Brooks is going to direct.

It’s a very beautiful piece. It’s going to be done at CanStage. There’s a book of correspondences between John Berger (who’s one of my favourite writers) and John Christie, whom I hadn’t heard of before [but] was a British filmmaker and painter, and was a close friend of Berger.

[Their exchanges] are remarkably poetic. They’re almost love letters between two guys who really admire each other and want to impress each other or move each other, and they’re all meditations on colour, in terms of literature and music and nature.

The BBC did a radio show, and they took 15 of those letters and had Gavin Bryars, a British composer, underscore them, so we’re going to stage that with a live band and two actors, and animation and colour, and I’m sort of in the midst of figuring that one out now.

Editor’s note: the music from Bryars’ 2002 production, “I send you this cadmium red,” is available on CD, as is Berger’s book.

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KQEK.com would like to thank Andrew Burashko for his generous time.

For more information on The Art of Time Ensemble, visit their website.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2011 by Mark R. Hasan

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