Halloween Hijinks: An interview with War of the Worlds Directors Craig Coletta and Dave Marcoot

With infinite complacency, men go to and fro over this globe about their little affairs— but on November 5, 2016 at exactly 8:00pm, the world as we know it will cease to exist. The aliens have landed (though that may have actually been some five years ago when Yellow Sign Theatre took up residence in the old Zodiac Restaurant…theatre company started on a dare? A likely story…) and they’re recreating a science fiction thriller with their pending production of Orson Welles infamous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Featuring live sound work from Foley Master Dave Marcoot and a cast of eleven talented Baltimore-based performers, the show is bound to shake up the night with its limited engagement. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we sit down with the aforementioned Shaman of sound as well as the project’s Director and Artistic Director of YST, Craig Coletta, and talk about the experience.

Thank you fellas for taking a minute of what we know are your extremely busy schedules to chat with us about The War of the Worlds. Shall we get started with the who’s and the what’s?

Co-Director and Master of Foley Dave Marcoot (left) with Co-Director Craig Coletta (right)Amanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
Co-Director and Master of Foley Dave Marcoot (left) with Co-Director Craig Coletta (right)

Craig Coletta: Alright, I’ll start. I’m Craig Coletta and I’m the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of the Yellow Sign Theatre. We are turning five years old— well, we turned conceptually five years old on September 23, and I believe it’s October 28, which is the fifth anniversary of our first performance. In the last five years we’ve done something approaching 30 different plays, a number of films, radio work, um— a lot.

And you are doing what with this project?

Craig: I am co-directing this project with the man who’s going to speak next.

Dave Marcoot: Hi. I’m David Marcoot. I am the resident Foley artist, sound designer, and champion of modern dance. I am helping direct the sound aspects of the show.

And what do you do in the area that people might recognize of your work?

Dave: I make funny sounds with funny things. I make sound effects. I use found objects to make sounds in the traditional sense of radio theatre. I try to stay away from digital— actually I’ve never used digital sounds or pre-recorded sounds. Everything is made live on stage. That’s my experience with Yellow Sign over the last two years, or a little over two years.

How did War of the Worlds come to be a project of interest here at Yellow Sign for you two?

Craig: You want to start? You want me to start? Tell me, Marcoot, what you want me to do.

Dave: It came from— well it was originally coming from you and Joy (Managing Producer Joy Martin), right?

Craig: Yeah… Club Charles makes a big deal out of Halloween every year. In fact, the theatre began as something for the club on Halloween or around the Halloween season. We tend to think of what we at Yellow Sign do as ‘playing pranks’ rather than ‘making art’ because that keeps us honest and keeps us from being ‘too artsy.’ So the classic Halloween prank was War of the World. Welles (radio personality Orson Welles) pranked America by doing it and then continued the prank by vastly overstating the panic. The popular legend is that huge numbers of people believed the thing was real and that there was panic in the streets. And in reality probably a few people believed that story, but Welles just built that story and built that story and built that story.

Dave: Essentially he manipulated the media. He used the press to manipulate the audience.

Craig: Because Connor Kaiser is running Halloween weekend, with his production of The Flower Queen, we’ve moved War of the Worlds to November 5th and that just extends our Halloween season for an extra week. Horatio Dark’s Between the Lines began here at Yellow Sign, and that’s when Dave began his work with Foley. You can hear Dave every month with Horatio Dark on the last Monday just up the street at The Wind-Up Space. In conjunction with Horatio Dark a couple of years ago now— one year? Two?

Dave: 17 months ago.

Craig: 17 months, well done, sir. Well, 17 months ago we had taken a different path and did the old Lux Radio Theater adaptation of The Third Man, which was great. This seemed like a very good time to do the Orson Welles radio prank. There is some real relevance that we can extract from— especially in the first act— to today.

How so?

Craig: The first act has people not believing the kind of threat that they’re facing. There’s actually a bit where one of the army officers talks about what an easy job it’s going to be what with the massive army and the massive numbers of troops that they have to take down these things before the Martians get out of their cylinders and reveal the tripods. It’s this kind of incredible hubris that the American army— and by extension in the story the human race in general— are top dog. And we get our asses handed to us. Politically, the United States has been running for a very long time on the assumption that we are top dog and that we can do whatever we want and that it’s never going to come back and bite us in the ass. And it has. Repeatedly. And it continues to do so. I think that’s relevant. I think— not that we’re putting an overtly political spin on the story because we’re simply doing the story as it’s presented— but I think anyone who wants to connect the dots can say “Yeah, this is the arrogance of man in general, and maybe politically the US for a great many years, getting its comeuppance.”

Dave, you had mentioned the manipulation of media a bit ago. Care to elaborate?

Dave: There are at least two other things in there that are of real relevance to today, one of which is the speed at which media is reported in the news. In The War of the Worlds they’re trying the best they can to keep up with these fast moving events, having only the radio as a means of broadcast. And they just can’t keep up. And then you look at things today where we have this 24-hour news cycle where stuff will get regurgitated, it’s like the events can’t keep up with the speed at which we broadcast. There are all sorts of relevant tie-ins.

Craig: I think that’s true. Now, I’m trying to remember the name of this book— it’s sitting on my shelf somewhere— but there’s a book that came out 10-15 years ago and this is not necessarily an original thought, but the book made the point really well. “Science and science-fiction, and politics and science-fiction existed in this kind of cycle for a great many years where one informs the other.” It’s amazing to think— and maybe that’s the definition of a great piece of art or entertainment— that something made in 1938 can now be looked at and still see amazing political and social relevance today. We can go back to the original novel and see that relevance there as well. Wells, H.G. not Orson, was an astute political thinker and social critic. Orson built on that with the radio show. Again, it falls in line with Yellow Sign’s mission in saying “Popular culture is older than you are and looking at older popular culture can reveal interesting things about today.”

Well, that answers the next question of “how does this fit into the theatre’s mission?”

Craig: Absolutely. It’s almost like I’ve done this before and knew that question as coming.

Dave, what was your draw to want to be involved with the project?

Dave: It’s War of the Worlds. It’s a classic. It’s the quintessential radio broadcast that people know. When they think of sound effects and radio drama, I think War of the Worlds has got to be on the top of everyone’s list. And of course, Orson Welles! I think anyone would love to be a part of this project.

What would you say you think the challenges are going to be with taking this show, which you both recognize is an iconic entity that people will recognize and hold with certain expectations, and then doing whatever it is you’re going to be doing with it?

Craig: The challenges? The first challenge is going to be scheduling a time when we can actually get everyone together to rehearse. But that’s a common challenge with theatre in general. I think the challenge, for me, is not having people play to the period but echoing the period. I don’t want to hear a lot of impersonations of what was done in the ’38 broadcast. Or even necessarily impersonations of Walter Winchell— but I do want echoes of that! Striding that line between giving enough of the characterizations of the period to set it in its time and place but not giving a slavish imitation which would come off as false and stagey, that’s tricky. When we did Third Man, the wonderful Rex Anderson did the Orson Welles role. I said to him, “I want 10% Welles and 90% Rex. I want enough Welles in the voice that we understand that we’re paying tribute but I don’t want you just imitating him.” And he did that brilliantly. If I can pull off half as well coaching the actors to do this for the whole performance the way he did with that voice for that show, then I’ll be very happy.

Dave, what do you see as some of the more logistical Foley-related challenges being for you?

Dave: Well, there are quite a few. Mostly it’s that most people in the audience will have never the original radio broadcast. And I have to be honest with you, I’ve only just listened to it recently myself. The effect of the show on history is magnified over time even without having experienced it, we’re all familiar with it. It’s influenced movies— like Independence Day is War of the Worlds for all intents and purposes— so much so that our expectations of the show might outweigh what it could have delivered in 1938. So trying to be true to that but also trying to expand the sound effect vocabulary is going to be tricky. And doing that on my budget is going to be almost impossible. Also, once again— trying to do it practically. Even in 1938 they were using pre-recorded sound effects, and we’re trying to predate that even. That creates a challenge that even the original broadcast didn’t have to deal with. We don’t have a band ready to go, so the little things like that become challenges. But it’s mostly trying to meet the expectations of a modern audience looking to have that same thrill that the audience had in 1938. Only now we’re in 2016.

Craig: There are a couple of effects in here that I’m going to be amazed to see how Dave pulls off.

Any that are coming to mind?

Craig: Well yeah, but to talk about it would spoil it.

Dave: Yeah, we’re not going to talk about any of that just yet. Everyone is just going to have to come discover them at the show. But I will admit there are some things that are troubling me as I try to figure out how I’m going to achieve them. I might have to expand my own repertoire maybe to the point of sampling sounds and mixing, but I really want to try and avoid that as much as possible. I want all the sounds to be live on stage. Given that limitation, that creates the mother of invention. We’ll see how it goes. That said, I feel a lot better today about it than I did yesterday.

Tell us a little bit about what people can expect to see and why they should be interested in coming to see what it is that they’re going to see?

First rehearsal for YST's The War of the Worlds, Monday 10/3/16 at the Y-Not Lot in Station NorthAmanda N. Gunther | TheatreBloom
First rehearsal for YST’s The War of the Worlds, Monday 10/3/16 at the Y-Not Lot in Station North

Craig: Why people should be interested in coming to see it? We have a group of phenomenal actors, many of whom we’ve worked with before, and— I’m trying to think— is there anyone in the cast who has not worked with us on stage before? You know, Lee Conderacci has never done anything with us here. She’s new. And you, Amanda, you’ve never done anything with us—

I guess this might be a good time to mention that I’ll be appearing on-stage for War of the Worlds.

Craig: Yeah. So neither you or Lee have ever worked with us before. Are you guys the only two new members? I’m trying to think. Oh! And Tracey! Tracey Chadderon and Lisa Wiseman, who both have an affiliation with Yellow Sign but have never done a stage show with us before. So I guess it’s really four people who are new to the Yellow Sign stage, which is great. Then there are returning veterans—

Dave: It’s Doug…um…

Craig: Right, so Doug Johnson, Jon Freedlander, Scott Burke, Michael Stevenson, Mike Jancz…we just cast this I should know who else is in this…

Dave: Pat…

Craig: Oh! Pat Brennan. He’s worked with us before.

Dave: Pat’s also the Kroger Babb Festival winner from 2015 for his script of Ashes for a Setting Sun, which he directed and starred in during Artscape last summer.

Craig: I think that’s everyone.

Dave: Mike.

Craig: I said Mike. Or Mike, and Michael. Oh! And Michael Kent Cornett. That’s everyone. So a great cast of eleven people. It’s a classic bit of radio theatre and presents an opportunity for people to make modern day comparisons to the degree that people want to read into it all the political stuff that I mentioned earlier. That’s there. I think those are plenty of reasons to come see it. I’d come see that.

Dave: I mean it’s War of the Worlds. Seriously how often does that happen?

Craig: I’d say it’s been infrequently done.

Dave: And getting to see it live? I would go and see it if I wasn’t in the back doing Foley.

Are you worried that people are expecting it to be like the original broadcast? That’s always up for debate and consideration when remounting any work that has previously been done before, especially when it has such an iconic foothold in pop culture the way this piece of work does.

Dave: I’m not worried about that at all. I have complete confidence that our actors will be able to handle these roles. As much as the show is iconic, in terms of its impact on history— Orson Welles career, radio broadcast, or even science fiction— I think the voice work there is well within the range of our actors but will still allow them to have their own take on these characters. I don’t think they’re so locked in stone that any single role is iconic in that sense. I really think they will have room to grow and still stay true to the broadcast.

Craig: I agree with all of that. I would also say that as with so many classics, I would be stunned if the majority of the audience had actually heard the original broadcast. It’s the sort of thing we all know is classic. We all know the story of it, the impact of it, and so on. But I only heard it when I was young because I happened to grow up in an area where one of the local radio stations happened to do four hours of old time radio every Sunday night right at the time we were driving home from visiting my grandmother. That’s how I fell in love with old radio in general. I don’t know how many people have experienced that. I tend to think it’s fairly small. In the years since older broadcasts and films and things have become widely accessible through the press of a button on YouTube, you have to be something of a scholar of this stuff to have sought it out. You don’t stumble into it the way I did.

Dave: Yeah, growing up here in Baltimore we had a similar thing on Sunday evenings. I would hear that in my car when I was growing up driving around. But people today don’t have that sort of involvement. And of course we grew up with our parents and grandparents being involved with the radio. The radio was all they had for news so the radio was a huge part of our parents and grandparents’ generation.

Craig: My father was born the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed and his family didn’t have a TV until ’58. So he grew up on old radio. He, before I was born, was a radio broadcaster. He was a sports caster and a political talk show host. He went into radio because he fell in love with it when he was a kid. It was relevant to our parents’ generation, which meant we were directly exposed to it. We’re so far out from that now that it has to be something that you consciously seek out.

Dave: Inversely, this would be unnatural today— for there to be one singular broadcast that would captivate the nation. We’re at the complete opposite end of the spectrum here in 2016. And maybe that’s what’s most relevant is how far we’ve come from that, where one lone broadcast could be that powerful.

Craig: I almost wonder today…and you’re bringing up some really interesting things here in our conversation, Dave, but it’s making me think about the moon landing. That was a broadcast that anyone in the world who had access to broadcasting was locked in on that broadcast. I cannot think of an event today capturing everybody’s attention in that way. We have so many options that there is nothing that I can think of— short of an actual alien landing, maybe— that would just hold everybody’s absolute attention the way this broadcast did.

Dave: Think about it. If an alien invasion happened today— just think about how problematic it would be because the media distribution is so fragmented. We’d never believe it until three days later.

Is there a moment in the radio script that really speaks to you or defines the broadcast experience as a whole for you personally?

Craig: For me, yeah, there’s one scene. And it’s actually just two lines that sum up both what both Orson and H.G. were going for with War of the Worlds. It’s two simple lines. For me it’s probably the most powerful part of the production. And I hope we do them justice.

Are you going to tell us these two simple lines? You sort of have to tell us that now, you know that, right?

Craig: Yes. And I will, provided that you don’t write it in. I want it to be a surprise. It’s the part where—

Right, so we won’t be finding that out unless people come and see the show then. Dave, what about you?

Dave: I don’t think I have lines that sum it up for me, and at this point of the project I don’t want to speak from a sound effects point of view because I haven’t figured everything out yet, so I’ll have to pass on that question.

What are you hoping the audience will take away from spending an evening at Yellow Sign Theatre for War of the Worlds?

Dave: What I have had at every Yellow Sign show before I started being a part of them, a fun time.

Craig: There was a quote some people were discussing on Facebook, with the emphasis on entertainment and art and the balance of the two. It brought to mind a quote from Michael Chabon, whom I love and whom gets a lot of critical acclaim as an author. He is very, very honest about saying that he writes to entertain. I’m looking for the quote on my phone and I can’t find it.

Just sum it up for us.

Craig: In essence, what he was saying is “we need to be entertained and entertainment has gotten a bad rap. Maybe that’s because we’ve accepted such low standards for entertainment.” I would like people to walk away from this production saying “I can be entertained by actually exercising my mind a little bit and at the same time I’m having a great time.” I think that’s what we always try to do at Yellow Sign. We try to do something silly on one level but makes you think on another. I would love it if at the very least during portions of this show we were able to look out and see the audience with their eyes closed, doing what was done with old radio— envisioning the scene in their head. Not through the whole thing but here and there.

Dave: I just want people to come to the show and have a good time. I don’t need poetic words to tell people to come to the show and have a good time and to have fun.

Craig: I found this quote! I want to get Chabon’s words right because I think they’re so well put. “Maybe the reason for the junkiness of so much of what pretends to entertain us is that we have accepted— indeed, we have helped to articulate— such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment. The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth and over a wide spectrum. But we’ve learned to mistrust and despise our aptitude for being entertained and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.”

If you had to come up with a handle or a tagline for War of the Worlds, what would it be?

Craig: What do you want to tonight, Dave?

Dave: I don’t know, Craig, what do we want to do tonight?

Craig: Same thing we do every night, try to take over the world!

The War of the Worlds plays on Saturday November 5, 2016 at Yellow Sign Theatre— 1726 N. Charles Street in the Station North Arts District of Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available at the door or in advance online. Advance tickets are strongly encouraged.


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