A radio play on stage

The heartwarming story of George Bailey, his angel friend Clarence and the supportive folks of Bedford Falls will be re-enacted in Ignition Theatre’s radio play version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

George Bailey and his wife Mary

The heartwarming story of George Bailey, his angel friend Clarence and the supportive folks of Bedford Falls will be re-enacted in Ignition Theatre’s radio play version of It’s a Wonderful Life.

The stage production that opens at The Matchbox on Thursday will be more than a retelling of the beloved Hollywood film.

Since It’s a Wonderful Life is being done as a radio play, audience members will see how broadcast dramas were put together half-a-century ago, during the golden age of radio. “There will be actors playing multiple characters and using different voices, and live sound effects,” said director Albertus Koett.

The play’s set depicts an authentic-looking radio studio, circa 1947. It will be divided between a broadcasting room and a green room, where radio actors who aren’t immediately needed can rest up, reread their scripts or have a cigarette.

Koett said the audience will hear George Bailey’s story unfold as the brown- and grey-suited radio staff are quietly coming and going from large standup mics.

“There will also be sound effects of doors opening and closing, cars driving, glass breaking. . . .”

And, of course, the tinkling sound that happens when Clarence, the fledgling angel, gets his wings.

Koett is especially glad to be directing this production, since he’s a fan of the classic movie, as well as of old radio programs.

The Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart as George and Donna Reed as his wife Mary, wasn’t a hit when released in 1946. But it became a Christmas-time favourite after being aired on television in the 1970s and ’80s, and is now included in many 100 best films lists.

The familiar story centres on George, who at a moment of suicidal desperation on Christmas Eve is forced to relive the events of his life by an angel named Clarence who wants George to learn that his existence affects everyone he’s ever met.

While some film critics of the 1940s lambasted the movie for its overt sentimentality and idyllic depiction of small-town life, It’s a Wonderful Life is now loved precisely because of its unjaded message of hope, compassion and the sense that every life makes a difference.

“It’s a good story that the whole family can watch and be touched by,” said Koett, who previously directed Alice in Wonderland for Central Alberta Theatre.

The Red Deer College Theatre alum, who’s now in the Motion Picture Arts Program, recalled his enjoyment at hearing old radio programs rebroadcast on a Calgary station he and his dad listened to while driving back to Red Deer after watching Stampeders football games.

“Radio is fascinating to me because you can close your eyes and picture what people might look like. You can picture a whole scene in your head.”

Koett hopes audience members do this for certain moments while watching this play-inside-a-radio-play.

The all-important media source for the first half of the 20th century offered hope and a sense of connection to people living in isolated, rural locations. Koett noted that radio also launched the careers of many fine voice actors, including Mel Blanc, who later enlivened Warner Brothers cartoons, including Bugs Bunny and his Looney Tunes cohorts.

The 16 local actors who are taking on 40-plus roles in this production were asked to clip pictures of what they think each of their characters looks like, then to work on sounding like the persons in the photos.

Koett’s biggest challenge was directing on two levels — the play and the radio play. “I hope audiences enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life. And I also hope they enjoy witnessing the golden age of radio,” he said.

What: Ignition Theatre presents a radio play version of It’s a Wonderful Life, adapted by Tony Palermo

When: 7:30 p.m., Dec. 10 to 19

Where: The Matchbox, Red Deer

Tickets: $22 ($18 students, seniors) from Ticketmaster


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