Friday, December 14, 2012

Get There Faster: Our Pair of Visiting Actors Talks About IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Todd Lawson and Katja Hill in
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Returning to PlayMakers to play the role of Lana Sherwood in It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play has been both a pleasure and a challenge. It's Monday, our day off from the run, and it's startling how exhausted I am. With our busy schedule of eight shows this last week, resulting in two double-show days fraught with twice the amount of time wrangling elaborate victory rolls on my heavily gelled and ossified hair, the joy of acting has shown its flip side as quite a bit of hard work. It's impossible to do each show well without sufficient rest in between.

It may have something to do with the nature of the show itself. Frank Capra's famous film is episodic, with a seeming cast of thousands popping up in multiple locations that zoom in and out in quick succession. It's also longer than the runtime of our play, adapted by Joe Landry. Translating this vivid world to a single unit set of a theater -- with a shorter run time to tell the tale -- takes a great leap of imagination and careful choices. Our director Nelson Eusebio accomplished this task with a small cast of five actors, one foley artist, and a shrewd economy of staging with tireless attention to what is perhaps the least glamourous element of playmaking outside of the sheer slogging work of learning lines: those infernal transitions!

What's a transition? Well, that means any change from scene to scene. On any given page in Landry's script, we could be in the radio studio, heaven, Martini's bar, Nick's bar, the Building & Loan, 320 Sycamore, mean old Potter's office, Zuzu's bedroom, or half a dozen other places. And despite the beauty and careful detail of McKay Coble's art deco set, Burke Brown's magical lights, and Rachel Pollock's elegant, beautifully tailored costumes, we don't use much other than four chairs, a few microphone stands, and Mark Lewis's savvy sound effects to establish those worlds. The changes from moment to moment are very much actor-driven and therefore, subject to human error. And for a while there, it was usually mine. The success of it all depends on a nimble cast to zip through what our director calls "the tops and tails" of every scene. Without Capra's camera to direct the eye, any one of us could shake an audience's focus, attention and interest in a poorly wrought scene change. Staying ahead of the audience is vital, though extremely difficult with such a well-known holiday classic tale. 

For my part, the name of the game is always "Get There Faster!" In heels, no less. So much of playmaking comes down to utterly mechanical stuff that would bore most folks to tears if they had to sit through a cue-to-cue tech rehearsal.  No, it isn't sexy, but those matters present actors with countless opportunities to kill a show with their bare hands if they're not ready to pounce on the transitions. It's odd how this awareness has changed what I've learned to see as an audience member. The best directors are those who are able to be fleet-footed in the changes from scene to scene so that the show can literally get out of its own way, but few want to spend precious rehearsal time thinking such things through. Our audiences are fortunate that Nelson did. 

Katja Hill

Todd Lawson as George Bailey (center),
with Maren Searle as Mary and Brandon Garegnani as Clarence.

Hey there folks,

So I traveled down to PlayMakers Rep from Brooklyn, New York, on a chilly October day, not really knowing what to expect. I couldn't have asked for more. What a welcoming company and community.  The experience here has been amazing. I was thrilled to be able to play one of my favorite characters of all time, George Bailey. But, to then be surrounded by such talented and generous souls while doing it has been the icing on the cake. It truly is A Wonderful Life here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If you haven't gotten a chance to come see the play yet, I hope you come share my joy for this wonderful story in this wonderful place during this wonderful holiday season. Thanks PlayMakers and Chapel Hill.  Hope to see ya again soon.

Todd Lawson

November 28 – December 16, 2012
Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Studio Becomes Bedford Falls: Designing the Set for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Scenic Designer McKay Coble on her set for PlayMakers' It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

The backdrop for It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
I had mixed feeling about accepting this design assignment! While I grew up in a Miracle of 34th Street house, I married an It’s a Wonderful Life man. My husband Frank, is such a fan of the movie that it is a really big deal when we watch it. The house has to be decorated, smell like pine and cookies. I think the wind even has to blow in a certain direction before we are allowed to watch it. We all watch as a family almost like it is a ritual, and my now-college-age daughters have fallen under the same spell. It is a real part of our holiday. My girls vie for who will get to say Zuzu’s line about her flower.

Through McKay's sketches,
the set takes shape
I was ambivalent about whether I should be part of a project that my family would clearly see as alien but was then intrigued to see if I could get the same response from them through a live performance. I was also pretty sure that this would be a challenge for other It's a Wonderful Life fans, to see “their” story out of context. “Make Frank Cry” became the rallying cry for the production team as we tried to bring the classical tale to life with a fresh approach and with reverence for the iconic movie.

My idea started, as does the script, in the studio of a radio station. Using the mechanics of the studio I start to drop hints from the movie into the space. This ultimately changes the space from a studio to the layered world of Bedford Falls. I use iconographic images from the  movie and bring them in so the audience members catch them out of the corner of their eye. My favorite is the moon over Manhattan that starts to morph into the lassoed moon Mary draws for George.

Zu Zu Ginger Snaps
I also have some 1946 product placement at the front of the stage with an ad for ZuZu Gingersnaps. I never understood why George and Mary’s other kids had such regular names--Tommy, Janie, Pete---and then Zuzu.  I looked it up: it really is a gingersnap!

I loved working with Nelson, who was so creative in his use of props and staging to move us subtly from the black-and-white studio approach into the colorful world of It’s A Wonderful Life. I don’t like colorized movies. This time I think it works!

November 28 – December 16, 2012
Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE: Dressing the Players within the Play, Part III

As PlayMakers puts the finishing touches on it's on-stage reinvention of the holiday film classic IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, we go behind-the-scenes to see what inspired our creative team, beyond Capra's classic movie, of course.

We continue our look at the sources that inspired costume designer Rachel Pollock when creating the clothing for the two '40s-era actors tackling the iconic roles of George Bailey and Mary Hatch.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rachel looked to Jimmy Stewart for our own lovable George, Jake Laurents (played by Todd Lawson). Also included are some close studies of texture and neckties, as well as specific focus on getting exactly the right, scene-stealing hat.

Sally Applewhite (Maren Searle) plays Mary Hatch, and color is among the orders of the day. Rachel looked at many examples of stylish 1940s cuts and catalogues to come up with just the right tone for our clever lady from Bedford Falls.

November 28 – December 16, 2012
Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III

Monday, December 3, 2012

PlayMakers Monday News Roundup

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a hit! The Daily Tar Heel today gave the show FIVE STARS,  saying it "breathed new life into both the classic story and the art of radio acting" and made this charming holiday staple, "once again, truly wonderful."

For those looking to go even farther inside the production, The Daily Tar Heel offered up a terrific preview of the show in Friday's issue, including interviews with actors and director Nelson Eusebio and a few glimpses behind the scenes.

Durham's Herald-Sun also interviewed lead actor Todd Lawson about the challenges of taking on the iconic role of George Bailey--if not Jimmy Stewart.

To hear Lawson's voice, as well as the voices of director Eusebio and actor Katja Hill, check out this interview with D.G. Martin for WCHL's "Who's Talking." They discuss the differences between this production and the original Frank Capra movie, as well as give you a small taste of the action you can see on stage.

Finally, for you radio lovers, tune into WUNC 91.5 FM tomorrow at noon and 9 p.m. as PlayMakers is featured on "The State of Things" with Frank Stasio.

November 28 – December 16, 2012
Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III