George Bailey (Tyler Sturgess

Actors portray actors in Echo Players holiday show

Radio theatre production of Merry Christmas, George Bailey! described as a 'play within a play'

Dave Graham, a radio announcer at The Beach FM 88.5, makes his Echo Players theatre debut this month when he plays … a radio announcer.

“It’s not too much of a stretch,” Graham deadpanned when asked about his performance in Merry Christmas, George Bailey!, which runs Dec. 17-31 at Village Theatre in Qualicum Beach.

The play, a stage adaptation of the 1945 classic holiday film It’s a Wonderful Life, is based on an original live radio broadcast of the script from the Lux Theatre in 1947. As such, local actors are not playing characters from the movie, but radio theatre actors in 1940s-period costume, reading from scripts on a sound stage.

“It’s a play within a play, and it’s using a setting within a setting,” said Lesley McVey, director of the show. “I’ve been interested in doing a staged radio play for years, and this script is the perfect opportunity.”

In this format, even the audience is part of the show by “playing” a live studio audience.

“I think it works, because people know the story,” said McVey. “It would be really hard to do this as A Wonderful Life on stage, because people would have their own expectations of what it should look like.”

Instead, she said, patrons can use their own imagination to follow the story as it’s read by actors in front of period microphones created by set designer Mick Bank.

The “action” begins with Graham, parked at a table under an “On Air” light at one wing of the stage, announcing the show, coffee mug and cigarette in hand. Throughout the play he provides narration to move the play from scene to scene, and even breaks in with “a word from our sponsor.”

The actors, with the huge cast of 28 featuring several young children, remain seated in chairs at the rear of the stage until they have speaking scenes, at which time they step forward to one of the four mics lined up at the front.

On the opposite wing from Graham is sound effects specialist Denise Schuetz-Jones, who replicates footsteps, slamming doors, ringing bells and splashing water and more with a cornucopia of props while in full view of the audience.

Much like Graham, Schuetz-Jones comes to her role from her regular job as Echo Players’ sound technician.

“I do sound, but it’s usually from the booth upstairs,” she said. “This is my first time on stage. It’s kind of different; it’s a lot of fun.”

Another performer who moves onstage for this production is pianist Cathy Harper, who plays background and between-scenes music, as well as one of the Bailey children’s on-air piano lessons, from a piano placed alongside the seated performers.

“I’ve been blessed to have Cathy to do the incidental music on piano,” said McVey. “That adds so much to the feel and look.”

McVey said the radio play format allows her flexibility in casting parts. She has been able to get multiple children into the production by sharing the roles of the Bailey kids. And there were fewer men than roles available — a regrettably common affliction, she said — so several men play multiple roles.

“Because they’re radio actors, you don’t have to have them changing costumes,” McVey said, citing the example of Jared Cleveland, who plays a bank examiner, a cabbie and George Bailey’s uncle. “When he comes out as Ernie the cabbie, we put a cap on him to help the audience see he’s a cabbie. But otherwise, we don’t really have to worry about costumes.”

From left, Tyler Sturgess, Teresa Stanley, Imogen Brown, Megan Handley, Nolan Hupp and Grace Duncan rehearse a scene for the Echo Players’ production of Merry Christmas, George Bailey. In photo above, from left, head angel Joseph (Alistair McVey), angel second class Clarence (Mike Andrews) and George Bailey (Tyler Sturgess) rehearse a scene.— Image credit: J.R. Rardon/PQB NEWS

The large cast provides its own challenges, said McVey, including the wide range of ages — from eight to 78 — and wide range of experience levels.

“The only thing that’s not a wide range is the commitment of everybody here,” McVey said. “This has been such an enthusiastic and dedicated cast. They’ve all been so keen, and that is a joy to work with.”

Merry Christmas, George Bailey! runs every day from Dec. 17 to 31, except Mondays, Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Show times are 7:30 p.m. except for 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays and on Boxing Day. The final performance on Dec. 31 will be held as part of a special New Year’s Eve dinner, beginning at 9 p.m., with champagne and canapes to follow.

Tickets range from $20 for adults to $5 for children 12-under, with discounts for seniors, students and groups of 10 or more. For more information or to order tickets, call the box office at 250-752-3522, email info@echoplayers.ca or visit www.echoplayers.ca.

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