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Two Holiday Productions Find Creative Ways To Work Around Pandemic

Lexi Yauch

The holidays are traditionally box office bonanzas for theaters, musical artists and anyone who can stage a version of “The Nutcracker.” But with the pandemic sidelining almost everyone’s plans, two Western North Carolina productions are finding unique ways to carry on.

For 11 holiday seasons now, Willie Repoley and his Immediate Theatre Project have produced their adaptation of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is, ostensibly, a staged radio play.

They weren’t about to let the pandemic close the curtain.

“We tried it, just doing ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ story on Zoom with four actors, and it didn’t work,” Repoley said. “It was a little flat. It was like, ‘Why am I just not watching the movie?’”

So they did something that never would have occurred to them before the pandemic. In the previous version, audiences watched a small troupe attempting to produce a radio broadcast of their show. This new story revolves around a quartet of actors attempting to stage “It’s a Wonderful Life” online, over Zoom video. Without giving too much of the plot away, Repoley hopes to achieve an intimacy meant for this new medium.

“One of the things we knew from the beginning was that if we’re going to do this online, it has to be live,” Repoley said. “We’re not going to record it once and play it back, because that’s the closest we can get to replicating that (live on stage) experience.”

Performances of the Immediate Theatre Project’s new version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” run Dec. 3-20 through NC Stage.

Directors and students at Western Carolina University are taking an entirely different tack, producing and recording an audio podcast of their new adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”

“We kinda had to reinvent the wheel as to how this was going to work,” said Kristen Hedberg, an assistant professor of musical theater at Western. She composed the music and wrote the lyrics for the university’s adaptation.

“We decided the only way this could be done safely is to have every singer record individually in an isolated room,” Hedberg said. “The group numbers that have about 20 cast members in them were recorded in 20 different sessions, and all the voices were layered in.”

Unlike the show’s go-it-alone singers, students recorded the dialog over Zoom video.

“I really wanted the actors to be able to look at each other while they were speaking as their characters, so they could work off one another, and that wouldn’t have been possible in isolated recording sessions,” said Ashlee Wasmund, the university’s program director of theater and dance, who authored the script. “So we traded that, the little inconsistencies in quality of recording, but I’m amazed at what our sound team did with the final product.”

Repoley said he believes performers will create and stage work for Zoom video and other online technologies long after the pandemic winds down and indoor venues can again safely welcome artists and audiences.

“I think any time you use a new medium, it’s going to take a while to discover all its potential, and really, we’re just beginning to do that,” he said. “I don’t think this should replace anything about live theater because it’s not the same and a lot of things are missing. But when it’s done thoughtfully, I’ve been surprised at how successful it can be.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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