Holiday classic brought to P.E.I. stages as ACT celebrates 25 years

·4 min read

Amanda Rae Gallant refocuses and switches the pitch from her regular voice to bounce between a small child and and aging spinster.

"I've not really ever done any kind of character work like this before in any other shows that I've been in — it's only been one character at a time," said Gallant.

"So this is both intimidating and incredibly exciting and creatively challenging."

It is all part of her role playing 14 different voices in A Community Theatre (ACT) production of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play written by Joe Landry.

The play is staged in a radio studio in the 1940s where the actors put on the holiday classic.

The story is of George Bailey, who is a dreamer stuck in Bedford Falls but helps out his neighbours and builds a sense of community. When he falls on hard times, a guardian angel named Clarence shows him what life would be like without him.

After realizing that "no man is a failure, who has friends," Bailey reunites for a heartwarming ending of community spirit.

John Robertson/CBC
John Robertson/CBC

Two of the cast members play the two leads, George Bailey and his wife Mary Hatch. The other 25 voices for the radio drama are put on by the remaining 4 cast members.

"One cast person described it as maybe the audience will get whiplash trying to follow the different voices," said Marti Hopson, the play's director and co-producer.

"So those actors have had a fairly unique challenge of trying to portray different characters and they don't get to change costumes or change what they're doing — it all has to be with their voice and body language."

Using the staged radio studio mics, there is minimal blocking for the performers to work around beyond emotional ranges and voice talents.

John Robertson/CBC
John Robertson/CBC

Gallant will be joined on stage by cast mates Alex Arsenault, Jenna Marie Holmes, Mike Mallaley, Keir Malone and Rob Thomson. They will also have live sound effects produced on stage by Mitchell Gallant.

They will be using things on stage like shoes clopping together to make the sounds of someone walking, or two whistles played at the same time for a train sound or hitting a bag of glass with a hammer to make the sound of a window breaking.

Mitchell Gallant said it will be part sound work and part sight gags as he is on stage with the other actors.

"Because you can see the actors, you can actually see the actors emote and stuff and what's going on so we kind of add a bit of staging," Mitchell said. "I think I'm kind of more of a character as opposed to a foley artist."

John Robertson/CBC
John Robertson/CBC

ACT is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year — in a year when so many productions were shut down or cancelled due to public health restrictions during the pandemic.

The show was chosen in part because it had a small cast and minimal blocking, making it a good fit for the times.

"So to be able to celebrate our 25th anniversary by bringing at least one production to the stage is terrific," Hopson said, the play's director, co-producer as well as ACT's president.

"I think that people, a lot of people, are hungry for live entertainment and, of course, other people won't be comfortable and that's OK — everybody should do whatever they need to do to stay safe and comfortable."

John Robertson/CBC
John Robertson/CBC

The play will be a partnership with the Confederation Centre of the Arts an opportunity to bring theatre back to the main stage.

"We're really excited to be opening our house," said Adam Brazier, artistic director with the Confederation Centre of the Arts.

"We've gone from a 100-seat house down to a maximum of 300, and that's what we'll be seating for It's a Wonderful Life."

Brazier said seating will be limited as they maintain physical distancing to keep the audience safe.

The Centre had also considered mounting It's a Wonderful Life this year but chose to partner with ACT to support the local production in what Brazier called a "COVID-linings.

"This was a chance to reach into our community and to use our resources to support this company, ACT, which has been doing such great work in our community for decades now," Brazier said.

"So it's a real celebration of having them on our stage and us being able to contribute as producing partners with this entire venture."

Brian Collins/Landwash Studios
Brian Collins/Landwash Studios

In a year where there have been many cancellations and reasons to stay home, the group said it felt good to be able to share their art with others once again.

"The audience is the best part," said Gallant. "It's all fine and dandy to sing in the shower but there's something about the lights of the stage and the rustle of the crowd and then obviously the laughter and the applause, that's just — it just feeds me."

The play will be presented at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown from Dec. 3-5 and then at the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico from Dec. 10-12.

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