Shop Talk: This Wonderful Life

Posted December 8, 2020

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Before there was the annual avalanche of Hallmark Channel holiday movies, there was It’s a Wonderful Life.

Capra’s 1946 film about looking past life’s disappointments and tragedies, and embracing your intrinsic, human worth. The movie was both a box office disappointment, and an Oscar best-picture nominee – a theme of mingled woe and joy that runs through the film itself.

In the unlikely case that you’re unfamiliar with the story, let us sum up: After losing a large sum of money, everyman George Bailey contemplates his life - and more specifically, ending it, due to what he sees as a lifetime of failure. Enter Clarence, a likeable but slightly unfocused angel who has, as yet, been unable to procure his wings. The pair plunges off a bridge and into an alternate reality where George’s home town of Bedford Falls is transformed into an evil-twin version named Pottersville, and George sees what the world would be like had he never existed.

This Wonderful Life

Like the movie it’s based upon, Steve Murray’s solo-performance play, This Wonderful Life, tells the story of George Bailey and his journey to rediscover the good in his existence. The difference is in the premise – Actor Nate Burger plays a man (not-so-coincidentally named Nate in APT’s production) so obsessed with the movie, he wants to read every part to us. That’s somewhere around 55 individual characters, each portrayed with their own unique identity by one actor. It may sound like an impossible feat, but Director William Brown can’t say enough about how effective the story is in this format. “It's one guy, who loves this movie and wants to share it with you. And he discovers things along the way about the play and about himself. And that's what really makes this play for me; that's the exciting part about it. Here is this unique storyteller, played by Nate Burger, who has unlimited facility as an actor. He can do anything with language, and he also has the biggest heart on earth. And that comes through very clearly.”

As for Nate, he recently said that playing multiple characters is one of his favorite things. And his reasoning starts with the very concept of theater. “Playing multiple characters in a play, it's a challenge to the actor and a love letter to the form. You get to create suggestions of people through a repeated gesture, a vocal tic, a distinct physicality. And then when they appear, the audience gets to create their own version of that specific person in their head. And most importantly, when what the audience thought of and acknowledged as a kind of caricature makes them feel something, it's shocking. It's the best kind of magic available to us as theatre artists. Plus you get to be really weird and have way more fun.”

The Darkness and the Light

So how does a story that begins with a man considering suicide morph into an uplifting holiday story? Frank Capra, Jr. said in a recent documentary that of all the movies his father made, this was his dad’s favorite. Capra continued, “It's a Wonderful Life is a sentimental film, yes. It's also an honest one. It explores the pain of normal life as well as the joy."

Bill Brown agrees with that sentiment fully, saying that the hard times actually amplify the good ones. “In terms of just how dark it gets, I always say – and a lighting designer first said this to me – ‘the light don't mean nothin’ if you don't have the dark.’ And Capra understood that. I mean, it starts with a man standing on a bridge and getting ready to jump. And Pottersville is so grim. And there are a lot of moments that are really dark. But those moments are what make the light so bright. It’s a story that, in the end, makes you feel really good. But it doesn't accomplish that by sugarcoating.”

Nate added, “At its core, it's a story about a suicide attempt and a community rallying around one of their own to save him from himself, and I think that that will never be a stale conceit. And especially now, when we're hurting for physical touch and community and togetherness, a story where the central character is confronted with all the love he took for granted feels distinctly resonant.”

Relationships Matter

In a play largely about the importance of relationships, everyone on This Wonderful Life’s production team goes way back, and their easiness with each other shows in the final product. Bill and Nate have a long history, having first met while Nate was still in school at Loyola (“One of my best friends was his Shakespeare teacher.”) After seeing him work, Bill thought the actor would be a great fit for APT, and smuggled him into a small but memorable role in Sheridan’s The Critic in 2011 under the guise of needing another guitar player. “And then two weeks into rehearsal, I remembered Nate would actually have to play guitar at some point during the show,” Bill laughed. “And just a few years later he was playing Troilus in Troilus and Cressida.”

In addition to the show’s one-man acting company, Jacki Singleton has been Bill’s stage manager at APT more often than not, and sound designer Andrew Hansen has designed the majority of Bill’s shows at APT, and works with him at other theaters around the country. Bill said of working with this close-knit team, “It was joyful. It was fun. We cried all the time - we’d do a run, and Jacki would come on screen and we’d both be wiping our eyes. I mean, it never failed to move us. And I love the production. I mean, people are going to get a kick out of what we do with a couple of flashlights or Christmas lights for God's sake. And Nate continued to make the story, and the characters, deeper and truer – there are times it actually feels like two characters are talking to each other, you almost forget it’s just Nate.”

Nate was excited to take on an extra role (so make that 56!) on the production side as well, saying “Usually, as actors, we come in, and the design for the play is completed, and all of our collaborators have given us a ton of cues as to how this world will work and how our characters operate within it. But with this play, Bill and Jacki and Andy Hansen and I all came in at the same time with the same amount of pre-production preparation (none), and so we got to have design discussions around the scenic elements and the costume and the overall aesthetic of what we were trying to build, and that's something I've really never experienced in a creative process. It made me feel able. And useful. And creative. Which in the pandemic has been a feeling I've had in short supply.”

Making Something

In the spirit of the holidays, we asked what a few of Nate and Bill’s favorite things were about creating this play during this specific 2020 holiday season.

“Well, like I said, Nate is an extraordinary actor,” said Bill. “And it recalls the movie too, because Nate creates these characters that are in some cases very similar to the actors in the movie. But you’re always aware that it's this one, really enthusiastic narrator who is telling you this story, and it’s something he wants to tell you so bad. And then along the way, he discovers more. It’s one man's experience of this movie, and it really concentrates the story into its essence.”

“Making something,” Nate said. “I didn't realize how good it would feel to just make something. With the other zoom readings, we had a week to work on them, but with this one, we had three, so I had time to get off book (sort of) and dig into some of the characters and feel challenged. I'm just really happy to have provided something that I feel is actually pretty theatrical that the audience can discuss with their families during a time when most of us can't see our families. I can't wait to see everyone in person one day, but am very satisfied to invade your homes digitally for the holiday season.”

The Details
Playing through December 29, 2020

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This Wonderful Life
By Steve Murray
Conceived by Mark Setlock, adapted from the screenplay It's a Wonderful Life by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, and Jo Swerling.

Director: William Brown
Cast: Nate Burger
Stage Manager: Jacqueline Singleton
Line Producer: Jake Penner
Sound Design and Original Music: Andrew Hansen
Lighting Design: Steve Hinger
Video Editor: Asa Derks
Additional Video and Graphics: Hannah Jo Anderson
Special Thanks to Doug Frew