There are plenty of actors who can deliver electrifying performances, but not many who can make magic happen when their performance venue is literally left without electricity. But Bill Oberst Jr. proved that he was up to that particularly onerous challenge in August 2016, when his planned solo performance of the classic Ray Bradbury story “Pillar of Fire” at the South Pasadena Public Library’s Community Room was nearly derailed by an, unexpected power outage.
As the crowd filed out of the building, Oberst hated the thought of disappointing them. He instantly decided to perform the show on the building’s front porch, without any sound effects or lighting and using a friend in the audience to read all the lines for other characters and stage directions.
The resulting performance received a rapturous response from the audience, and inspired Oberst to develop a bigger tribute to the legendary Bradbury. He’ll debut the resulting show, “Ray Bradbury Live (forever)” in a free performance at 7 p.m. Friday at the Community Room, located at 1115 El Centro St., South Pasadena.
“Afterwards that night, the audience was staying outside and someone asked me what’s my dream project and mine was to do a project based on Ray Bradbury’s life,” says Oberst, whose “Pillar” was selected as the Best Solo Show of 2015 in Los Angeles by theatrical review website Bitter Lemons and won that year’s Platinum Award at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
“Two people came up who had contact with his family and they said ‘Here’s the email address to contact the family,” adds Oberst. “They said they’d write the family for me, and the next day I got an email from family who put me in touch with how to license Ray’s material so I could portray aspects of his work. It was a three-year process putting the show together.”
Oberst’s script for “Ray Bradbury Live (forever)” mixes excerpts of Bradbury works like “A Sound Of Thunder” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes” with selections from 50 years of Bradbury interviews and essays, large-screen video projections and an original musical score.
Bradbury, who hailed from Illinois and attended Los Angeles High School after moving to LA as a teen, went on to write nearly 50 books, among them “The Martian Chronicles,” “The Illustrated Man,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “Dandelion Wine,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” and “Zen in the Art of Writing.”
Author of hundreds of short stories, Bradbury also worked in other genres, writing or consulting on screenplays and television scripts. Films he wrote or contributed to included John Huston’s “Moby Dick,” which Bradbury and director Huston co-wrote, and 1953’s “It Came from Outer Space,” based on an original Bradbury story treatment of a different title.
Fans of “The Twilight Zone” might remember an episode called “I Sing the Body Electric,” based on Bradbury’s book of the same name, which aired in 1962 as the series’ 100th episode.
The New York Times in 2012, the year of Bradbury’s death, called the prolific author “the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream.”
Says Oberst, who has won awards Off-Broadway and in Los Angeles for his theatrical reading of Bradbury’s “Pillar Of Fire,” “I’m the least likely person to portray Ray Bradbury. I didn’t know him and I don’t look like him, but I’ve been in love with him for 40 years. This wild, improbable project was born of wild, blinding love.”
Oberst recalls that his passion for Bradbury and his work was borne of an unexpected discovery he made while walking in the woods near his South Carolina childhood home when he was 12. He found a copy of Bradbury’s story collection “S Is For Space” and started to read, instantly feeling admiration for “his humanity and hope for humanity.”
“With all our shortcomings, he was never pessimistic about humanity,” explains Oberst. “Some parts make you cry because he loved people and found them beautiful despite their flaws. I called him the world’s greatest living science fiction writer and he hated that because he saw himself as a writer of the humanities, not just science fiction.”
The South Pasadena Public Library is the perfect place for the show’s world premiere because of Bradbury’s own strong ties to the local institution. The famed writer often remarked that he loved the city because its small-town atmosphere reminded him of his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois.
Bradbury also stated that the South Pasadena Library reminded him of the Waukegan Carnegie Library where he first started his lifelong self-education journey which eventually led him to become one of the most beloved and popular American authors. As a result, South Pasadena’s head librarian Steve Fjeldsted is aiming to develop the library’s Ray Bradbury Conference Room and is preparing a fundraiser to place a stained glass window in 2020, the author’s centennial year. So far, more than 200 items have been donated for an auction that will raise money for the goal.
“It is wonderfully fitting to be doing this first performance at South Pasadena Public Library, where the idea was born,” says Oberst. “It’s also apt that the show debut in the library that has dedicated its conference room in Ray Bradbury’s name and one that has also presented so many other projects to honor his legacy. And besides, a multitude of Ray Bradbury appearances, film screenings, and plays have been presented in South Pasadena through the years, not only at the library, but also at the Fremont Centre Theatre a couple of blocks away.”
In “Live,” Oberst will portray Bradbury at 50, a period when the author (who died at 92 in 2012) was at the peak of his physical and creative abilities. Since Bradbury enjoyed riding his bike to the library, Oberst will ride a bicycle onto the stage using a ramp that was actually built for Bradbury’s wheelchair during a late-life appearance there.
Oberst will be employing the approach that famed actor Hal Holbrook used to portray American icon Mark Twain for decades of live solo shows. As such, he will be reciting excerpts from some of Bradbury’s greatest works rather than delivering a straight biography of his life.
“I think that Ray was one of the greatest interpreters of his works, and he did it better than anybody else,” says Oberst. “In the show, Ray is doing an evening of readings from his works but of course it’s all memorized and he’s acting it out. ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes,’ ‘Sound of Thunder,’ and a story from ‘Martian Chronicles’ will all be performed by Ray in his own words. And we’ll have a digital music score and visuals on a screen behind him. His wife makes an appearance too, as an actress playing her makes a surprise appearance for a pivotal scene. I’m trying to make it like what’s going through his mind.”
Bill Oberst Jr. presents “Ray Bradbury Live (forever)” at 7 p.m. Fri. at the Community Room of the South Pasadena Public Library, 1115 El Centro St., South Pasadena. Admission is free and refreshments will be served. The show is appropriate for all ages. Call (626) 403-7350 or visit raybradburyliveforever.com.