SRJC Theatre Arts presents “It’s a Wonderful Life,” its first online musical ever

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TOM_CHOWN PHOTO

Students acted from their homes with Zoom during the shooting of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” SRJC Theater Arts used digital magic to create the scenes and cohesive backgrounds.

Michael Combs and Peyton Krzyzek

Santa Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts performs “It’s a Wonderful Life” as its second online play and first online musical” at 7:30 p.m. Friday Nov. 27 live on YouTube. 

The iconic story about appreciating circumstances mirrors the turbulent present — and the play’s production itself. SRJC President Dr. Frank Chong will make his SRJC stage debut in a minor role as town pharmacist Mr. Gower.

Adaptor and lyricist John Shillington directs the production inspired by Frank Capra’s 1946 film about George Bailey, a man who is visited by his guardian angel as he contemplates suicide and shown what life would be like after he’s gone. 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is SRJC’s second production in which the cast and crew individually rehearse from home and connect via Zoom. Shillington said producing an online play forced him to find new ways to use his skills. He compared the experience to how Ginger Rogers had to dance with Fred Astaire.

“She does everything Fred does but backwards and in heels,” Shillington said. “This feels like that.”

Shillington also compared directing through Zoom to students’ first online semester. Even directing a student to wave in the right direction can get frustrating. 

“An hour of doing rehearsal in Zoom can feel like three,” Shillington said, “and getting scenes done doesn’t reinvigorate you the same as rehearsing live.”

Award-winning local artist Janis Dunson Wilson wrote the original score for this musical version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She said the musical scenes had to be pre-recorded because students use different recording devices which need to be synced. 

Wilson gave students rehearsal tapes of their songs and provided feedback on how their voices sounded with the rest of the track.

“I work with that one particular voice, and no one else is singing, and then I would put them on the track and line them up,” Wilson said. 

Because of the one-on-one instruction, Wilson says she got to know the students more this semester than ever before. 

Peter Crompton, who creates the cohesive backgrounds for the play, said that they used a mixture of stage and video techniques to create each scene. For example, students would act in front of a green screen, but they would “spike” the floor with tape to act as cues for feet placement. 

His greatest challenge for a scene is when he finds the right image, as he also needs to recreate different angles for the actors in the scene.

“I not only have to find the right room, but if there are four people in that room, I also have to have that many views of that room,” Crompton said. 

Alexx Valdez, 24, plays George’s guardian angel, Clarence, and agrees that this is a once in lifetime show for the community. 

“I think people should come see this show because it can help give people that connection. It can help remind them there is hope in the community even if you feel like you’re alone, and that’s a message of the show: that no one is alone as long as they have friends,” Valdez said. 

Peri Zoe Yildirim-Stanley, 16, a sophomore in the Santa Rosa High School ArtQuest program, said she had a hard time focusing on rehearsal during the week of the Glass Fire. She said the production only went smoothly because of the instructor’s talent and dedication. 

“For the most part, they had the technical aspects down, and I only ever had to worry about this new way of acting and storytelling as a performer,” she said. 

Special guest Chong said that everyone was nervous when they started filming over Zoom, but Shillington helped the actors build chemistry with each other. 

“John was great at disarming people and telling them to have fun,” Dr. Chong said. 

He considered working in the play a great distraction from the daily grind, but didn’t realize how much work it would be. 

“The faculty and staff put in a tremendous amount of hours from costuming to lighting to editing,” Dr. Chong said. “It gave me a new appreciation of the work that goes into plays when I start seeing them in person again.”

Shillington said that another audience engagement problem is that many people are burnt out from Zoom.

“There’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall to engage the audience,” Shillington said. “We aren’t trying a lot of realism and are having a little fun with it.”

Some of the effects are practical as well. Scenes in the play bounce between heaven and Earth, which may be hard to follow on camera, so the Shillington decided to shoot the Earth scenes in black and white to separate it from Heaven. The black and white effect also adds to the small-town 1940s-America atmosphere. 

Wilson said that, surprisingly,  shooting over Zoom makes the acting feel more personal. “You get to see the singers perform not 40 or 50 feet away, but close up. They’re singing right in front of your face,” Wilson said. 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has provided both students and faculty a sense of solace during times of personal unrest. 

Valdez was hesitant about auditioning due to coinciding life events but once he started to perform, something special happened. 

“This role turned me around. This role gave me the hope I thought I had lost, it gave me my sparkle back. And hopefully through my portrayal of this I’ll be able to help other people with their sparkle as well,” said Valdez. 

Many students, faculty and community members have experienced problems in online learning, but Zoom wasn’t able to disrupt this performance.

“Doing theatre in this remote environment has definitely been very different, but not all bad. The fact that it was so smooth for us actors is a sign of just how talented our instructors were,” said Yildirim-Stanley. 

It wouldn’t be a true Zoom performance without technical difficulties. 

“There’s radio silence. It’s odd, especially when you’re used to hearing the audience cough or something,” Valdez said, “but everyone’s on mute so all you hear is your cat purring in the corner.”

But Chong said that even over Zoom you could feel the excitement of doing something as a troupe. 

Yildirim-Stanley said that rehearsals have been the highlight of her day for the past couple of months. 

“The word ‘grateful’ is really what this production is about. Not only is this the main idea of the show, this is how I feel every time I was able to work and perform with the other artists,” she said. 

Despite the time and frustration, Shillington He considers “It’s a Wonderful Life” a production of love

He’s happy he was able to bring to life a story with a positive message about appreciating what you have, a story that’s like comfort food, which people sorely need right now. 

“This show is peppermint hot chocolate for your soul,” Valdez said.