The one thing Farmington High School thespians needed most of all for their production of “It’s a Wonderful Life, a Radio Play” was patience.
Student actors had prepared to launch the virtual performance in December, when state health orders prevented them from recording in the school’s auditorium. They were finally able to complete the production this month, and it goes live at 12:01 a.m. on January 30.
With a typical production, cast members bond on and off stage. Connecting through virtual rehearsals took a little extra effort, especially from seniors and recent grads.
“All the kids were wonderful,” director Dean Cobb said, “but we always look to that core group.”
One of those students, Maggie Kramer, said patience was a big lesson for her, and it paid off in improved quality. The more students interacted, the better the show got.
Kramer said she felt responsible for reaching out to younger cast mates, the way seniors reached out during her freshman year in the program.
“They were the ones who bring the cast together,” she said. “After our first Zoom call, I thought, that’s me. That’s my job.”
Maddy Fohey made a conscious effort to avoid the cliques that can form and make the experience as “normal” as possible for first-timers.
“We wanted them to know this is not how it always is,” she said. “We were trying to make it as fun an experience as possible.”
The cast was also challenged by their iconic roles in the uplifting American classic. “It’s a Wonderful Life” recounts the story of George Bailey, a man rescued by guardian angel Clarence from an attempt to end his life. Played in the movie by Jimmy Stewart, George realizes how many lives he touched and how people’s lives would be different without him.
Graduate Ben Corsi, who plays George, said he aimed for a classic performance, “but not too much, not an imitation.” He learned that Stewart, who flew bombers in the Air Force during World War II, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned to civilian life.
“His first role back was George Bailey,” Corsi said. “In the scenes of George Bailey unraveling, those were basically PTSD panic attacks he was having. He said later they were very therapeutic for him.”
Elena Nicholson plays one of the show’s more colorful characters. At first, she thought she wouldn’t relate to Violet, the “gal about town”.
“I learned I can really do anything I put my mind to,” she said. “I didn’t think I could play a character that is kind of a raunchy person, and I did it. That was really fun to experience.”
Joe Smentowski, who plays the banker Mr. Potter, said he doesn’t play many “evil roles. I’m more typecast as the simple, nice boy.”
“Having to play multiple roles and sound completely different in them has helped me because I haven’t really experienced that. That’s something I will take with me,” he added.
Aidan Fetterman, who plays Clarence, was in a production of “It’s a Wonderful Life” during his freshman year, along with Corsi. He said he tried to put a lot of their friendship into the relationship between Clarence and George.
For Fetterman and other cast members, this show has provided a sense of closure. He’s gone from no lines at all to a lead role.
“I can’t believe how much I’ve progressed, and it feels pretty nice,” he said.
Three student sound artists will create effects for everything from walking in the snow to George jumping into the river. Audiences will see graphics, but none of the characters, on screen. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is directed by Dean and Sue Cobb, with audio help from Sue Giannotta, Kathy Seremet, Sean McGuckin, and Jonathon Amayo.
To access the 90-minute performance, visit broadwayondemand.com/series/xWCXNKakWDii-its-a-wonderful-life-a-radio-play–farmington-high-school. You’ll be asked to register, but there is no charge.
The link remains open from 12:01 a.m. on Saturday through 10 p.m. on Sunday. There are no intermissions, and be sure to stay for the curtain call.
Here’s what the senior/graduate cast members have planned for their futures:
- Nicholson will double major in pre-law and theater, but hasn’t picked a school yet.
- Corsi attends Michigan State University on the road to a double major in psychology and acting.
- Fetterman is taking general education classes at Oakland Community College and will transfer to Grand Valley State University to study nursing or psychology and culinary arts.
- Fohey is taking general education classes at Schoolcraft College and plans to major in psychology while staying involved in theater.
- Smentowski plans a double major in special education and theater, but hasn’t picked a school.
- Kramer will attend Michigan State, but hasn’t decided yet on a major.