Among the plethora of events designed to get you into the Christmas spirit may I suggest “It’s A Wonderful Life-A Live Radio Play.” It’s directed by Fran Rude and she took time out of rehearsals to give you a synopsis of how it came to be and what you can expect on the night.
Talk about how you decided to do the “It’s A Wonderful Life” radio play
I was invited to direct a Christmas production by Lethbridge Rotary Sunrise (via Don Robb). I remembered seeing a broadcast 20 years ago on PBS television of a radio play, “Merry Christmas George Bailey”, and it re-kindled my deep love of the golden age of Radio (1930 – 1950). It was based on the iconic Christmas film, “ It’s a Wonderful Life” and the 1947 radio broadcast of the same name, featuring the film’s original stars. PBS could not use the Film title, nor the film script, because the film studio would not release the rights: hence the title “ Merry Christmas George Bailey”. The script was adapted, but there was sufficient similarity to the film to make it recognizable. I loved the PBS broadcast and always hoped I’d get a chance to do it someday. Never happened, because the rights never were released by PBS. Then, late last year I learned that a script had been written, using the original film title, which was far more faithful to the 1947 broadcast and film and, in fact, was available for licensing. So, when Don came to me, I agreed to do a Christmas production, provided it was of the radio play, “ It’s a Wonderful life”, and here we are!!
For an audience member who may not be fully aware of what a radio play looked like back in the day, what can you tell us?
Everything was done live, not recorded; there were no “takes”. It was sink or swim: there were no recorded’ laugh’ or other sound tracks, and shows had a live studio audience to provide applause, laughter or other responses. The sound effects also were live, done in front of the audience. This show is set in a radio station in downtown Manhattan. When the actors are not at the mics, they have stools to sit on. There is a pianist, Richard Coombes, who plays transitional music to change scenes, also underscoring. There are commercials, sung live by the cast.
You are from an era when you would listen to dramas and plays. What sort of memories does that conjure up?
I was raised listening to radio for entertainment. Ours was the first house on our block to have a TV set, and that wasn’t until 1953!! Yet I remember listening to my favourite programs on the radio, transfixed, hanging on every word, my imagination working overtime. I’d weep at the dramas, laugh myself silly at the comedies (I actually heard “Who’s on First” live, bursting with laughter), and have the hell scared out of me, listening to suspense programs. And oh, the Big Band orchestras during and after World War 2—— love that music to this day. Soap operas were much better on Radio than on TV. Woe the person who would interrupt my mother during “Ma Perkins” or “Pepper Young’s Family”!! I’m so glad I grew up in that era of Radio, the form of which is almost non-existent today. Radio is completely different today: mostly news, politics or music, rarely dramas or comedies (with the exception of The Debaters, which I love). It was radio that really shaped my interest in the Arts. My very favourite show was Lux Radio Theatre, which I almost never missed. LRT broadcast live the scripts of major movies, with their original casts. I remember listening to “It’s a Wonderful Life” in March, 1947, as if it was yesterday! I heard “Casablanca”,”Mrs. Miniver”, and a host of others, all first rate films, all broadcast live. It was wonderful for me, because in Quebec, children under 16 weren’t allowed in movie theatres. I’d listen completely engaged and entranced— it was wonderful!
What’s been the biggest challenge for launching this one?
The technical demands are huge, because we’re not in a theatre, where everything would be at hand. We have to haul in absolutely everything we need—— lighting equipment, sound equipment, large stage props, loads of cable, light towers, etc— too much to completely describe. It’s a very demanding technical show, and I am blessed to be working with the best. The performers have to adjust to a non-theatre environment, which is tough for a show like this, but they are experienced and very well grounded and just “go with the flow”. The rehearsal schedule was a challenge, because if an actor was missing so were all the characters the actor played. A challenge for me is to stage the piece as a radio show, not a theatrical production. There is no ‘4th wall’ and the relationship between the actor and the audience is very intimate. I think in many ways, the audience becomes more engaged with the actor because there aren’t a lot of external trappings.
Tell us about the cast.
There are only 7 actors, playing over 50 roles, as well as doing many of the live sound effects. Their voice work is very demanding, because every character they play has to have a different voice: an interesting example is a three way conversation, in which one actor plays all three roles, and the radio listeners out there across the country have to believe there are three different characters. It requires tremendous discipline for the actor to remain consistent for the length of the broadcast, because it is very tiring work, but they are experienced and are doing very fine work. The cast consists of Mark Campbell, Morgan Day, Tony Deys, McKade Hogg, Jordana Kohn, Sheila Matson and Stephen Graham.
I also have to give a shout-out to the crew, who are a formidable force: Nancy Graham, Stage Manager: Jason Eveleigh ( Foley sound); Rob Stanford (Lighting and large stage props); Mary-Lynn Muhly (props and stage dressing); Helen Barber and Patti DeGorter (costumes).
How much fun is it to incorporate live sound effects?
It can get a little crazy at times, but once we’re in the venue and the mics are there to amplify the sound, it will be a hoot!. I think the audience will get a real kick out of watching what goes on. What’s so unique is that the tools for each effect sound like the real thing, but aren’t even similar: for example the sound of crickets is created by running fingers along the tines of a comb! I won’t give away any more! The sound effects and what’s used to create them are called Foley, named after the person who invented the system back in the 20”s. Foley still is used today, primarily in the film industry.
How close to the beloved movie is the radio play?
Very, very close, sometimes word for word. The length of the play has been adapted to approx 90 minutes, but nothing is lost. The script has everything: It is very funny, sometimes sad, sometimes romantic and very relevant to what’s going on in our world today.
The play is at the Lutheran Church on the West Side. Does it work in terms of staging a play?
I love the venue! It is very warm, intimate and welcoming. We are fortunate to have it as, with the Yates being closed, performance space is at a premium. The acoustics are excellent, stage area is a good size and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. The staff is terrific and I think they’re excited about this. Oh, and there is a parking lot adjacent to the church. The lobby is large, and there will be a handbell choir there from Galbraith School. The venue is very easy to find, because it is on the corner of University Drive and the Riverstone exit.
Where is the money going?
In keeping with reaching out and connecting with the community, the production is funded by sponsors and Rotary, and every dollar from seat sales will go to local community projects.
Where can we get tickets and when does the show run?
The show runs Dec 6 & 7, and tickets are available at Enmax or on line. Tickets are $20.00 ea, or 5 tickets for $80.00. Doors open at 7:00, play starts at 7:30.