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

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