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Arts & Culture

Theatre Group Performs "It's a Wonderful Life" Live And On The Radio

Radio has evolved over the last 90 years since it's golden age of bringing live drama, music, and news . With Television, radio dramas have all-but died out, but beginning this weekend, a local theater troop is bringing back the radio drama for a live performance of "It’s a Wonderful Life."

In the 1940’s, families listened radio dramas and gathered around at home before television; that’s all there was except for movies. Live audiences would fill theatres like a sitcom, sound effects would be improvised, and the actors had only their voices to create their characters.

The Classic Theatre of San Antonio is reviving the Radio Play, if only for a few nights, with the holiday classic, "It’s a Wonderful Life."

"We're creating a radio station, circa 1946." said Diane Malone, the play’s director.

This is the first holiday production the troop has ever performed.

"We were kind of looking around for a special show to do," said Malone. "This is not on our regular season, it's an addition. A radio show without all the set, the costumes, and cast of thousands seemed like something doable."

This stage isn’t a changing set like a normal play  - it would be hard to recreate Bedford Falls like in the movie.

"If you're familiar with the film, you know how many characters there are. It covers a wide time frame too - from 1919 to 1946 - that's 27 years," Malone said.

Instead, a huge cast the all the characters are acted out by five people. 

"I have only five actors doing - I've forgotten what the count is - 42 characters or something; lots and lots of characters. George and Mary play only themselves, so the other three actors cover all the rest of the characters in the film," said Malone.

Bringing these characters to life requires a range of different pitches. Jack Berns plays the announcer, the antagonist Mr. Potter, a cab driver, and a bouncer. At one point he has three characters back to back.

"You have to come up with not only a different pitch in your voice or a different thing with your mouth, it's got to be a different inner tempo for each one of them so that they sound different," Berns said.

The story – if you’re one of the few unfamiliar with it – follows the life of George Bailey – an adventurous man who starts a family with his wife, Mary. When George’s uncle loses $8,000, George’s Building and Loan is threatened with being shut down, putting his family’s lively hood in jeopardy. George begins to think of suicide and is confronted with an Angel named Clarence trying to earn his wings. Clarence  shows him what a life without George Bailey is like

George: "What do you mean I wasn't there, what are you, a hypnotist?! Why am I seeing all these these strange things here?"

Clarence: "Don't you understand? It's because you were never born!"

Alan Utley plays George.

"I like it! But I'm a little nervous because, it's such an iconic character," Utley admitted when asked if he enjoys playing the lead role. "I think people are going to come to the show expecting something. They're going to compare me against Jimmy Stewart and they're either going to love me because I'm a little bit like him, or hate me because I'm a little bit like him, or they don't see me in him at all."

Renee Garvens plays Mary and said the sound is like a sixth character.

"That really adds another dimension, and it really puts people back into the concept of radio theater and what that was like," Garvens said.

While most of the sound is live, some music and effects - like car horns - are fired off by sound designer Rick Malone from a computer, bringing in a 21st century aspect.

"It is being played back with a computer playback program specially designed for theater - not for iTunes or anything else - it's specifically designed for theater. That allows you sequence the sounds, it allows you fade to them out, fade others in, stop them simultaneously. It's allows for very complex sound," Malone said.

If you’ve never seen the movie we won’t spoil the ending.

It’s a Wonderful Life will run tonight, tomorrow, and next Friday and Saturday at the Sterling Houston Theater at Jump-Start.