It’s a Wonderful Life, produced via Zoom on December 31, 2020, was a milestone experience for cast members, some of whom came to the production with extensive acting experience, and some who are newly minted. Despite challenges of working ‘in a vacuum,’ home alone with their computer screens while striving to convey all of their characters’ emotions, the show hit all of the notes of Frank Capra’s original, and both audiences and actors were pleased.

“This was my first time performing over Zoom and I thought it was phenomenal,” enthused Anson Bergonzi, who Zoomed in from his living room in East Machias to play Uncle Billy Bailey (an encore of his role in last year’s in-person It’s a Wonderful Life). It was, I’d say, a nearly equally enjoyable format as performing in person, albeit a very different experience.

Harry Bailey (played by Henry Schuth, bottom left) introduces his bride, Ruth (played by Laurie Sullivan, right) to brother George (Frank Schuth, top left) and Uncle Billy (Anson Bergonzi). Image by Kim Vogel.

“I loved getting to see the audience joining, getting a small glimpse at each of the people safe inside their homes,” added Bergonzi. The instant messages from them were a delightful interaction that normally isn’t possible with a live performance. AND my buddy from the state of Washington was able to catch the second half of the show!”

Frank Schuth as George Bailey (right), after rescuing ‘Angel, Second-Class’ Clarence, played by John Newell, questions his life.

I definitely had some angst at not only doing this big show over Zoom, but stepping into the shoes of a character and actor that I have loved for my entire life, confessed Frank Schuth, who played George Bailey from his desk in Somerville, MA. In response to kudos for his warm and accessible acting and chemistry with costar Audrey Bradbury, Frank praised his onscreen partner: “With all the impersonality of Zoom, she was easy to engage with and made my job a lot easier in those scenes.”
Bradbury, a theater student in Farmington who reprised her 2019 role this year, chimed in, “It was nice to be in a Zoom play because as someone pursuing a degree in theater, I haven’t been able to participate in theater as much as I would have liked to in the past year!”

Remember the scene in which a nervous George shares the phone with Mary, her mother listening in, as Sam calls from New York? Audrey Bradbury plays Mary (clockwise from top left), Rosalie Woodward is Mrs. Hatch, Frank Schuth is George Bailey, and Duke Carlton is Sam Wainwright.

“I was at my computer in my kitchen during the performance,” wrote Rosalie Woodward from Lubec, who played Mary Hatch’s mother in both the 2019 live and 2020 Zoom productions. Woodward expressed that though the Zoom interface ‘flattens’ actors’ work, she is grateful for opportunities to interact with family and friends via the new media.“With the daily increase in COVID, it is wonderful to be safely continuing to do things that are pleasurable.” 

Conflict! Bert (Kathleen Dunbar) and George come to blows!

It’s not the ideal medium for theater,” said Kathleen Dunbar, another Stage East regular who Zoomed in from Perry to play Peter Bailey, Bert, and the baffled bank teller. “I think everyone made the best of it and people put as much pizazz and personality into it as we could. The important thing is that it was very well received by the audience!” (Kathleen was another contributor to both the 2019 and 2020 shows; she was one of the ‘foley girls’ alongside Caitlyn Stellrecht for the live show).

In a tense scene, Manuela Brice (as Mr. Welch, bottom right) winds up to deal George a lip-splitting punch in Martini’s Bar; Martini (Brian Schuth, bottom left) and barkeep Nick (Henry Schuth) look on.

“When doing anything over Zoom the biggest concern is if it will be dull. This is doubly true if you are trying to do a play,” wrote Henry Schuth who played Harry Bailey and Nick, striving to transcend the confines of the Zoom platform with his physical acting. “While the script was edited to cut out the scenes that relied on visuals, it wasn’t exactly a radio play, as the actors are almost painfully exposed on the screen. This made me want to get creative!”

Harry Bailey on his sled (played by Henry Schuth, bottom) is headed through the ice; George and Sam hurry to help him. Image by Kim Vogel.

Playing Harry Bailey I had one of the first big visual moments when Harry falls through the ice,” continued Henry. “In the first rehearsal I almost jokingly fell off the bottom of the screen, but realized it was such a good visual I tweaked and improved it for the performance to really sell to the audience what was happening in that moment.

“Make a chain!!” George reaches to pull Harry from the icy water.

From there,” added Henry, “I was inspired to add small details to the performance. In Harry’s second scene he quickly rushes through the dining room on his way to his graduation party. I decided to actually walk from one screen to the other instead of just turning the camera on and off. I felt this added a bit more kinetic energy which a video performance lacks. Getting up and moving also helped me get more into character and add energy to the performance.”

“The most fun I had in the show was getting to play the surly and mean alternate reality version of the bartender Nick. I wanted to give him an entirely different feel from the kind version in the real world—impatient and irritable. Except when he had the opportunity to be cruel, where I found a perverse kind of joy!” Another Stage East ‘lifer’, Henry noted that he is eager to do more theater from his home base near Boston, MA, whether onscreen or off.

Celestial figures Jenie Smith and Mark Tappan watch over the cast. Image by Kim Vogel.

 “I was grateful to have this opportunity to participate in this wonderful Eastport tradition,” wrote Mark Tappan, a Stage East newcomer who moved to Eastport from Waterville in June. “I did some acting in high school and college, and then again in Waterville almost 15 years ago—small roles in two community theater holiday shows, including A Christmas Carol. I really appreciated how welcomed I felt as a newcomer to Eastport and to Stage East. Also, the Zoom format allowed our daughter in Portland and family members in New Hampshire and Massachusetts to see the show.

Still more new faces among the cast included Laurie Sullivan from Lubec, who played Ruth Bailey and young Janie, and her son, Duke Carlton, from Springfield, MO, who played Sam Wainwright and several other characters. “It reminded me of the old radio shows of my childhood but with a visual of the actor’s face!” wrote Laurie. “There was a definite stress factor with the complete dependence on technology NOT to fail in any way on any actor’s computer!”

Laurie Sullivan, as young Janie (bottom right), fears for her father as the show opens, alongside Gower (Mark Macey, from top left), Martini (Brian Schuth), Rose Bailey (Marlene Russ), Ernie (Sam Schuth), Mary (Audrey Bradbury) and Zuzu (Madeline Collins).

“When the opportunity to do this particular play came up, I knew my son Duke and his fiance would be visiting for New Year’s,” noted Sullivan, who has a theatrical background including directing community theater in New York. “He and I acted together when he was 12 and 13 in Springfield, MO, so I asked him if he would like to participate! He rehearsed from Missouri but was in my living room in Lubec for the actual performance!  As a mom it was a great memory maker for me to be able to act with him again.”

Harry (Henry Schuth) and Ruth (Laurie Sullivan) Bailey are joyful in their wedding surprise.

Sullivan explained that she herself was recruited for the show by Shead high school coworker Kim Vogel, who played Violet in the Zoom production, as well as being a general ‘gopher’ for the show (including diligent ongoing efforts for the recap effort!). Another recruitment success brought about by Vogel was Madeline Collins, who played the Bailey’s youngest, Zuzu.

Madeline Collins (right), a Stage East newcomer recruited by castmate Kim Vogel, as Zuzu shows George her prize flower.

“‘Zuzu’ is a new student of mine and my neighbor,” noted Vogel. “She recently moved to Eastport from Portland, Oregon—a place I used to live! And, she has a great interest in the arts!”
“Kim and I got to talking one day,” recalled Sullivan, who is also one of Collins’ teachers at the school. “She invited me to the Thursday night readings, saying that Madeline was doing them as well.  I MISS the theater, so I got involved.”
These readings—Stage East’s popular pandemic offering, Play by Play—have offered community members a chance to participate in theater throughout the fall and winter. The group will resume in late January, and organizer Mark Macey (pictured below as Mr. Gower, a character he portrayed while home for the holidays in Salt Lake City, Utah) is excited to welcome participants old and new.

Read more about the reception of the show here, and if you missed the show or are missing the show, enjoy a montage of the actors’ work, culled from rehearsal footage, here. Or read about the 2019 production here!

And, Happy New Year from Stage East!