A tale of despair, family, love, and generosity encompass a classic holiday film that is on the eve of its 60th anniversary. Frank Capra’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ has become a family tradition for generations and The Americana Theatre Company is now offering a unique retelling of this beloved story suited to film’s time period. With a small cast inhabiting over 40 roles with a Christmas Eve setting, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ is performed as a 1940s radio play with a cast of just five actors. Click here for more information!
Managing Director of the Americana Theatre Company David Friday and Director Nick Mitchell discuss the inspirational transformation of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ into an interactive, onstage and in studio live radio show.
Examiner: What I like so much about ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ is the nostalgic 1940s setting fits right in line with the time period of the film. How did this idea come about?
Nick Mitchell: Radio plays have taken off and you see a lot of companies doing a live, mock radio play bringing in the effects and the different voices from the actors. It was only a matter of time before authors got a hold of pieces like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ There are actually two different versions of the script for ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ that is a formatted radio play. The one we’re using is by Joe Landry who condensed it into anywhere from 40 actors, but five are recommended and five is what we are going with.
Examiner: Those five actors will play 40 roles as I understand.
NM: Yes, indeed. George Bailey is played by Jesse Sullivan and Mary is played by Erin Friday, the Director of Education for Americana Theatre. They play just those roles, but the other three actors play everybody else.
Examiner: Wow, that’s a challenge. The Americana Theatre’s summer production, ‘The Three Musketeers’ was such an outstanding show! How did you find the actors for this production?
David Friday: I was in ‘The Three Musketeers’ as Porthos. My wife Erin Friday and I took over the Americana Theatre Company. Jesse Sullivan was Athos in ‘The Three Musketeers’ and is the Director of the show. It just became finding the other two actors.
Josh Nicholson from New York was also in ‘The Three Musketeers’ and has been acting with the Americana Theatre Company since its inception about five years ago. He’s very talented and an incredible asset. It’s a no-brainer to bring him back every time we do a show. We had to audition Taylor Overcash from New York. He sent a video audition basically reading from the script and going through a couple of different voices for us. Nick, Erin, and I made the final decision on the cast. Probably the most difficult and simplest decision was deciding between me and Josh which characters he was going to play and which 20 characters I was going to play.
The other difficulty that goes along with the radio show theme is the sound effects people. The five actors are also involved in doing the sound effects as well. So even when the actors are not speaking, they are doing some sort of background effect.
Examiner: I understand your voices will be enhanced with microphones, sound effects, and there will also be the authentic “Applause” sign. I like that the show is staying authentic to the nostalgia of 1940s radio.
NM: The “Applause” sign is funny. It is a fully working sign that David made. I kept thinking during the rehearsal process whether it is bright enough for the audience to see it. Should we gesture toward it? However, audiences have responded to it the minute that sign lit up. It was fun to watch.
Examiner: It also makes it more interactive for the audience too.
DF: The opening speech of the show explains to the audience that the broadcast will be in a radio studio. Other performances of this show have to be done on a large stage and broadcast on the radio to a different venue. In the opening speech, the announcer says that people at home are going to be able to hear you so laugh, applaud, cry, and it will all be part of the show. It really tries to get everybody involved including our stage manager who is transitioning more to an actor than a stage manager. He can be seen in the production booth window. We added that nice little twist.
Examiner: Have there been any surprises during this show’s run such as unexpected reactions to certain scenes?
DF: It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. I see it every year just like most people do and I get a little misty when I watch it. At the end of one evening’s performance, quite a few audience members were crying or very close to it. It is good for us. It just tells us we’ve been able to capture the spirit of the original film.
It’s nice and I’ve actually seen a couple of comments online on Facebook and such that people can’t wait to go home and watch it. They enjoyed the show and they want to watch it because the show recaptured something in a way that they have never seen it. They want to go back and relate it to what they know. People who are even thinking that way is a large victory for us.
Examiner: I know we spoke a bit about the Americana Theatre Company. Please tell me how you feel it is growing so far and what are your hopes for the theatre beyond ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?’
DF: We have already had quite a bit of expansion during and since the summer. While we were running ‘The Three Musketeers,’ we started up another branch of the theatre company called ‘Studio Americana,’ our education program. It began in the summer with a kids’ camp, which is a two week program where kids get together and put on a performance of ‘Cinderella.’ They also performed a kids’ cabaret, which is a musical revue that went over very well. We have had wonderful audiences.
This fall, we were teaching classes for any age. My wife Erin, the Education Director for Americana, was teaching the elementary school kids. She taught an ‘Age to Stage’ class where the kids write and perform their own play. She also put together a production of ‘Peter Pan.’ There was also another kids’ music cabaret where they performed Broadway show tunes. They learned the songs, the choreography, and performed them on stage. I taught junior high and senior high acting and music theatre classes. I also taught an adult acting class, which was all part of our fall semester. We’ll probably continue next fall as well.
Coming up this spring we have three more productions we are putting on as part of “Studio Americana.” We are doing ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ with elementary school kids and then a production of ‘Bye Bye Birdie Jr.’ with high school kids and junior high kids coming up winter 2016. Our goal for the professional company is to expand to four shows a year with one show each season and a big show in the summer. We are going to try to do a musical this year, an unnamed musical. Then in the fall, we are probably going to do a Halloween or holiday-related show and then at Christmas, we are hoping to bring back ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ depending on how this run goes this year and possibly making it the Americana tradition. We feel it’s a good direction for us.
Examiner: What is the best reason one should come see the production?
NM: In this digital age, we get entertainment where and when we want it with a push of a button. I think at this time of year, a show and format like this reminds us to set aside some time with people that mean something to us and be entertained. In the process of that, see how many lives we’ve touched in the meantime.
Examiner: It’s a live show so anything can happen.
NM: It will, believe me.
‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’ continues through Sunday, December 13 at Plymouth Center for the Arts, 11 North Street in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Reserve tickets by clicking here or call 1-508-591-0282. Tickets will also be available at the door. Follow the Americana Theatre Company on Facebook!