Clovis North performs “It’s A Wonderful Life” radio play

It wouldn’t be Christmastime without showings of the classics: “Miracle on 34th Street,” “A Christmas Carol” and, of course, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

Students at Clovis North High School recently brought the latter classic to the stage, performing a radio play adaptation of “It’s A Wonderful Life” to sold-out crowds at the Dan Pessano Theatre the first two weekends of December. Although the live performances have concluded, the students will be featured on Valley Public Radio at 8 p.m. on December 23.

Director Joel Abels said the decision to do a radio play, in which the setting is a 1940s recording studio as opposed to a traditional play where one would see George Bailey’s home and the other sights of the fictional town of Bedford Falls, was made after he participated in a radio-style play last spring.

The idea of a radio play, which requires the audience to listen closely to the dialogue as they don’t get physical clues from set changes or other visuals, was so intriguing to Abels that he originally thought of writing his own radio play version of “Miracle on 34th Street.” When that venture proved too overwhelming, Abels decided instead to perform an already-adapted radio version of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The same version was performed by Fresno State Theatre students five years ago, although Abels made some adjustments for Clovis North, most notably increasing the cast size from six actors to 21 to give more kids an opportunity to be involved.

After the play was on the books for the Clovis North season, a connection of Abels at Valley Public Radio secured the Clovis North play a slot on the radio just two days before Christmas.

“The Valley Public Radio thing came about because I was working on a fundraising project with them unrelated to this and I questioned Joe Garcia at the station and about it since they have youth spotlight programming,” Abels said. “I asked if it would be possible, if we recorded the show, to re-broadcast it as you would a normal radio play and they said yes and we obtained the broadcasting rights and here we are.”

Students in the show said it is unlike other performances they have been a part of.

Senior Scott Sullivan, who plays Uncle Billy, said being in a radio play is a different experience.

“It’s a very different format,” Sullivan said. “It’s almost like two different parts, you’re playing the actor and then you’re the voice of the character when the actor is at the microphone…I transition when I go up to the mic and I think of it as two different people instead of one person. I just like the different style of it and how you have to rely more on talking as opposed to physical acting, blocking and stuff.”

Senior Aaron Lowe, who designed the set and plays several characters including Old Man Collins, Bert and Bobby the Empire Singer, said the play explores what could happen in a real recording studio.

“There is this part in the play where an actor, played by Rhys Avants , gets sick and runs off stage and the stage manager has to cover and I think the audience really likes that part because they like to see all the behind-the-scenes things going on,” Lowe said

Lowe said he could see the show being performed in a museum.

“In a typical play, you have a costume and a certain way of walking and you’re a character where in this, you are playing an actor who plays these characters because it is a period piece and the things you do on stage count.” Lowe said. “Because the costume you are wearing is that of a period actor, you have to have other ways of letting the audience know who you are at the mic with vocalization and other character things like that…While a lot of shows you go and it is entertaining, this is different because it’s more of an experience. I can picture something like this going on tour to different museums with performing arts areas and this would be like, if you took a radio station from the 1940s and we put you in there, this is what it was like. There are a lot of things to observe.”

The most difficult part of performing in the plat is being sure not to break character when it’s not your actor’s turn at the microphone.

“You have to stay ‘on’ because you are sitting there on stage so you can’t break character,” Lowe said. “If I were to play these parts in the actual play, I would be off and on a lot and when you’re off stage, you’re running through your lines, getting a drink of water, and all that before you come back on. In this, you’re a character at the mic, but when you step down, you are a character still. That is draining in a sense because you have to stay on top of it. The developing of a character voice for each character is also the challenge because you have to make them distinct enough that the audience can tell them apart and it easily registers because it is a movie that everyone knows,” Lowe said.

Abels said although the play was different, it received a positive response from students and the community.

“I’ve been surprised at how well students in the audience have responded,” Abels said. “We did the Diary of Anne Frank last year, which is a very different play and it really took off. Students just clamored to come and see it. We sold out every performance of that and for students, we couldn’t get them there quick enough to see the show and most of our audience was students because they really got something from the piece. I don’t feel like we’re having the same reaction to this show, but for the most part a ton of students came to see the show. I would think they would just be bored out of their skulls because there is nothing going on, but they really seemed to enjoy it.”