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Apocalypse for Now: War of the Worlds

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The "War of the Worlds" production at the Double L Bar in Lone Pine back in December. | Photo: Courtesy of Metabolic Studio.

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Pretend for a minute that you're on a quintessential California road trip. It could be winter. You and your friends are feeling adventurous. You've packed all your snowboarding gear and a change of regular clothes, and then set off for Mammoth Mountain.

As you drive on the 395, you tune in to 89.9 FM and hear this:

 

"Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of easy listening music to bring you a special bulletin from CNN news. At 20 minutes before 8 Pacific Time, Professor Farrell of Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Our local deep space expert, Professor Pierson of the Caltech Owens Valley Radio Observatory outside of Big Pine confirms Farrell's observation, and describes the phenomenon as (quote) like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun (unquote). We now return you to our regular program."

 

If you were in Los Angeles, you would have instantly dismissed such a strange, extraterrestrial event. But you're in the middle of a long, long drive across a lonely, dusty highway. As the loneliness of the California desert stretches out before you, you wonder, "Could it be true?"

If any part of you believed, then you would not have been alone. Nor would you have been the first.

More than 75 years ago, Orson Welles and his troupe of radio actors interrupted the Columbia Broadcasting System's programming to "report" that Earth had been invaded by Martians. The incident supposedly caused widespread panic and eventual acclaim for Welles. The program hasn't lost its luster since.

The "War of the Worlds" production at the Double L Bar in Lone Pine back in December. | Courtesy of Metabolic Studio
The "War of the Worlds" production at the Double L Bar in Lone Pine back in December. | Photo: Courtesy of Metabolic Studio.

Last December 7, on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a modern day troupe of Owens Valley locals gathered within the woody interior of the Double L Bar and re-enacted a version of Welle's famous radio drama, adapted to the local context.

"We took the script and made it relevant to the locale," says Rochelle Fabb, producer of Metabolic Studio's IOU Theater radio play series. "Instead of having it set in New York and New Jersey, we've transported it all to Owens Valley and Los Angeles. Where Martians land, where they attack, it's all been contemporized."

IOU theater is part of a concert of interventions artist Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio have undertaken in the area, as a way to illuminate the relationship between the Owens Valley and Los Angeles.

Even the sound effects have its roots in the Owens Valley. For "War of the Worlds," Bon, Fabb, and the studio's sonic division spent hours combing through sounds recorded from the Owens Lake Dry Bed. "Alien ray guns, spaceships landing, all these things happening, none of it is canned," declares Fabb, "All of the sound effects are indexical."

With the help of Jon Klusmire, Director of the Eastern California Museum Fabb had adapted the classic script, replacing organization names and dates, peppering the script with modern-day references (such as cellphones and social media) to nudge a listener's suspension of disbelief. The troupe's modernized rendition of the radio drama classic will be re-enacted this Friday, February 6 at Highways Performance Space at the 18th Street Arts Center.

Rather than placing Professor Pierson at the Observatory at Princeton in New Jersey, Fabb and Klusmire transported him to the Owens Valley Observatory near Bishop, California. Instead of Grovers Mill, ground zero for Martian landing became Alabama Gates near the Manzanar Historical site. "There's so much on the 395 corridor," says Fabb, "There's China Lake Naval Weapons Station -- actual military locations -- everything's really believable."

Lone Pine production of "War of the Worlds" at the Double L Bar on Dec 7, 2014. | Courtesy of Metabolic Studio
Lone Pine production of "War of the Worlds" at the Double L Bar on Dec 7, 2014. | Photo: Courtesy of Metabolic Studio.

With a cast drawn from the community and further beyond (other cast members are about an hour's drive away from Lone Pine), Metabolic Studio's IOU Theatre has been breathing life to a past almost forgotten beneath the dust storms regularly whip the land ever since June last year, its first season of performing radio plays. "We found there were tons of thespians and hams, people who wanted to get involved." Ranchers, teachers, and retired folks, all came out to try their hand at performance.

"IOU Theatre is a Metabolic Studio 'device of wonder' and act of reconciliation from L.A.," says Bon," We utilize live, readers theatre, from volunteer community members as the actor to help transform a space, audience or situation in order to understand our history, nurture creativity and add to the cultural life of the Owens Valley."

IOU Theatre's roots first began in a garden on Main Street Lone Pine in 2009. Through an agreement with the Department of Water and Power, which owned the land, locals could access that plot to grow food. It has since then become a demonstration garden of what is possible and a place where the community gathers to talk about topics as diverse as the, composting, Cottage Food Act and water issues. By training Lone Pine locals to grow and make their own food, Metabolic Studio is providing the community with resources it needs to be resilient and self-sufficient.

The "War of the Worlds" production at the Double L Bar in Lone Pine back in December. | Courtesy of Metabolic Studio
The "War of the Worlds" production at the Double L Bar in Lone Pine back in December. | Photo: Courtesy of Metabolic Studio.

But mere sustenance isn't enough. As Maslow's hierarchy of needs starts with the physiological and ends with self-actualization, so Metabolic Studio also understood the need for the community to be creative. With that idea began the IOU Theatre, which performs at Double L Bar, next door to that embryonic garden.

One day, Bon had asked Fabb, "Why don't we go up and take look and see what things are relevant?" This innocent question soon uncovered a delightful detail about the neighborhood. It was once the shooting location for many Twilight Zone episodes. "A lot of locals still remember those episodes actually because when they were kids, they were part of the cast," relates Fabb.

With that, a diaphanous idea turned solid. "IOU Theatre quickly became an effective way to attract a diverse community of performers and audiences over locally relevant scripts and stories," says Bon.

The IOU Theatre began its season last June with a live reading of "Man Against the Mountain," powered the vocal and musical talents of residents. The script tells the story of the Lone Pine community funded and built the Mount Whitney trail in time to view the passing of Halley's comet in 1910. This debut was followed by another performance every month after until September. Two scripts from Twilight Zone were read, as well as a reading of "Death Valley Scotty," an episode of the show "Death Valley Days." Every show always had a connection to the community and Klusmire's Prairie Home Companion-style commercial breaks only added an extra dose of local interest.

It isn't the first time theater has been used as salve to devastation, recounts Bon. She ticks of some historical examples: "Waiting for Godot" in New Orleans lower 9th ward, post-Katrina; Bond Street Theater who created Jerusalem's first street theatre company with Arabs and Jews together in 1984; and the Federal Theater Project that brought live theatre to many who had never experienced it before in productions sourced from newspaper stories about farmers' troubles during the thirties and the ravages of the Dust Bowl.

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But more than historical precedence, theater has become a way for a community to come together. "It's a nice cultural addition to the Lone Pine community and the county. The audience fully enjoys them and it's great to do plays about the area," says Klusmire, "There have been tons of movies and TV shows shot around here. I think more than 400 in Alabama Hills. It's great to reconnect to that theatrical history while having some fun too."

Unlike the cutthroat Hollywood world, performance at the IOU Theatre is more fun than ferocious. Only four or five rehearsals are required to stage a show. No lines need be memorized, no blocking remembered. Cast members need only the ability to infuse emotion in their voices and to turn the page.

Perhaps the most difficult part is finding the script itself. Though some scripts were easily found in the archives of the Eastern California Museum, Fabb had spent a few days in front of old recordings of Twilight Zone episodes, meticulously transcribing each piece.

Indeed, it is that thrill of a local connection combined with the pleasure of seeing familiar faces on-stage that invigorates this community and packs the Double L bar every month.

It is this same energy that will soon grace Los Angeles because Metabolic Studio's work isn't just about Owens Valley, but it is also reconnecting the ties to Los Angeles. "It's an exchange between Los Angeles and Owens Valley," says Fabb, "By coming to Los Angeles, Angelenos will get to hear what Owens Valley looks like, sounds like, and be acquainted with our lifeline."

 

Metabolii Studio's IOU Theatre will be performing "War of the Worlds" this Friday, February 6 at Highways Performance Space at the 18th Street Arts Center.

 


 

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