By now we have all seen that this school year has had its share of new and uncommon challenges, and Amsterdam High School’s annual fall production was no exception. This year the cast and crew successfully managed to put on their theatrical performance with a slight modification – the audience would watch from the comfort of home. The holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was the selection for this year’s production. This holiday-themed play followed the classic story of George Bailey, who sees his life come in a flashback as he considers ending his life on Christmas Eve. Seeing as the students had to adhere to health guidelines, the production was done in an alternative fashion, and so the stage came to life as it was set as a 1940’s radio broadcast to meet social distancing requirements.
This classic and dramatic holiday production was made more entertaining by the addition of quippy narrations. The comedic acting melded well with serious themes of the play to make it more lighthearted. Also, additions such as rhyming advertisements between scenes made the unconventional radio show format feel more authentic. Although there was only one set, there were scenes when the actors seemed to make you see where they were. Some confusion was caused the first time an actor portrayed more than one character, but overall the cast did an excellent job distinguishing each specific character.
This production was much different than those of past years. It is the first play at Amsterdam to be streamed, rather than have a live audience. Unfortunately, since planning for a digital performance takes much time and effort to arrange, the drama clubs’ previous production Newsies, had to be canceled. For this production, the restrictions were known well at the beginning of the school year, and the drama club and its advisors did everything they could to ensure this production would happen. The play was approved to begin in late September, auditions were held shortly after, and rehearsals began in mid-October.
As for safety protocol, clearly, all actors had to wear masks and be socially distant, which meant there could not be any set changes or many props since they would require close contact. Using the radio show as the format allowed all actors to adapt to the changes, as it was a simple way for them to be six feet apart and have their own microphones. An understudy cast was prepared as well, in case a member of the main cast was unable to be in the building. In the case of in-person rehearsals being canceled, Mr. Stephani- the drama advisor- explains that there were plans involving performing through webcams or using pre-recording performances. He says that there were even some rehearsals done entirely online through Google Meet.
With all the obstacles in place, what motivated the cast to take part in this year’s performance? Senior Seth Cislo, the drama club president, played the part of Mr. Lawrence (who played George Bailey). Seth joined drama in the 8th grade during the musical The Addams Family. He says that this play brought a bit of normalcy back into his life and was actually easier to perform for a camera, but he missed seeing the live reactions of the audience. As for the part itself, Seth says “This role was definitely more challenging than any other role I’ve had before. This was not only my first lead role but it was also my first serious role that wasn’t just the comedic relief.” Seth explains his view of this year’s production, saying, “Even though we didn’t have a live audience and we still had to wear masks, it felt like any other show. We still got to become someone new and pretend that everything is okay in the world and that our world doesn’t really exist and that the only world that exists is the one we create. And we still feel like a family, we had one of the best casts that I’ve had the pleasure of working with and I’m so proud of each and every one of them.”
Junior Daniel Montilla was inspired to be part of the theater after seeing a past AHS performance, Lady’s Man. He auditioned for and secured a part in last year’s musical Newsies but unfortunately did not have a chance to perform. Daniel says that all the obstacles further inspired him to “channel the thespian within”. He had a rather unique experience for this performance, as he played multiple different characters due to the restrictions on how many actors were allowed on stage. When asked how many characters Daniel played, he responded “Wow, this question strikes a chord with me. I played about fourteen characters in the play, including both the narrators. The difficulty in playing so many characters didn’t actually stem from their differing personalities but from having to come up with distinct voices and stances to make sure each character felt unique and different from the others. What made it fun though was all the times I’d shout at myself and then cower at my own voice seconds later.” Seeing how being recorded was a different experience than a live audience Daniel says “I believe the camera held a silent weight about it. Though there were no audience members in the auditorium with us, we could definitely feel the expectations and support of those watching and the thought of our loved ones cheering for us was a driving force in putting in our best effort.”
Health guidelines were not the only new addition to this year’s performance. Mr. Stephani has stepped in as the new stage and production director. Though he has been involved with directing musicals in the past, this was his first official production as drama advisor. “It was a really amazing experience working with these students on this production and being involved in the club is this way. The students were so flexible and understanding of the difficulty of pulling this off” says Stephani. Seth Cislo says that though he will miss Mr. Nelson, “I like working with Stefani. He has an interesting way of practicing that makes me feel like we learn it faster which I seem to like.”
Since the audience streamed-in rather than sat in-person, how do we know what the attendance of “It’s a Wonderful Life” looked like? Stephani tells us, “This is one thing that’s very difficult to evaluate, unfortunately. We had a strong number of virtual ticket purchases, but there is no way of knowing how many people were watching at that in-home viewing. Depending on the family size, it could have been anywhere from 2-6 people per viewing, or in some cases, it could have been more or less than that. It’s very hard to know, but from the response and feedback from the community, I can tell that we are still able to reach a solid amount of people”. Daniel says, “I feel as though the fact that we were able to put on the play in and of itself is so important to the community as a whole at times like these. We could all surely use a morale boost to keep us driven in our day-to-day life and I believe our success in putting on a show this year has truly acted as the light Mr. Stefani said it would. Though we leaped through many hoops to make it happen, all our difficulties were made easier by the determination and raw desire to share our success that everyone on the cast had. Everyone worked hard to bring it to the stage, and we brought it.”
To learn more about the production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” the playbill can be found here: PLAY PROGRAM LINK