Stage & Dance

Flamethrowers aside, 'Fahrenheit 451' hits a modern nerve

Ryan Case, director of Fahrenheit 451, said presenting the story on the stage presented some challenges.
Ryan Case, director of Fahrenheit 451, said presenting the story on the stage presented some challenges. Lexington Herald-Leader

As Ryan Case leaves Natasha's Bistro & Bar on Wednesday night to go to a rehearsal of Fahrenheit 451, the bartender reminds him, "I want a picture with the flamethrower."

Case says, "Everyone is wanting to get their picture taken with the flamethrower. We have a lot of interesting devices with this play."

The director himself is carrying a few implements that look crude and lethal, all for the purpose of bringing Ray Bradbury's science-fiction classic to Balagula Theatre's stage at Natasha's.

The 1953 novel imagined a future when people were enslaved to their TVs, which took up entire walls (70-inch flat-screen anyone?), reading books was banned and critical thinking was all but outlawed. Firemen did not put out fires — most homes were fireproof — but set them, burning stashes of books whenever they were discovered.

Some of Fahrenheit 451's themes — media saturation and its effect on intellect, censorship, ideological conflict — are pertinent today.

Case says the enduring relevance of the story is one reason he chose to stage the show, which opens Sunday for a two-week run. The other is simpler: "I love science fiction and I always wanted to direct a science-fiction play."

Before getting down to rehearsals Wednesday night, Case talked about bringing Bradbury's prescient work to the stage. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Question: I read a quote about Fahrenheit 451 that I wanted to bounce by you and get your thoughts: "Bradbury has stated that the novel is not about censorship, but a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature, which leads to a perception of knowledge as being composed of factoids, partial information devoid of context."

Answer: That's the point. Someone said, "This is dated," and it's not. At the time Bradbury wrote, he was a library guy and a library kid. He grew up in World War II with the book burnings that the Nazis were doing, and then when he wrote it ... that was during the '50s, and the McCarthy era with the suppression of information.

It was, at the time, sort of a scream against these condensed books, these Reader's Digest sort of things with these great novels condensed down to their very bare basics. And at the time, TV was getting louder, TV was getting more popular, radios and headphones and things like that. So he was looking down the road and saying, if we're not careful, this is where we're going.

So when someone said that's a dated script, well it's really not, because suddenly we are that society. It's another example of science fiction becoming science fact, and it's a good mirror to hold up."

Q: Is that why you're doing the play?

A: I didn't want to make a political statement. But socially, I did want to examine social behavior.

But I'm a big fan of science fiction. It's wonderful, it's imaginative, it's creative, it opens many doors. I read a lot of science fiction, not to the exclusion of other things, and staging of science fiction is rarely done. So it was a challenge on top of that.

Bradbury wrote this for the stage, and it's practically undoable. It has like 30 characters, and it doesn't suggest doubling. There's two burnings, there's an apocalypse. It's not a reasonable choice, but it was a challenge, and that's what I wanted to do: something that had a meaning and a message and something that would push us creatively.

Q: With those challenges, how have you approached this?

A: I kept my nose in the book. I didn't look at the larger scale — I did, but when it was time to work. If you look at the larger picture, it seems so huge, it's almost impossible to do. I took it moment for moment for moment, decision by decision as honestly and creatively as I could.

It's the largest thing we have ever done, as far as a cast — 12 actors and I haven't had a chance to count the tech people. There are probably 30 people in this production.

That was the challenge, and each scene was a challenge, so I just focused on the performances and the design aspect in controlling what kind of world I wanted to create artistically, and to keep it clean.

Quite honestly, I didn't know how it was going to turn out. We have an original score for the play. Your limitations dictate how you're going to do a nuclear apocalypse onstage. You can't have 12 people fall on stage. You have to creatively work your way through the piece. But when I saw it Sunday, with all aspects put together in a rough form, it was so unusual. It was a really interesting hybrid of performance and design, all together.

It immediately took you into the world. When the lights go down, you were there, in a future world.

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