Loud explosions. Green flashes over the sky of Los Angeles. Matching explosions on the surface of Mars. Nobody knew what was going on or who was behind it.
If you were on the corner of Winston and Main Streets in downtown this weekend, that’s what you would have heard come from a very frantic-looking man. He was dressed as a TV reporter and talking to a camera. But he was also standing on a stage in a parking lot surrounded by a set made to look like city rubble. People were watching in white folding chairs as music from Walt Disney Concert Hall streamed out of nearby speakers.
This scene was very confusing to people passing by. No one seemed to have any idea what was going on. As the story developed, the audience and people walking by heard that aliens from the planet Mars were attacking downtown Los Angeles.
What exactly was going on?
The music and actors were part of the LA Phil’s modern take on the classic radio drama, The War of the Worlds. The performance wa directed by Yuval Sharon, composed by Annie Gosfield and conducted by Chris Rountree. Sigourney Weaver narrated the performance and was continually interrupting the concert with news bulletins about the developing situation.
People on the street didn’t seem to pay much attention to the performance until the ‘aliens’ were broadcast from a yellow decommissioned cold war siren on the street. Sharon came up with the idea to use the sirens after a city official approached him and said there were more than 200 sirens across Los Angeles that he might consider using in a piece someday.
The sound coming from them was crackly but clear enough that it turned heads on the street. People walking by stopped in their tracks, took out their smartphones and started snapping photos and looking very, very confused. When the director Yuval Sharon created this piece, he as hoping for just this kind of reaction.
I'm actually hoping that no one will be fooled by this piece ….I would love everybody to say, 'Wow they're creating this kind of manipulative structure of this piece that's trying to fool me. Why are they doing this and what is this telling me about my everyday life? And how does it relate to our current political reality?
The War of the Worlds was first broadcast in 1938 as a radio drama about aliens from Mars invading the US, except the people listening back then thought it was real and it caused a panic. In this War of the Worlds rendition, no one had the complete picture. The audience in Walt Disney Concert Hall couldn't see the reporters at the sirens…and the reporters couldn't see the audience in Disney Hall.
So how did anybody know if it was real or fake? Just like the listeners of the original broadcast, many of the people walking by on the street didn’t have the context to understand what they were seeing and hearing, which was part of Yuval’s intention.
There’s a cameo by a 20-foot tall alien puppet, which is obviously a prop, but there's also an appearance by the real L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti:
Please do not attempt to leave this building. Just outside these walls is utter chaos...and if you're listening outside, find a stick, find a broom to defend yourselves and our way of life here in Los Angeles.
Sharon said when he creates he doesn't think about what the audience will get out of it, but with his reenactment of The War of the Worlds, he was a little bit more explicit:
“So if one organ of information like the news is being manipulated in brazen ways… in ways that are so obvious and are affecting the way the people believe what is and is not real…. I feel we need to use our own resources to raise the alarm… you know, quite literally set a siren going to get people to pay attention to this.”
Many people enjoyed the show but some were left feeling uneasy. It was scary to hear eerie noises coming out of the sirens and to hear parts of L.A. were under attack, one woman said.
They weren't quite sure what to make of it, which is exactly what Sharon was going for. Sharon is a 2017 MacArthur Foundation genius grant recipient known for site-specific operas that push boundaries, if not destroy them entirely.
“Question everything. Question authority. Question what you hear. I hope that the hour piece is an opportunity to really reflect on how to engage with making change.“
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