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‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ High School Production Moves From Stage To Zoom

Wonderful Life
Midlothian High School has adapted the holiday classic film "It's A Wonderful Life," to be seen on Zoom. Audience members can expect sound effects, costumes and a full 90-minute performance. (Photo part of public domain)

It’s been a year of firsts for high school teachers Meagan Doan and Holden Dorman. The two Midlothian theater teachers knew the fall school year was going to look different thanks to the pandemic, which saw students shifting between all virtual classes to hybrid ones.

Over the summer break, while questions were still up in the air about how students would be learning, the duo wanted to plan for some type of production. 

“We really wanted to give our students--I don't want to say especially the seniors, but all of our students, an opportunity to perform,” Doan says. For seniors, this will be their last production before graduating. 

But the question the teachers had was what play could they do during this time of COVID-19?

“Originally, we were going to be doing ‘Almost, Maine,’ before we went into lockdown and school went virtual and hybrid,” Dorman says. “And then once we found out that we're going completely virtual [back in September], we went through every possible option that we could think of, to give our kids and experience.”

The two landed on “It’s a Wonderful Life,” performed in the style of a 1940s radio broadcast.

“One of the reasons we choose ‘It's a Wonderful Life’ is we usually perform in November, but this performance was [in] December, and we thought we could tie it in with the holidays,” Doan says.

Doan says both her and Dorman did a ton of research, including watching what other high schools across the country were doing with virtual productions. They realized with this new format, a dozen new challenges cropped up. The whole experience of teaching, rehearsing and putting on a full virtual performance would be something new for her, for Dorman and for her students. 

Luckily, the script they got the rights to was made for virtual performances.

“It's something called a stay at home edition of the script,” Doan says. “The idea is that each of these actors have their own kind of sound booth.”

Both Doan and Dorman have separate tasks. Doan handles the cast of 25 students, which involves rehearsing their lines and helping them adapt to not performing on a stage.

“They're not used to film acting, or camera acting--which is very different than stage acting,” Doan says. “The camera is only getting from like, the hips up or the chest up, you know, so you can't do blocking.  So it's working with the actors to not only act for the camera, but also just really emphasize how important your facial expressions are in this new avenue.”

Doen says students are used to projecting on a stage, so she’s also had to coach them on how lower their voices. 

And despite the stage-less production, Dorman has been working with a crew of students on the production side.

“We've had to heavily modify what we do on stage crew,” he says.

Dorman says this includes building smaller sets, making costumes and gathering items to be used as sound effects. 

“I've broken it up so there's props kids, they're set kids, there's like kids, every different aspect their kids working within that realm of stuff,” Dorman says. “Kids are making sound effects out of everyday objects.”

Most of the props that will be seen will be from everyday objects found at the students homes. Dorman says his students even made “how to” videos to pass along to the crew on set making. He says other students have been helping their peers gather makeshift costumes from what’s available at home, and they’ve been helping every actor get the right lighting.

“We’ve really tried to find things for these kids to do and they are going with it,” Dorman says.

But one thing that will be missed is a live audience. The 90-minute production is being recorded and edited, then it will be available on Zoom.

The free, 90-minute show will start streaming Dec. 18 at  7 p.m., and will be available midnight, Dec. 20. 

Anyone can stream the show online, via Midlothian High School.    


Ian M. Stewart previously was the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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