When the Arts Collective at HCC (“AC”) decided how to mark its 20th Anniversary with James W. Rogers’ play, It’s A Wonderful Life, Producing Artistic Director Susan G. Kramer reached out to two former HCC students Gareth Kelly and Anthony Scimonelli.
After graduation, the two had gone separate ways. Both had made their own marks in theater as directors in the Maryland area, Gareth playing Roy Cohn in Arts Collective @ HCC’s_Angels in America, and also producing and directing, including at the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival. Anthony acted in Aladdin as the Genie at The Pumpkin Theatre and in the Improvisational Group at the Arts Collective @HCC’s Hallow-Scream W.I.G. Both agree that Sue Kramer was the glue that brought them together.
Knowing each other allowed them to jump right in and get things rolling. They felt very comfortable working with each other after all these years. Gareth admitted this is the first time he has co-directed a show.
Asked what the message of the play was, Anthony responded, “Having faith is something greater than you. I believe in angels, love and family.” Gareth felt believing in “community” and learning to “cherish” things “other than money or career.”
Both had seen the movie, but never had seen a live production. While trying to stick by some of the aspects of the movie, giving it a black-and-white effect on stage, the play is different. It is shorter, it takes place at slightly different times and parts are dropped or changed. They thought about how to deal with this at the beginning, but decided that although certain parts of the movie were doomed to creep in they would treat the play as its own entity. They worked with the actors in developing their characters in their own way to make this play unique from the movie. Although they agreed not to cast the play to reflect the movie’s actors or their types, their George Bailey [Noah Bird] is “Jimmy Stewart with a touch of [Steve] Buscemi.” They also wanted to incorporate diversity into the production which is the mission of the Arts Collective.
Many plays have been updated but Anthony stated they always wanted to leave it in period. However, Set Designer Jeff Harrison created a set that looks like an Advent Calendar, which differentiates it from the movie or other productions.
The movie’s director – Frank Capra – was best-known for showing that the common or average person can make a difference. Asked if they agreed, Anthony said, “100% but I don’t think there is such a thing as an average person.” Gareth felt that, “Where differences happen is in your personal interactions. Actual change happens between people.” Agreeing with Capra’s own assessment that the story had a life of its own (the movie was not a big hit for its time) Anthony explained, “When you get it up on its feet things naturally fall into place. [The story] almost tells itself.”
Director Scimonelli stated that they made the decision to keep Potter despicable to keep “polar opposites” between Clarence/Clara, and Potter, not because he is a banker, but because, “his focus is on greed and evil.” Director Kelly felt, “Theatrically you need villain.” Anthony felt that Potter is in his own agony with his isolation from the town, who loves George, and who knows what drove Potter to be so greedy and even handicapped. Gareth thought this story could be told one day as they did with the Witch from The Wizard of Oz in Wicked. Potter’s story could be that interesting on its own.
When asked why they switched Clarence, the Guardian Angel to a woman, Clara, they agreed both were very open to a lot of possibilities in casting, including having a woman as Clarence. Emma McDonnell could radiate the energy they wanted to come from the character.
They also had a lot more to say about the technical aspects of the show and how they would deal with problems like the span of time the script covers and the limitations they may have encountered putting their vision on stage. “We are very lucky to have the design team that worked on AC’s Ragtime: The Musical last season. They told their design staff they wanted these worlds to be created but gave them a lot of free rein to do so.
Anthony gave some insight about how they would deal with the many time changes in the show. It will be pretty technically impressive. Gareth added because the play was so much quicker paced than the movie there was not the room to do these time changes “with costumes and make-up as there was with lighting and effects.” His co-director noted that after both had worked in smaller formats in the Baltimore area the technical resources at HCC has been a gift. Gareth felt that there was a lot of structure already in place for the technical parts of the show. Sue told them not to place any limitations on themselves from the start and if they wanted something to happen AC would try to make it happen. The technical staff is led by Jeff Harrison, Set Designer, Lynn Joslin, Lighting Designer, Kevin Hill, Sound Designer, Riki Kim, Digital Scenographer, and Shannon Maddox, Costume Designer.
Each had their own pivotal scenes within the play. We were given an inside look as to how those scenes were developed to make them as important to the audience. For Anthony it was an early one between Young George and Mr. Gower. It always chokes him up. It’s a display of courage. It not only tells you about George’s character, but is pivotal in Mr. Gower’s life. They were able to bring in Fight Coach Jenny Male to help choreograph the beating of Young George [Graham Rifkin] by Mr. Gower [Bruce Leipold], which makes it visually more powerful and gut -wrenching. For Gareth it was after George Bailey [Noah Bird] asks even his arch enemy, Mr. Potter [Gary Grabau], for help and pleads to God, totally breaking down. Also, right after that when we are taken into the alternate world, and even though it takes place at break neck speed, it is has great impact. Gareth felt that Noah Bird brings so much to his role that his pick for the most pivotal scene will be very memorable to the audience by Noah’s performance.
Mike Nichols, the great film and stage director who died recently, said that all he wanted from his actors was to be ‘surprised.’ Commenting on this Gareth noted his actors surprised him, “By being so committed and so prepared in the first place. They were off book long before their off book date. They were pushing me and pushing us.” They as directors found they had to catch up with the cast. “We were in a good place really early. The question then became now where do we go? So we were able to challenge them a little bit more.”
Anthony was surprised at the first rehearsal where the lead actress and actor decided to put any awkwardness aside and began kissing. This was the first time he ever saw that in theater. Usually it takes a week or so for the actors to feel comfortable enough to do that. “It was mind-blowing for me.”
Kelly stated he is very grateful to direct this wonderful play and hope you will come see it. Scimonelli said it has been a joy and pleasure, one of the most enjoyable experiences of his life so far. Working with Gareth has been “Kismet.” Gareth ending by saying, “Both of us put It’s A Wonderful Life in the top 5 films of all time, so having a chance to do the theatrical version of it is just great.”
Arts Collective’s production of It’s A Wonderful Life plays from December 4-14, 2014 at Howard Community College performing at the Horowitz Center’s Smith Theatre – 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets call (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.
Running Time: Approximately 2 Hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Recommended for audiences 12 years of age and up.
Arts Collective at Howard Community College Presents ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ December 4 – 14th by Susan G. Kramer.