Anathan theatre is taking a new turn in its innovative style of bringing touching stories to the stage. This year, the theatre department presents a radio show entitled “Merry Christmas, George Bailey!” based on the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Director John Walker, assistant professor of theatre, said that “after the tragic play last semester, I wanted to do something sentimental and cornball, kind of like I am.” He decided on a Christmas theme, which led him to the radio show he ultimately picked.
“I didn’t realize what I was doing,” laughed Walker. “I’m not directing a play, I’m directing two plays. So there’s one play that the audience sees and has to have interesting things that the audience sees, like these archaic sound machines and actors moving about … it’s also a radio play that has to sound urgent and real.”
Anathan Theatre also has a collaboration with Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) to air the audio of the show, which will be recorded, during the Christmas season.
“It was totally providential,” said Walker. “…you can tell the Holy Spirit’s at work on the project. I was thinking we could air it here on our own radio.”
However, when Walker mentioned to Tom Sofio in the Marketing Communications Department that it would be interesting to air on EWTN, Sofio took action and called Tom Price, head of EWTN, and let Walker pitch the idea to him. “Tom Price had done a lot of radio theatre in his youth, and before I knew it, was already running away with itself,” said Walker.
Senior Gregory Demary said that playing the character of George Bailey gives him “a lot of excitement and also a lot of responsibility … since the movie was so important to me (growing up), obviously I had even more pressure on me to live up to Jimmy Stewart’s performance.”
Demary said that the most difficult thing about the production is that it’s a radio show. “Normally at this point we wouldn’t have the scripts in our hands…all the actors have scripts in their hands because they’re playing voice actors. I’m not just playing the character George Bailey, I’m playing a voice actor playing George Bailey,” he said.
For Demary, this proves a challenge because “the time in which I really get to stop thinking about the scene and just get to act is when we’re off book.” His solution to this is simply memorizing his lines and having his script on the right page for reference if needed during the show.
The most exciting thing about the show being a radio performance, said Demary, is the fact that people who listen to EWTN nationwide will hear of Franciscan’s theatre department, rather than just its theology and philosophy programs. “It’s a way to get our name out there as an authentically Catholic theatre program,” he said.
Demary also hopes that Franciscan’s unique portrayal will convey to the audience “how in every relationship you have the opportunity to deeply impact someone’s life.”
“There’s an emphasis on taking care of your neighbor that shows the way Christian charity is supposed to work,” he said.
Walker emphasized the community aspect of the play. “(George Bailey) is so connected to that community without having to go off and do great things that he dreamed or planned of,” he said. “Just being part of that community made his life worthwhile.”
Since the show is in the style of a 1950’s radio performance, Anathan will be using foley sound effects, which use every day household items to recreate sounds, such as a box of corn starch instead of snow for the crunch of footprints. These items are placed on tables behind the actors, with one person in charge of their use and actors helping out during the performance.
Demary commented on how the foley sounds take the audience back to the 20th century. “Nowadays we have all these electronic sound effects that you can just pop into any video or anything that you do, but it’s cool seeing how they used to have to take every day items and use them for those effects.”
Another aspect of the radio show that Walker found different was that he could cast people against their types, since it is all about voices rather than appearance.
Maria Perez, a junior playing Mary Bailey, said that in voice theatre, “you can get cast as all kinds of people that you wouldn’t normally be cast as. … I don’t think I would be able to play (Mary) on stage. When you go into radio theatre, there’s a whole new level of possibility that opens up.”
For Perez, the most difficult thing about the transition from stage theatre is “figur(ing) out how to portray all of your emotion through your voice when before it (was) through blocking and your face and what you happen to be doing at the time, but with radio theatre all you have is a microphone.”
Mary is not Perez’s only role. She is also playing Annie, the African American housekeeper for the Baileys. “You have to add authenticity to that voice,” Perez said. “You have to make sure that your voice does justice to the character.”
Perez shared that she is excited about the show being “immortalized.”
“It’s being recorded, and all our emotions are in that recording,” she said. “You have the show in a literal box, not just in memory.”
Perez encouraged students and members of the community to attend because “it’s a classic tale, and they will get to see it authentically as a radio show in an art form that’s kind of been lost to us.”
“The audience has a very special role in this play,” said Demary, “since it’ll be recorded. Their reactions, whether they laugh or applaud or gasp at some surprise will be recorded and then broadcasted over EWTN.”
All music for the show was sung or played by the actors on the piano. There were four microphones on stage in which actors spoke, at various distances from them according to the tone or volume desired, and several microphones for the sound effects.
During the portion of the show where George “was never born,” the lighting went down to spotlights on the microphones, and the other actors put aside their scripts. This reinforces the isolation that George feels when Demary is the only one appearing to be reading from a script.
With many of the actors playing multiple characters, those who attended found it fascinating to watch how their voices changed.
“The coordination of sound effects was brilliant and really neat to witness,” said junior Rachel Lavallee. “It helped transfer you more fully into the story. The music was also beautiful, and each actor had seamless transitions from character to character.”
The show’s performance dates are Nov. 10, 11, 17 and 18 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 12 and 19 at 2 p.m. in Anathan Theatre.