An inside look at Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s final production, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play’
Harking back to a time when the entertainment industry relied mainly on radio, this year’s Shakespeare Santa Cruz (SSC) holiday production retells an American classic the same way a 1940s radio station would.
“It was a very common practice in the ’40s to perform a play on the radio,” explains Lydia Bushfield, SSC properties manager and prop master. “While it was being broadcast, an audience could come watch the radio actors while they voiced all the different characters and the live foley [or sound effects], and enjoy the story in person.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play”—a rendition of Frank Capra’s holiday film mimicking this practice—runs Nov. 15 through Dec. 8 at the UC Santa Cruz Theater Arts Mainstage. As “A Live Radio Play,” the production centers on radio station personalities, and their manipulation of props and voices to create the characters and ambient sounds of It’s a Wonderful Life.
“It’s a really lovely look back into history if you never realized that this is how radio was produced,” says Bushfield. “There are scenes where one actor will do four different characters, one right after the other; it’s an interesting peek into how people were entertained in that day and age.”
The nine-person cast—made up of two trade union actors and seven UCSC students—manages to collectively provide the voices for more than 30 characters, and produce all of the sound effects on one elaborate set.
“It’s a very long process and there are probably around 40 foley props in the show, and they all have to look like they would be in a 1940s radio show,” explains Bushfield. “There are three students in the show that are doing the foley on stage—so we not only have to find the sounds, make them work, and get them stage-ready, but also teach someone else to use them.”
Using crafty combinations of everyday items, onstage foley artists can create sounds that would be unsafe or unfeasible to make onstage. For example, the sound of breaking glass is recreated in the production with a set of mini percussionist chimes and a small glass bottle.
“It is really friendly because we are all creating together,” says Emily Schneiderman, a UCSC sophomore playing one of the radio personalities. “There are so many levels of mentorship, especially with the professionals and with the other actors.”
While that mentorship exists, a staple of the holiday show every year is allowing students to interface as equals with professional actors, directors and designers.
“I think there’s nothing more valuable than working alongside professionals doing what you want to do,” notes Director Nancy Carlin. “There is only so much you can learn from talking about something in a classroom, and both sides benefit when you put professionals and students together.”
Shakespeare Santa Cruz has been bringing together UCSC students and theater professionals with vibrant holiday shows since 1997. However, “It’s a Wonderful Life” marks the end of an era. Back in August, UCSC’s Dean of the Arts announced that the highly regarded company was too costly to fund with university money. And so, after 30 years of celebrated performances, SSC will close its doors following this last holiday show.
“I don’t think that UC Santa Cruz, in their decision to close SSC, fully considered the impact of the loss of the company on students, local businesses, and the Santa Cruz and regional community at large,” notes Aimee Zygmonski, SSC’s managing and marketing director.
While UCSC does offer other opportunities for students to work with professional artists and directors, many believe that SSC offered something students couldn’t find elsewhere. For one, SSC hired and cast students as staff and interns in both the summer and holiday productions.
“There is a lot that student-run and faculty-run productions can offer,” says Schneiderman. “But being linked to this company makes you feel less like a student and more like a professional. I’m optimistic, I think we will be all right—I mean, we’ll have to be.”
It is painfully ironic; a company that must close its doors because of a lack of funding is performing a play that centers on the importance of giving over greed for its final production. Some remain hopeful for the future of UCSC and its theater counterparts, but for many, this holiday production is a bittersweet end to a local tradition.
“There will be an empty space where SSC was,” says Carlin. “I hope it gets filled by something similar because the value of students and professionals working in the field together cannot be underestimated. If students can no longer find that on campus, I hope they find it elsewhere.”
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” runs Nov. 15-Dec. 8. at the UCSC Mainstage Theater, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20. For more information and tickets, visit santacruztickets.com.