BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC & PUBLISHER
FIREside Radio’s founder and director Zachary Pelicano has two babies. Not only is he premiering the second of his King Arthur adaptations on Friday, Feb. 12 at the Younts Center, Pelicano and his high school sweetheart and wife, Mackensie, also just debuted their newborn twin girls, Evelyn and Piper, a mere three weeks ago.
But for the moment , his attention this Valentine’s weekend is focused like a laser — or rather, sword —on rehearsals for “Arthur of Camelot: The Dragon Wars,” the middle part of his original Arthurian saga that began with 2014’s “Pendragon: The Tale of King Arthur.”
Now it its fourth season as the Upstate’s only radio theater group, FIREside Radio performs original radio dramas based on classic stories as well as famous scripts from the Golden Age of Radio in front of a live audience using voice actors in costumes, some sets and lighting and lots and sound effects. Although the plays are not actually broadcast live on a radio station, all performances are recorded and available for streaming on the company’s website.
Pelicano, who is also Artistic Director of FIRE Theatre Company, readily concedes he is a “King Arthur super nerd.” For this adaptation he cherry-picked from many sources, particularly the first noted stories by Geoffrey of Monmouth in “History of the Kings of Britain” written early in the 12th Century.
But, he cautions, this version is not the romantic Camelot teeming with chivalry that modern audiences associate with the Arthurian legend. Those French versions evolved later and sidelined the king in favor of the Holy Grail, Knights of the Round Table and the characters Lancelot, Guinevere, Percival and Galahad.
Pelicano’s King Arthur tale is set in the brutal, violent post-Roman period when there is a vacuum of power and the kingdom is in peril.
Pelicano says he was first exposed to radio plays as a student at the SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities when he a traveling theater company perform “The War of the Worlds,” the notorious work based on H. G. Wells’ novel that caused a mass panic when it was broadcast Halloween Eve in 1938 by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre.
In fact, he launched FIREside Radio because he wanted to do “The War of The Worlds” live on stage. “The reason it is the most well-known is because of the hysteria,” he says. “It is written to trick you.”
Since their debut in August 2012, FIREside Radio has staged three shows every season — a Halloween, Christmas and adventure production — from Mercury Theatre scripts like “The War of the Worlds” (with permission from the estate of playwright Howard E. Koch) to adaptations of works in the public domain (“A Christmas Carol,” “Dracula” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to original holiday music revues.
Performed in January 2014, “S. Holmes of Bake Street,” which as the elderly Sherlock Holmes on one final case during the 1940 Blitz of London, was the company’s first original work.
Pelicano, who studied at Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York and now imbues his acting craft to teens at the Younts Center arts academy, says that in their debut production with “Treasure Island,” the actors were all dressed in black on a blank empty stage and nearly outnumbered an audience of 17.
“But ever since then we do a little bit more and more with sets and costumes,” he says. “And we have gathered a following, coming close to selling out at some shows.”
He says a radio play script differs from a theatrical play script in that stage direction is replaced entirely by sounds effect cues. He concedes this may be daunting for actors who have never done this before and usually only get in about four rehearsals before the one-night only performances. “The only comfort is that they get to read from the script for the whole radio show,” he adds.
And these all-important sounds effects often require ingenuity, creativity and lots of trials and errors. For the plane bombing scene in “The War of the Worlds,” they used an electric razor buzzing in the bottom of a metal stock pot. To make the sound of the stake going Dracula’s heart , they used a Zip lock bag filled with hand sanitizer.
Scripts like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” lend themselves to acoustical sound effects done on the fly, Pelicano says, but some cues such as the dragon in “Arthur” are made by manipulating prerecorded sounds. Furthermore, stories like “King Arthur” do get kind of violent and “because you can’t see it, you have to be creative and describe the action,” he adds.
And even with the sets and costumes to enhance the audience’s attention, many people who have witnessed his radio plays have told Pelicano they still close their eyes and just listen to the performance. “I hope we are not losing our imagination as modern people, but if we are I would like to fight that,” he says.
“Arthur of Camelot: The Dragon Wars” is a stand-alone tale, but this is the middle part of the saga where “everything goes wrong for our heroes and leaves our characters in peril.”
“If you’re coming to see King Arthur, take a moment to listen to the ‘Pendragon’ broadcast first, it will help get your bearings within the story,” he says. “Come to the theater and you will have a much different experience. And it’s super cool.”
Pelicano anticipates the conclusion of the trilogy “Merlin’s Dream: The Final Chapter” to be performed in early 2017. You can listen to all of FIREside Radio’s recordings including Part One of the trilogy, “Pendragon: The Tale of King Arthur” at http://www.yountscenter.org/fireside-radio.
FIREside Radio presents “Arthur of Camelot: The Dragon Wars” on Friday, Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Younts Center for Performing Arts at 315 N. Main Street in Fountain Inn. Tickets are $5-14. Call (864) 409-1050 or visit http://www.yountscenter.org/.
And don’t miss FIRE Theatre’s next production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” March 4-6 & 11-13.