In Frank Capra’s 1946 film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey yearns for a life beyond running his family’s business in his hometown (the fictional Bedford Falls). Full of anger and regret, and at his lowest moment, he receives a Christmas Eve visit from a guardian angel who shows him what his family and friends’ lives would be like if he had never existed.
Today’s audiences continue to relate to George Bailey’s angst, and his eventual acceptance of the life he does have. Who, after all, hasn’t spent a moment or two considering how things would be better if only we’d made different decisions? The universal appeal of “It’s a Wonderful Life” has made it a holiday classic, nearly 70 years after its release.
As usual, “It’s a Wonderful Life” will air on NBC on Christmas Eve. But if you want to visit Bedford Falls a little early this year, tune in to Valley Public Radio at 8 p.m. on Dec. 23 to hear drama students from Clovis North High School present the classic in the style of an old fashioned radio drama.
The students performed it live for audiences at Dan Pessano Theatre last week and are scheduled for sold-out performances this weekend. Instead of staging it as a traditional play, Clovis North drama teacher and director Joel Abels had his cast perform the live version as though they were in the recording studio. “I had just done a radio play in the spring that I had a lot of fun with,” he said. At the same time, he knew he wanted to produce a show well-suited to the season.
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With five high schools in the district, drama performances are staggered throughout the year. “We never have the same time slots from year to year,” he explained. “Traditionally, if you have December, you try to do something that is holiday themed.”
Though he initially considered staging a different holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was chosen for its accessibility. To help his students further understand the format, Abels arranged with VPR to have the drama broadcast as it’s intended to be heard.
It challenged students to learn new skills and required them to rely on their voices and sound effects, rather than physicality and props, to connect with audiences.
“It was a really different challenge because they have a really hard time understanding that it’s just their voices,” said Abels. “We’re actually producing a radio play that will be heard as it should — but a key element of the live performance is making it interesting for the audience.”
“The game of the entire show is the synchronization between sound effects,” said senior Sam Linkowski, the show’s music director. He added, “I got to have my own input on music style and did new arrangements of some of the jingles. It was fun to showcase individual styles in this type of format.”
In addition to sound effects, the production also features four singers and live accompaniment.
The production presented one additional challenge: how to get the young cast to connect to a format most have only read about in their history books.
“As a cast we watched the film, listened to the original radio broadcast (“It’s a Wonderful Life” was adapted for radio in 1947 and 1951) and watched documentaries on radio plays,” Abels said. Although students may not have had firsthand experience listening to radio dramas, many are familiar with a similar medium: “Podcasts are a thing they relate to,” he noted, likening the newly popular broadcast delivery system to radio programs of the past.
“We were familiar with the movie,” said sound board operator Mara Thornton, a senior. “We did a lot of discussion about what a radio play is; back in the day that was the source of entertainment for the family.”
So, can a generation raised on Netflix and YouTube pull off an old school radio drama? The response from opening weekend audiences indicates they can.
“It was interesting seeing the kids our age, the high school kids who came to see it, how they were interested in seeing something they wouldn’t necessarily be able to connect with,” said Thornton.
“I’m surprised my beginning drama students are having a positive reaction to it because it’s so different from what they do,” Abels said. “It requires you to listen and be immersed in a style that they’re not used to.”
Older audiences have connected to the production as well. Linkowski recalled talking to a woman — the grandmother of a fellow student — who said it made her nostalgic for her childhood days of listening to radio dramas.
“I would say we’ve been successful, after seeing the buzz of the audience after the show,” Thornton said.
“It hits home,” Abels said. “We’re all much more vulnerable after the show.”
That vulnerability allows audiences to relate to the story’s message, no matter the medium.
“George Bailey had to realize he was worthy of belonging before he could belong,” Linkowski said. “The takeaway is understanding you’re worthy of love and belonging right at home.”