Kyle Whalen is a Chicago writer and theatremaker. He has written for PerformInk and Chicago Stage Standard. He is a company member of Commission Theatre Co. Follow him on Instagram/Twitter @whalenschmalen.
Photo: The 2016 cast of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: LIVE IN CHICAGO!. Photo by Johnny Knight.
An inside look at what makes American Blues Theater’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: LIVE IN CHICAGO! keep ringing after 15 years.
By Kyle Whalen
I didn’t put on enough layers. I’m chilly as I sit down by the tree and menorah in Greenhouse Theater Center’s lobby. Wendy Whiteside emerges immediately from the downstairs theater door. She asks if I’m Kyle from across the room, beelines to me, and warms me back up with a hug, noting that: “We’re ‘hug’ people here.” At once, I know why American Blues Theater’s It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! is in its fifteenth year: the theatermakers behind it radiate cheer. As I’m thinking this, Wendy leads me into the theater. By some stroke of luck, I’m on a behind-the-scenes walk-through — a glimpse into the mechanics and mysteries of live radio broadcast magic. Disclosure: there are some secrets I promised not to tell, and it’s better I don’t. When you see the show, wonder is your ally. Here’s what I can relay.
I first notice the microphones. One by the piano. Two in the foley area. Three glistening center stage — one with a special handle so the cast can quickly adjust for their various heights. I touch the middle one. It woofs back at me. It’s live already.
Wendy, who directed the show this year, encourages me to note the two different ways the cast will interact with the microphones. Sometimes “they’re performing for the audience in the room,” she says. “You’ll see when they come up to the microphone, they lift their heads and talk to the live studio audience. Other times, in intimate moments, they’ll focus all of their emotion into the mic,” and speak to the audience inside it, so to speak.
Wendy leads me to their miniature Bedford Falls, upstage behind a window pane. The tiny shop signs sport contemporary logos: ComEd, Lincoln Park Zoo, local restaurants, Blue Cross Blue Shield, etc. Colored Christmas lights spread like vines on the edges and inside the windows of each little building. Wendy points out a motorized prop snow machine mounted over the town, out of audience sightlines. “When you have a shoestring budget like ours, that really is a thing of beauty,” she says. If that’s the case, the production team must budget super prudently. Each design element emits “1940s” and holiday spirit.
Even much of the armory of foley stuff fits the era. Shawn Goudie has been the production’s foley artist for eight years. He’s spent that time curating his collection, testing, and reports that he enjoys selecting items that make just the right sound and look like they belong (or at least blend) into a 1945 parlor. A phone with a good click sound and a rotary. A typewriter.
The first piece he and Wendy gleefully point out is a burlap bag filled with popcorn. I press it between my fingers and out comes the sound of feet stepping in snow. I’m hooked, rifling through his whole station, assessing what each sound must be.
Wendy explains how Shawn hits a baseball glove to create the sound of a punch to the face. Shawn demonstrates how he cracks a perfectly triangular tortilla chip in his mouth, up close to the microphone, to make the sound of ice breaking. His shelves are full: a cap gun for a wine cork popping, a bowl of jelly beans spilled to replicate pills falling to the floor, a wooden cricket-shaped cricket-chirp maker, a train whistle, a gavel, a plunger plunging in a tub of water for drowning — the list runs on. I ask which of these methods he invented, versus which are received foley wisdom. He replies that many developed year-to-year.
“One that’s newer for us is dry lasagna noodles for the breaking of a record,” he says. “We got to the point where we were very sad about destroying records, and where ‘older’ records weren’t old enough anymore. They’d entered a phase where, though they looked identical [to older ones], they’d started putting a paper filament inside of them. So, we would go to break it, and it would crack, but it would stay together, and we didn’t get that shatter sound. We thought: ‘Hmm! We should start experimenting!’ And lasagna noodles ended up being a good one for that.”
Another challenge was finding the right bell sound. Now, Shawn has a wooden box he can wind to chime a bell inside, but “it used to be a bicycle bell,” he says, “which was always weird, because you could never get just one ring. It was always two rings, and I’d think, ‘Mm, that’s not quite right,’ but the audience would fall for it, so it’s okay, but — ”
“The audience falls for it!? I reject that sentiment!” Wendy cries.
“Oh, yes,” Shawn laughs. “What do we say?”
“They believe the magic!”
Shandee Vaughan, the assistant stage manager, also sitting with us, assures me it is truly magical. “Listening to it over the monitors, it just works. It really works and sounds like a radio show.” Shawn admits he envies her, and wishes he could simply hear what it sounds like for once. I’m excited to find out.
The house is set to open. Wendy walks me to some overflow seats behind the last row. She loves sitting up here, because she can watch the audience watch the show. “It’s such a beautiful story that stands the test of time. Because it’s about — humanity. Ugh, it’s so gorgeous!”
Wendy would know the story better than most. After being in American Blues’ ensemble since 1998, she began serving as Producing Artistic Director in 2010. She played Mary Bailey in the production for six years, before stepping in for original director Marty Higginbotham.
The cast enters, one-by-one, beginning to warm up. First comes Michael Mahler, the music director and jingle composer. Wendy says, “In the mini-city, all the sponsors are local, and we do jingles in the show. So we have Aquitane (a restaurant near the theater), Blue Cross Blue Shield, ComEd, Bacino’s, the zoo. We send the jingles to the companies, and some of them are like, ‘Can we use this?!’”
“How many instruments do you play in the show, Michael?” Wendy calls down.
He swivels in his chair by the piano, counting the ukulele, the lap harp, trying to remember. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five…five? Five.” And he has a new wooden slapstick, for the whip sound in Jingle Bells.
As the cast loosens up, sings scales, the stage lights turn on, I’m struck by how organic the set feels in the space, how comfortable the lighting, as if a holiday-decorated living room hibernated beneath other shows throughout the year — that this show, most of all, belongs in here.
Yet, next season, American Blues Theater will reside at Stage 773. Moving presents challenges that benefit the company, and It’s a Wonderful Life particularly. “We’ll be in the thrust, which has so much more space. We’re very excited. We’re already planning the new set,” Wendy says. Now in their 31st season, they held “a community-based 90+ volunteer” effort in 1993 to transform a warehouse space at Lincoln and Byron into a new theater. Their name eventually changed to American Theater Company as their collective accomplishments began to rival those of Steppenwolf’s ensemble. In 2008 a rift between the board of directors and newly appointed leadership caused the ensemble to break with the company and re-form under their original name, placing Whiteside in charge. They inhabited several locations in the eight years since, but their commitment to community outreach, a diverse ensemble, a collaborative atmosphere, and new American theater (their website counts over half of their mainstage productions as world and Chicago premieres) has only deepened.
Their new venue will not alter the broadcast’s main ingredients, though. Soldier Spotlight, a moment at the beginning of each show where the company honors an active service member or veteran, will remain. “Community service is important to our mission, so working with the military is a big part of that,” says Wendy. “Starting around September, we reach out to the USO, Department of Veteran Affairs, and different groups asking if they’d like to nominate anybody, a military personnel who’s either currently active or a veteran. Sometimes it’s a surprise, sometimes it’s not. If they’re here for the show, they stand and wave.”
She continues: “One of the best was — a woman who was in the first all-woman [unit] in World War II, and her kids surprised her with it. She was 92 years old — this was several years ago. She was just sitting to enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life when her picture came on the screen, and she was in her early twenties. The audience, all the cast — we all were just about to cry. This woman had done so much.”
Wendy mentioned that the some of the cast will warm up singing contemporary songs, switching to 1940s Christmas songs the minute before audience members enter. Sure enough, with just enough pause for Michael to exchange guitar for piano, from Tom Waits’s “Hold On” to “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” And patrons begin to file in, right on cue.
The house fills steadily. I ask Wendy if the houses start to pack as Hanukkah and Christmas approach. She replies that they’re full from the start of the run (which was November 18th this year) and that not only do local and suburban families attend, but many travelers are directed here by their hotel concierge. Wendy remarks they’ve started asking the audience where everyone is from. At this performance, there were families from Maryland, South Dakota, even Poland.
It’s not hard to see why people come. The room is buzzing. The air is aglow. I feel like I’m at a big family gathering. This is how I’d always wanted to feel at a play — but rarely do. Families and groups of friends claim seats and yell hello to familiar faces across the room.
And the cast is beaming. Brandon Dahlquist, in his first year, and John Mohrlein, who’s never missed a performance in fifteen years, laugh and laugh as if they’re dear friends — as far as I can tell, they are. They all are. Michael and Dara Cameron are singing duets in the background. Ian Paul Custer, Camille Robinson, and James Joseph patrol the room, smiling, asking people if they’d like to fill out an audiogram — a message that will be read during the broadcast, a message of goodwill, thanks, or love that can be for someone in the theater or someone listening out in Chicagoland.
Five minutes to air.
Michael directs our attention to the light-up “On Air” and “Applause” signs over his head. He teaches us that our spirited participation — our laughter and clapping — is integral to creating a full show for the folks tuning in. Finally, the cast leads the audience in a sing-a-long of “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman.” In that moment, I felt, in the best way, like I’d walked into the world of a Christmas song. They really are hug people here.
And, the lights dim. The cast nimbly arrange themselves. Michael Mahler is talking fast as a telegram into the piano-side microphone. We’ve started. He’s thanking us for coming to WABT Studios for this evening’s broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life. And I’m already in tears because I feel a bottomless sense of welcome.
James Joseph delivers the Soldier Spotlight for a woman in the Army Reserves, and Michael plays his first jingle for ComEd (which is genius — each one is genius), and then we’re zooming into Bedford Falls. Snow is falling on the miniature town. The cast is pirouetting, never bumping each other, switching voices without warning, sometimes yelling into the microphone from yards away, sometimes with their lips almost touching it. I’m agape at the choreography required to pull off believable spatial relations for scenes in an auditory medium. I can barely track Shawn’s foley work: he’s seasoned and smooth, and the story compels me to look away from him.
Watching American Blues Theater’s It’s a Wonderful Live: Live in Chicago! is like watching a rare mechanical toy spring to life. Its gears nestle and turn at unexpected angles, you’re not quite sure how someone managed to craft it, but it is pure delight and nostalgia and imagination. The show jolts you like a sleigh ride: you didn’t think the thing would pull you along so strongly, but you are thankful it does. We’re all really in it together, too. We laugh and cry at the story, the audiograms (my favorite being a simple one: “Thank you for coming to America”). Part of the magic is the narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life, as we all relive and revalue George Bailey’s life with him. But part of it is the hearth-fire blazing at the heart of this production, something you will only feel if you go.
Go. Go. The show nourished me in a way that no other play has. American Blues Theater gave me a profound lesson in generosity — before, during, and after the performance — specifically, in the form of milk and homemade cookies. Then they bid me to go out into the cold, and do likewise. And that mission warmed my soul more than any number of layers ever could.