Prepare to be fully focused on your screen for 120 minutes when you sign in for a new kind of live theatre via IRT.
This Wonderful Life flies from a light-filled white cinderblock basement dressing room up blue metal staircases onto the main stage laid out like angel wings at the base of a fulsome circle intermittently running rainbow’s gamut — via human propulsion fueled by Rob Johansen. He’s on jet stream to show why the 1946 Frank Capra film is so meaningful to him.
Johansen grabs hold and never lets go until the bold strokes story makes you get up from wherever you’re sitting in the safety of your own space to shout whatever words come unprompted from the depth of your own humanity.
A man on a bridge ready to jump to his own death saves a man who tumbles into the river at that very instant.
Meet George Bailey, on a mission to end all his human struggles, and Angel (2nd Class) Clarence Odbody, on a mission to earn his wings.
It’s a whirr thereafter with Clarence parsing every nuance of “I wish I was never born” as a lamentable lament and a sorry excuse for feeling sorry about … a life.
Johansen not only embodies the physicality of the film’s multitude of characters — he telegraphs their soul-embodiment, from the devastating Mr. Potter to the devastated Zuzu Bailey, in the midst of that twilight zone into which we all are thrust as voyeurs in this new version of 'It’s a Wonderful Life.'
Within this recently-minted script by Steve Murray, we are invited to experience a different vision of the dynamics that grow a community. Who are we? Who am I? Be it Grover's Corners of Our Town or Spoon River or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a microcosm confronts us through the arts, and we can take away a lot of wisdom from the simple invitation to “sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
That said, I reached out to Clayton Taylor, Vice President, Production, at WFYI Productions. It’s the partnership between IRT and WFYI that makes possible the wonderment of This Wonderful Life.
KOHN: So many disparate elements so beautifully merged; form and content intertwine seamlessly. How did the WFYI filming crew and the IRT production crew map out the trajectory of the filming?
TAYLOR: First, it’s hard to imagine better collaborators than IRT! They are gracious, willing to learn and adapt from previous experience and try to make the best leap possible from stage to screen. And, of course, they are all gifted artists in their specific fields. This means that the lighting technicians make adaptations to what shows up best on our cameras, and the audio engineer makes sure we get the best possible mix. We then work on camera positions that capture the best angles. It’s actually a little trickier for a one-person show because each cut needs to make sense. Our director Brad McQueen sat in on rehearsals to develop a sense of how we could keep up with Rob Johansen’s kinetic energy. After we shot the dress rehearsal, we then compared notes with IRT’s creative team to come up with the best game plan for the recording of the show. And then we were able to fine-tune the final output in editing, in consultation with IRT.
KOHN: The editing — oh my — the editing … does anyone want to spill guts on this? And just asking: why one hour and 20 minutes?
TAYLOR: This is kind of an easy one. That was the length of the play! Janet Allen will have the background of the evolution of this play and the updating of the script to keep it current with the times. Specifically discussing the edit: we worked with IRT’s creative team to determine the actual pace of our shot changes. Rob is all over the stage and delivers a high-octane performance. We tried to find a balance of capturing that energy without making so many shot changes that it potentially detracted from the viewing experience.
KOHN: Based on rights, this is a finite viewing experience. What, within this, is the lasting WFYI takeaway aside from haunting any future production in comparison with?
TAYLOR: One takeaway is knowing that it’s a bloody shame that audiences couldn’t experience this in person. I was fortunate to be in the theatre, and there is nothing better. But this leads to another takeaway: how lucky Indianapolis is to have a theatre company with the creativity and quality of IRT and to face the devastating consequences of the pandemic with a can-do spirit. The other takeaway is how lucky we are to have artists of the caliber of Rob Johansen. His ability to sustain the energy and focus without pause is a wonder to behold.
KOHN: Filming isn't just a job — it's connecting, internalizing, thinking, sharing a choreography of head, heart, soul. What was happening for the filming crew as they too got sucked into this amazing new adaptation with an 80-year trajectory from a print-based story, to a Capra film that launched Dec. 20, 1946, to subsequent stage adaptations: a musical, radio play to 2020.
TAYLOR: As I write this, we are back at IRT filming the latest performance by Dance Kaleidoscope, and are working with such diverse groups as OnyxFest, Claude McNeal Productions, the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation, and the American Pianists Association, to name a few. We approach each of these productions with a sense of responsibility. We have become their pathway to connecting with an audience when filling auditoriums is not possible. On one hand, we have a sense of sadness about the difficulty of sustaining these great organizations that deserve capacity audiences. But we also look forward to the challenge of helping each of them build as successful seasons as possible, with the perverse bonus of now having good digital records of their work. Typically, capturing this body of work would be prohibitive because of rights and expenses.
KOHN: What else does an online audience member need to know about the filming live process?
TAYLOR: There is no substitute for being there. But we try as best we can, to replicate the experience and hopefully help the viewers feel like they are a part of the show. The energy of the feedback between the audience and performers is missing, as is the experience of being in some of the beautiful venues in the city. But we hope to make up for that with the added intimacy that some of our close-up angles can provide. And of course, if anyone coughs during the performance, you can back up the video and play it again.