By Lou Fancher
Riding a crazy Covid-19 carousel to reach production, Contra Costa Civic Theater has managed to remount last season’s big hit, It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. The El Cerrito-based theater company’s virtual telling of the classic American holiday story of a man considering suicide on Christmas Eve, adapted by Joe Landry and directed by David Bogdonoff, spun its way to completion during recent months as Contra Costa County Health guidelines changed at a dizzying pace.
Artistic Director Marilyn Langbehn says in an interview the roughly two -hour radio play running through December 15 was initially envisioned as an all-digital creation under the county’s strict pandemic restrictions. Each actor and the foley (sound effects) was to be recorded at home in front of green screens. “We put together kits that included a green screen, camera, microphone, and costume, and delivered them to each actor, who then had to assemble them and learn how to operate the equipment,” she says. With cast members having varying technology skills, Langbehn says technicians could not do in-person troubleshooting. Considerable time was spent resolving technical issues by phone.
Two weeks before the scheduled filming dates were to begin, the health department announced California was opening up film and television production and loosening the COVID protocols. “We were able to make the case to film the show at the theater, says Langbehn. “The entire learning curve for in-home production was set aside; everything delivered to the actors had to be brought back to the theatre, and we pivoted to in-person filming.”
Bogdonoff reworked the script written for six actors to meet safety guidelines that allowed for only three actors to be on stage at the same time. Extra PPE including face shields, gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer was purchased and strict protocols for physical distancing and COVID tests requirements for every participant were established.
Langbehn says the learning curve—even though the cast and crew were onstage and on familiar stomping ground in the theater—was extensive. Directing for film instead of stage theater required multiple reframed approaches to perspective, staging, timing, lighting, pacing and more. The sound quality of recordings and time allotted to post-production editing became crucial aspects. “We learned the value of skilled professionals handling video and audio. (Videographer) Brendan Kelley and (Sound Designer) Michael Kelly were godsends, both of them,” Langbehn says.
Arguably, the stabilizing features throughout were the play’s timeless themes and relatable storyline. Set in 1945 Bedford Falls, New York, 38-year-old George Bailey’s thoughts of ending his life are interrupted by an angel, 2nd class Clarence Odbody. The fledgling angel assigned to save George in order to earn his angelic wings views a time travel narrative of the young Bailey’s life that has brought him as an adult to the brink of suicide. Clarence then shows George what Bedford Falls—now Pottersville and named after the play’s greedy antagonist—would have become without his positive impact. George begs for his original life to prevail and in an uplifting climax, order is restored and the sound of a bell ringing signals that Clarence has earned his wings. The ending is bittersweet, reminding people of the all-too-real dangers of overlooking friends, community and fairness in the pursuit of corporate greed and domination and personal profit and power.
Langbehn, as the conversation turns to the values of virtual versus live theater and life when Covid is no longer dominating the headlines, throws out new thoughts and a question she is pondering. “The arts over time have become a precious thing, and I mean precious in the worst sense of the word. We could afford a lot more transparency around the process of making the arts; right now the people we are supposedly making it for are excluded from the process until we ask them to buy a ticket. There's so much faith required in that purchase. Would it be so terrible to open the doors a little? That's a question each organization needs to answer for itself.”
While protecting and defending the sanctity and safety of the rehearsal hall, her role as an executive artistic director must also meet the needs of a culture that calls for an equal role for the audience. She says, “They must feel the same sense of ownership over the stories we tell as the artists do.”
Reprising a part of Jane Martin's play, Anton in Show Business, a production formerly included in CCCT’s now-canceled season, Langbehn says this idea of audience buy-in is integral to the monologue (excerpted here):
“It always feels like anything could happen. That something wonderful could happen. It's just people, you know, just people doing it and watching it, but I think everybody hopes that it might turn out to be something more than that. Like people buy a ticket to the lottery, only this has more...heart to it. And most times, it doesn't turn out any better than the lottery, but sometimes... My dad runs a community center, and back in the day they did this play called Raisin in the Sun, just about a black family or something, and it was just people doing it. He said there was a grocery guy and a car mechanic, a waitress, but the whole thing had like... I don't know aura, and people wanted to be there so much that when they would practice at night, 'cause everybody had jobs, they had to open the doors at the center and hundreds of black people would just show up, show up for the play practice. They brought kids, they brought dinner, old people in wheelchairs and they would hang around the whole time, kids running up and down, until the actors went home, night after night at practice, and when they finished, these people would stick around and they would line up outside like a... reception line... like a wedding...and the actors would walk down that line "How you doin'? How you doin'?" shaking hands, pattin' on the kids, and the people would give them pies and yard flowers, and then the audience and the actors would all walk out, in the pitch dark, to the parking lot together. Nobody knows exactly what it was or why it happened. Someday I'd like to be in a play like that. I would. So I guess I'll go on... keep trying... what do you think? Could happen. Maybe. Maybe not. ( She looks at the audience.) Well, you came tonight anyway.”
In ways made obvious by this portion of Martin’s play, virtual theater will never be a complete substitute for live theater. Langbehn believes virtual theater will be a permanent partner to live productions, but as the audience gains sophistication, the challenge for theater companies presenting a hybrid season increases. “Not everything should be put on film or live-streamed, and not everything is available for theaters to license for broadcast. For the (productions) that are, everyone involved (playwrights, directors, actors, crew and audience) should be aware of and comfortable with the idea that the emotional and visceral experience will be completely different.”