Smile Politely

It’s a wonderful season for It’s a Wonderful Life

Turkeys have been carved, consumed, and live on as sandwiches. One or three too many slices of pie have been devoured. And as the food comas wear off, the holiday season begins. Shopping, lights, and classic holiday songs fill our days. Most importantly, though, our favorite movies and specials begin to dominate our television screens. Well, unless you watch the Hallmark Channel and started in July, but that is beside the point.

Although incredibly beloved, sometimes a fresh take on the movies that air every year can be a very good thing. This holiday season The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre presents a brand new take on It’s a Wonderful Life, adapted and directed by Ed Pierce.

Smile Politely recently spoke with Pierce about his take on the cherished movie—this particular version is presented as a live radio broadcast—and his creative twist on the story.

Smile Politely: Other than It’s a Wonderful Life being a much cherished holiday movie, what drew you to this show and adapting it for the stage?

Ed Pierce: First of all, the fact that it is a cherished holiday show really was a huge draw for me.  I’ve been interested lately in theatre that evokes strong emotional responses, and this one does that. Because not only is it a heart-warming story, and not only is it a story that touches on themes that so many people can connect with, it’s also a beloved holiday classic that evokes nostalgia and good feelings in people during holiday times. So, being able to present a show like that that I think will connect with people so strongly I just think it is an amazing opportunity as a director.

SP: As you spoke mentioned, as much as theatre can be an escape from life, theatre is also an opportunity to be challenged with emotional responses and certain messages or notions. So, It’s a Wonderful Life is a perfect choice, but other than those messages is the ease of adapting it to the stage something that drew you to it over shows like White Christmas or A Christmas Carol or other classic holiday shows?

Pierce: Well, I am much more familiar with It’s a Wonderful Life than other options. So, I think on that level it was easier because I was already so much familiar with the characters, story, and themes. So, as far as adapting goes I was already starting on second base I suppose. Now, regarding this format as opposed to other formats. We’re doing it as a live radio show set on Christmas Eve 1946, so it’s as if you’ve come to the theatre in 1946 to see a live broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life. You’re seeing actors from the 1940s. You’re seeing live sound effects. You’re seeing live accompaniment on stage. It’s such a fun way to see a show you’re already familiar with. The format really adds a layer of entertainment that I find very exciting.

SP: Is your cast just remaining static in front of a microphone like they would in the studio, or is their movement on stage to help engage the audience?

Pierce: There is a lot of interaction with the audience especially during the pre-show. Once we’re into the play itself then for the most part we’re standing behind mics. There’s a little bit of blocking. For the most part we let the actors’ radio acting abilities really flesh out the scene each audience member is painting in their own head. I think an audience member would have as much fun attending the show with their eyes closed as they would watching everybody.

SP: Did you find it more freeing or frustrating and confining to not have to worry about directing blocking or worrying about what you’d have to worry about with a regular stage show?

Pierce: It’s just a different animal. Really. It presents a different set of challenges. In some ways, yes, it was freeing not worrying about sets and blocking and props. On the other hand, we had to think so much more about establishing the set, the props, inside people’s minds. It really was something both as the adapter and director. The nine actors in the cast play all of the parts in the movie, so everyone is playing four or five different roles. And that is quite a challenge for an actor.

SP: You could have just done a literal live radio broadcast, and it would have been wonderful. But do you feel with this particular adaptation you are trying to turn the what we perceive theatre to be on its head? That theatre doesn’t have to be what we’re used to? It can be an overall experience and not just watching a show?

Pierce: I think whenever theatre surprises you it then presents an opportunity to look at the material, for the audience member to look at the material, in a fresh way. That’s something I was very interested in doing with this, because everyone knows it and every has seen it dozens of times. So, being able to provide the opportunity for audience members to rehear what they’ve already heard, and to reevaluate what they’re seeing, what they’ve seen in the past, I think is very interesting because this is a show that has very modern themes in it even though it is from the mid-1940s. So much of what is going on in there is right from today, and it’s nice to be able to present those themes in a way that is not obvious, doesn’t hit anyone over the head, but presents an opportunity to see things. But I think audiences to this show will feel the same feelings toward characters they felt growing up watching it. They’ll love the characters they loved. They’ll boo the characters they feel like booing. But those characters will be presented in such a new and fresh way it won’t feel like they’re watching someone just imitating the film.

SP: Other than supporting art and community theatre, why should members of the community come to see the show rather than sitting at home and watching it on NBC?

Pierce: When you see a show, or a play, you are participating in that experience. It’s an interaction between you, and the artists. And I think that two-way interaction is even stronger in this particular play. Films are great at presenting a window you look through to see something that’s very realistic, but nothing beats theatre at creating that connection.


It’s a Wonderful Life
The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre
223 N. Broadway, Urbana
December 5th through 8th, 11th through 14th, 18th through 21st, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday matinee, December 15th, 3 p.m.
Order tickets online here.

Photos from The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre’s Facebook page

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