Ray Bradbury was 12 years old the day he met Mr. Electrico. Home was Waukegan, Ill., the year 1932. The Depression was on, but the carnival had come to town.
Bradbury was already reading Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum — tales of submarines and space, Tarzan and Oz. Earlier that day, a magician named Blackstone had given Bradbury a rabbit he pulled from his hat.
Down at the main tent, Bradbury watched as Mr. Electrico was jolted in a special chair before the awed citizens of Waukegan. Then Mr. Electrico stood, his body still crackling with energy. Brandishing a sword, he knighted the children kneeling before him. But when he reached Bradbury, Mr. Electrico suddenly bellowed, “Live forever!” And as the sword touched his shoulder, Bradbury felt sparks fly.
This, at least, is how Bradbury remembers it. Live Forever: The Ray Bradbury Odyssey uses pivotal moments like this to explore Bradbury’s transformation from a curious boy into the famous author of science fiction classics such as Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. The play premieres at the Besant Hill School Actors’ Festival in Ojai, on Jan. 29, followed by two more performances on Jan. 30.
Mystical or imagined, the encounter with Mr. Electrico did change Bradbury’s life. He returned the next day and Mr. Electrico introduced him to the carnies and sideshow freaks — the tattooed man, the fat lady, the acrobats and the skeleton man. Bradbury became a writer that day. Within a few days, he started scribbling furiously and never stopped.
Musician, painter and playwright Michael O’Kelly first conceived the project’s structure during an interview between Bradbury and O’Kelly’s son Devin, then 12. It was the first time the writer, now 90, had been interviewed by a child.
Bradbury told the young man, “You’re very much like me when I was your age. I’m still 12 inside, myself.”
Live Forever uses three actors to portray the writer at different life phases. Zachary Meade, 11, and Jackson Anderson, 16, play the child and teenager with John Slade as the reminiscing adult. Malcolm McDowell is the voice of the Universe. The story unfolds as a conversation among the three facets of Bradbury’s self, giving the play its fluid, surrealist structure.
Vintage and original film clips projected onstage delve into the writer’s subconscious. Art director Christopher “Moonlight” Cooksey used stop motion and a green screen to give the impression that “Ray’s memory and dreams are printed on old film.” Cooksey even built his own marionettes, filming them underwater, slowed down and backward to create the disjointed, shadowy monsters that haunt Bradbury’s nightmares.
Director Patti Lynn-Strickland believes Bradbury’s prescience will resonate with young audiences. She credits him with foreseeing in the 1950s the invention of wide-screen TV, reality shows, cell phones and iPods. Anderson, who read Fahrenheit 451 a few years ago and owns a cell phone, computer and iPod, marvels, “Everything he predicted is true now.”
The play holds equal power for adults, who may appreciate more mature themes of memory and nostalgia. In Lynn-Strickland’s favorite scene, Bradbury returns to a hollow tree in his hometown to retrieve a note he left for himself as a child. The note reads, “I remember you.”
“He appeals to all ages,” she says. “As soon as you can read and understand him, you’re a fan. People don’t really outgrow him. We all have that imaginative side to us.”
There have been discussions of taking Live Forever to other venues around California, to Broadway or Off Broadway, and Paris, where it has been accepted to the Jules Verne Festival. O’Kelly expects to wait another year before showcasing the play abroad.
That Bradbury inspires such tenacious devotion in his fans may be its own marvel. O’Kelly first met Bradbury five years ago through a mutual friend. Though 30 years apart in age, they discovered a shared temperament, including a reluctance to fly and a predisposition to weepiness. Out of that meeting came the Ray Bradbury Theatre and Film Festival to educate children about literature through visual mediums.
Though Bradbury is too frail to attend the performance in person, he will watch a taped version. That makes the message Bradbury sent O’Kelly back in 2008, after reading a copy of the script, all the more poignant. “My god, it’s amazing what you’ve done,” he wrote.
Receiving that message, O’Kelly said, was like “writing a symphony and getting a letter from Beethoven saying it’s really good.”
He hopes the play will introduce Bradbury’s work to a new generation of readers and persuade adults to revisit the writer he calls “the American Jules Verne.”
Bradbury “never wavers,” O’Kelly says. “He’s saying the same thing now as he was saying in the fifties, but it’s always fresh and inspiring. It’s like a honey pot. You want to keep going back.”