Cosmic Message in a Bottle

Director Ruben Carrazana discusses the original radio play Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, now streaming from Cry Havoc Theater Company; plus our thoughts about the work.

published Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Photo: Cry Havoc Theater Company
Zoom rehearsal for Dark was the Night, Cold Was the Ground at Cry Havoc Theater Company


Dallas — Digital theatrical performance has been ramping up across the country and world in the wake of COVID-19, and it’s no surprise that theater artists are finding ways to make it interesting. It’s no longer merely about a filmed stage production — which can range from single-camera, distant and grainy, to world-class like the Hamilton offering now seen on Disney+ (filmed years ago, with the original cast, and obviously with boatloads of money) or the National Theatre Live productions, which have shown in movie theaters for the past decade and, since the pandemic started, have been seen for free on the company’s YouTube channel.

North Texas groups are part of the innovation. In June, Theatre Three created a new production of the play The Immigrant by filming it at the theater using green screens and social distancing, with one actor in each frame. Later this week, Amphibian Stage offers a Dolby XR “immersive sound experience” with the digital, sound-only production of The True History of the Tragic Life & Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World (the play is staged in complete darkness, so this approach is a no-brainer). This month, Jubilee Theatre, WaterTower Theatre, and Dallas Children’s Theater also join in with filmed versions of plays performed at their theaters. (We’ll be reporting on each on TheaterJones.)

The most recent addition is the radio play Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, written and performed by Ruben Carrazana and the teens of Cry Havoc Theater Company, directed by Carrazana and streaming on the company’s SoundCloud channel. Tickets are $15 and available here; it is available through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, July 19.

For six years, Cry Havoc has been one of DFW’s most invaluable groups, creating new scripts and devised works on a variety of topics — often social justice — and using high school students from across Dallas-Fort Worth. (Earlier this year, TheaterJones partnered with Cry Havoc on their first Teen Critics Program; we had to drop out of when the shutdowns happened, but the program continued.)

Dark is the Night was first planned in 2019 and had to be rethought after the Covides of March (the shutdowns started mid-March, so that’s what I’m calling it). The idea was to create something inspired by Voyager Golden Records, two vinyl collections of sounds from Earth that were launched into space in 1977 in the hopes that they would one day reach extraterrestrial life. The title refers to the 1927 Blind Willie Johnson song, which was included on “Sounds of Earth,” along with music by Beethoven, Stravinsky, Chuck Berry, Indian vocalist Kesarbai Kerkar and others; plus sounds ranging from a mother and child’s kiss, to various modes of transportation, to heartbeats, laughter, and animal noises.

This play is set in 4040, as beings have traveled to Earth in hopes of finding the place where those magical sounds originated. TheaterJones conducted an email interview with Carrazana about the process, which is below. First, here’s more about the production.

Cry Havoc always uses local professionals to work with the teens. For Dark/Cold, Kellen Voss is the audio engineer and Claire Carson handles sound design while the music is by composed Nigel Newton and dramaturgy is by Haley Nelson. In the cast, Dallas artist Colby Calhoun joins teens Breanna Cox, Sam Hurley, Arden Carethers, Janyra Chihuahua, LA Davidson, Olivia King, Rodrigo Fuentes, Susana Garcia, and Rayne Smith.

The 50-minute play is set up as interviews with various beings recounting what happened when the records were returned to Earth. Tae (Smith) conducts the first interview with Juno (Calhoun). There are several groups of beings in this story, including ‘liens, Ravens, and Citizens. I won’t ruin the clever names of planets, territories, and other characters, influenced by mythology and pop culture. British author H.G. Wells gets more than one homage.

Needless to say, the visit is not as expected for the travelers who consider themselves refugees and (surprise!) are not welcomed by all Earth humans.

This script comments on the human condition — as science fiction does — with threads about revolution, immigration and destruction of the environment, or “dishonoring the planet.” What it does most beautifully is illustrate the importance of the arts — singing, poetry, dancing, etc. — to humankind and other beings. That’s unsurprising for a story about beings who discovered humans via a recording that included music. The descriptions in the title song even play into the plot.

The voiceover performances are engaging, and the structure provides moments of rising and falling action, with reflective pauses and just enough suspense. It leads the listener to want more. Is there anything we can learn from others, or from our own history?

Before listening, you can probably guess the outcome — and even then, it's not quite what you think. It’s not likely that a cosmic message in a bottle can save us.


Now, the interview with Carrazana:

Photo: Kelly Williams
Ruben Carrazana

TheaterJones: How did this project come about?

Ruben Carrazana: Mara reached out to me around this time last year to ask if I’d be interested in directing one of their summer shows for their upcoming season. Ever since Mara and I directed Shots Fired a few years ago, Cry Havoc has devised and produced a big documentary theater piece once a year tackling some large issue, like gun violence or immigration. She said she’d be directing the next one exploring global warming, and she was wondering if I’d be interested in directing a smaller show that would be done in rep with that bigger production.

The only direction she really had for me at that point was that Cry Havoc was interested in exploring the idea of a dystopia, the work of H.G. Wells, and that it might be interesting if it was at least tangentially related to the global warming show. So, I asked if I could have like two weeks to think about it and see what, if anything, about those ideas interested me. I did a couple of cursory Google searches, really just pursuing my own pleasure, reading articles which led me to YouTube videos which led me to Wikipedia pages.

I was interested in creating a devised show that had a more focused narrative through-line. Oftentimes, devised theater can feel half-baked; it’s more about exploring ideas and themes and imagery than about character or plot or even about the writing. I wanted to have a stronger foundation at the start of this process, really just because I’d never approached this kind of work like that before and the challenge appealed to me. Eventually I landed on using the Voyager Golden Records as our jumping off point. Dystopian fiction is all about how the past and present affect the future, so I wanted to ask the cast what they thought our planet’s future would look like thousands of years from now. I wanted to see what kind of world they expected to inherit. I wrote down a couple of these ideas and questions, brought them to Mara, and that was that.


Once the shutdowns started happening, and then the prospect of creating online work became more prominent, tell me about the discussions of how to handle this work and how you arrived at the idea of a radio play.

Other companies were already trying stuff out online, so we kind of knew what might work and what might be less effective for us. Mara reached out and asked me to think about how the show could be done. I took a few days and thought about it. Doing anything that required video was going to be expensive if we wanted to do it right, and a reading on Zoom just seemed like a weird hybrid of movies and theater that lacked the things I love about both mediums, so we decided to do something that was audio only.

Not only would it potentially be cheaper at a time when arts companies are struggling, but I also thought there was this nice element of kismet in creating an audio play that was inspired by an audio record. It also occurred to me that we could continue Cry Havoc’s history of documentary theater by creating our own kind of fake audio documentary, with these aliens recording what they find on Earth after responding to one of the Voyager Golden Records. Once we agreed that we were producing a radio play, we knew we needed a team who knew audio well to make this work. So, we hired Nigel Newton as our composer, Claire Carson as our sound designer, and Kellen Voss as our audio engineer. Having these professionals onboard really eased a lot of my anxieties.


As a director, what were the challenges of producing and rehearsing work in this format?

Oh God. Every day felt like I was going into battle. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I was stressing out really bad about it. I felt so out of my element. Despite what theater artists and companies are attempting to do all over the country by adapting to more virtual offerings, I saw almost no overlap between what I am good at doing and what this project was asking of me. How do you keep nine teenagers engaged for four hours a day, six days a week, for four weeks, while sitting in front of their computers?

I was totally prepared to have actors dropping out. The most important element of devising a piece of theater is building a sense of ensemble, and I just didn’t know how to do that without physically being able to share a space and move together. I stayed up for hours every night trying to plan brainstorming exercises, and research projects, and writing prompts. Some of them failed, and I felt like an idiot after each one, but thankfully, these kids offered me nothing but grace and encouragement throughout the entire process. Their talent and intelligence and eagerness made it all worthwhile. All of my doubts would fade away once they started working. Seriously, if anything about this show works, it’s because of the tenacity and imagination of these teenagers.


How did the script change over time?

We spent the first week doing research. We looked into what defines a society; how do worlds become lost; how do we remember lost worlds; and how have other artists explored dystopias before. All of that information helped to inform everything we did our second week, which was spent building the world of our play. Who are these aliens and what do they look like, what did their world look like, what was their journey through space like, and finally, what kind of Earth do they find when they get here?

The script writing didn’t start until week three. Our first draft was about 75 pages long, which would’ve run close to two hours, so we had to kill our darlings and make decisions about what we were cutting. Our second draft was about 90 minutes, which was still too long for us. I wanted to get it under an hour. I love podcasts, but even for me, anything over 60 minutes is hard. There was probably a lot more exposition in those early drafts, probably a lot more showing off the intricate world that we had built. We actually developed a “show scripture” inspired by the “show Bibles” which so many television writers’ rooms put together. It included all of this really interesting history and details that fully fleshed out our world.

Our final draft runs a little over 50 minutes, and probably leaves a lot of unanswered questions, but I think the play is better for it. When I hear it now it causes me to lean in, because there are so many small details dropped here and there which are never fully explained. New words that we never define for our audience, and bits of alternative history that aren’t explicitly explained. I think it makes for a more engaging experience. It forces the audience to be active listeners.


What does it have to say about us in the 21st century and us at this particular moment in time?

All science fiction, even the bad science fiction, tries to tell us something about our present day. I knew early on that an important part of our work was going to be exploring how the issues of today might affect the world of tomorrow. So, at the very first rehearsal, I presented the cast with a prompt. It went something like, “A giant asteroid is hurtling towards Earth. The end of the world is upon us. However, you have been chosen to board a spaceship and escape to another planet. When you get to your new home, a group of aliens asks you to describe where you came from. What do you say to them?”

I wanted to know how the cast would describe their home, their society, their world to beings who had no concept of Earth. What do you include in that description? What do you leave out? I was hoping that in their responses, the cast would talk about the good of Earth, but I was more interested in how they described the bad. And there is a lot of bad. Protests and riots, disease, government overreach and police brutality, discrimination and exclusion. It all made its way into the play in some way. But like I said, it’s not all doom and gloom. I mean, there’s a lot of doom and gloom, but there’s also this really beautiful struggle between the good and the bad in the play, between hope and despair.

You’ve got these aliens from another planet, whose home has become a frozen wasteland due to their dying sun, and one day they find a golden record labeled “The Sounds of Earth” which contains images and sounds of a world of art and music where people are welcoming and peaceful. But when they get here, they find something else. They find some of that, but they also find a lot of corruption and hate. There’s a reckoning taking place in our country right now in regard to our past, our history, and who gets to tell it, and what parts have been left out, and what have been the ramifications of that, and what’s the best way to remedy that now.

The scientists of 1977 made decisions about what to include on these Golden Records and what not to include. What’s the danger of that? And what do these aliens do when they get here and learn that they’ve been lied to? I like to say that, in a way, this radio play, this audio documentary that the aliens create, is kind of our own version of the Voyager Golden Record. A truer record of what it means to be a citizen of Earth. Sometimes it takes an outsider to find those truths.


How did the performers adapt to this format?

Oh man, I don’t know. I made sure to check in with them whenever we tried something new in rehearsal. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to read a room when the “room” is a bunch of grainy rectangles on your 2013 MacBook Pro, and it’s even harder when some of the actors have their cameras turned off. I had to trust that they were being honest with me whenever I asked, “Did that exercise work?" "What do y’all think? Is this going to be a waste of time? Is there a better way to do this?”

Some kids are naturally going to be more outspoken, or some will be better writers, while others might prefer to sit back and observe and only contribute when specifically asked to. I get that. I used to be that kid. I still am that kid. So, I had to make sure that I created an environment that catered to ALL of those possibilities. Judging by the quality of the content they generated, and the eagerness with which they did it, I like to think they adapted to this virtual format pretty easily. They were also better prepared than I was going into it, because their last few weeks of school all took place over Zoom.


There are so many questions about when we'll be able to produce live theater for audiences in our spaces again, but do you think creating digital content is keeping theater artists innovative?

I don’t know. I hate to answer this question. I’m a theater guy. It’s all I know. I don’t know anything else. Up until recently when I got really into board games, theater was kind of all I had. I’m not a “content creator.” I don’t know how to use Instagram or TikTok as a creative outlet, nor do I care to. I don’t judge those who do, it’s just not what my training and experience are in. I also don’t consume any of my media from those platforms.

I did this radio play because I had already committed to the project, my schedule was open, and because I care deeply about the work that Cry Havoc is doing, but I won’t be doing a play over Zoom any time soon. I admire and appreciate the work that my friends and colleagues are doing around DFW right now. Everyone is trying. Some people are taking huge swings and knocking it out of the park, but even the best digital theater offering isn’t going to hold a candle to doing it live for me. There’s zero overlap between the two except maybe that both require performers and audience members, but the similarities end there. The sharing of the same physical space is at the foundation of what makes theater a unique art form, and we don’t have that right now. Until we do, I’m gonna stay home, wear my mask when I go to the grocery store, continue practicing Italian and piano, and hope that Dallas gets its act together.

I’ll adapt, obviously. Maybe I’ll make another movie, or another radio play, but it’ll have to get really bad before I give up on [live] theater. Thanks For Reading

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Cosmic Message in a Bottle
Director Ruben Carrazana discusses the original radio play Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground, now streaming from Cry Havoc Theater Company; plus our thoughts about the work.
by Mark Lowry

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