A holiday classic is set to open in Colorado Springs as the LGBTQ community mourns the Club Q shooting that killed five.
"It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play" opens this week at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company. This version of the American classic "It's a Wonderful Life" still follows the Bedford Falls idealist, George Bailey, who faces a crisis on Christmas Eve. However, the small ensemble cast brings all of the characters to life as if they were on a 1940s radio show.
Director Marisa Hebert has assembled a diverse group for the show, including people of color and some who identify as queer. Just hours before the shooting at Club Q, the cast discussed the challenges of telling this holiday story, being part of the audience's holiday, and what it’s like for some queer artists to live and work in Colorado Springs.
Half of the company had never seen the film before getting ready to stage the show, which has become an annual holiday viewing tradition for so many. Abigael Vafiades, who plays the radio station Foley Artist, said that this story, and radio plays in general, are part of her memories with her father.
“One of the things that me and my father could bond over is old classic movies and radio shows. And this is actually one of his favorite Christmas films,” Vafiades said. “So I'm super excited to get this opportunity for him to see a radio play that's of his favorite show. “
Others involved with the production also have their own history with the show. Director Hebert was not a fan of the source material, or main character, George Bailey, before starting work on this production.
“For me, it was more about finding the things in the material that I did connect with, and that was my way into it,” Hebert said. “I looked for ways in, to connect with the community aspect of it, and how everything he does, even though it's just his innate nature to do those things, actually has such a big ripple effect in this town where he lives and the people that he interacts with. How, for him, it's just doing what he thinks he should be doing. And for everyone else, it changes the course of their lives. And how the whole community, when he spent his entire life helping everyone in that community, how when he needed it, his entire community stepped up to support him.”
Sammy Gleason, another cast member, grew up watching the movie version. Like most of the cast, he plays many characters in this production, but his work as Clarence the Angel Second Class, holds a special place for him.
“I was very excited to get my stab at playing this weird little old man that Clarence has presented as in the film,” Gleason said. “He is very soft, and he is very kind, and he is very gentle, and there's a sort of like safe old grandpa-ness to him, which I think was really nice.
“But then as we got into this, especially with Marisa, our director, wanting to bring a vision of the forties and It's a Wonderful Life that was what would the forties [would] look like if Black and brown people and queer people were given the same opportunities and respect as the heterosexual white men were in the 1940s,” Gleanson said. “What would that look like? And so that's sort [of] what we're presenting up here. and I was offered the Clarence, [Hebert] was like, ‘I just wanna see what happens when you bring a little gay angel up on stage.’”
Gleason said he has worked in Colorado Springs theater for nearly 20 years.
“Which, for any queer folks, we will know that it's navigating Colorado Springs as a queer person or anyone who's marginalized is obviously a tightrope-walk, specifically from a queer gay standpoint,” Gleason said. “This is one of the few times in those 20 years where they felt encouraged to be authentically themself.“
Dana Scurlock plays Mary Bailey in the show. She said industry-wide, post-pandemic promises of improved racial and other group representation have not materialized.
“Is it easier overall as a person of color in theater?” Scurlock asked. “No, I don't think that it is. I don't, and I don't think we should expect that.”
Scurlock compared the changes needed to see real change in representation to steering the Titanic.
“It's like it's just gonna take a while to turn the big-ass ship. So number one, we have to be consistent with our efforts to make things more diverse and to call out things that are oppressive within these institutions,” Scurlock said. “But also we do have to be patient to some degree because I think that some of these things are so ingrained that it's just gonna take time for them to be altered, specifically working at the [Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center], I think that comes from like leadership down that they've made a commitment to this. And so that's why you're seeing that trickle into like the manifestation of a show of like five people and there's like multiple people of color. There's queer people.”
Many cast members — even before the events at Club Q — said they were already aware of the risks and rewards ahead for this untraditional production of a holiday classic.
Two days after the shooting, director Marisa Hebert explained how the cast absorbed the events in those first few days.
“Our producer who's the interim artistic director … is also a queer woman and we just held some space in the morning to let people have their feelings and just be in the room with each other,” Hebert said. “And … the Fine Arts Center is located, like, a block and a half away from the Unitarian Church where one of the vigils was being held. So as a cast, we decided to walk over there and just spent some time in a bigger community and just really let it sink in and not necessarily in a good way, but just in a watching the support for our community.”
Marisa Hebert said people in Colorado Springs are learning a lot about the shooting victims and how they impacted the community.
“And it's times like these where it's wonderful that the community comes out and we can love each other and support each other, but it also is horrible that we have to have these events to bring us together,” Hebert said. “It would be nicer if all those ripple effects and all of the touching of lives that these people have done — and will continue to do because now this is something that lives in our collective history — could be one that wasn't surrounded in violence and wasn't surrounded in hate. So we'll just counterbalance that with, the love and kindness of ‘It's a Wonderful Life.’”
Hebert described the importance she felt, even before the Club Q shooting, when she was casting this production to choose these artists so carefully, to reimagine the classic story.
“It was really important to create a world where queer people and gender non-conforming people and brown people and people of the global majority … where we could just all feel like this was our world and we didn't have to be afraid of anything in it,” Hebert said. “Every single whatever it is that we're all made of, like none of the queer cast had to leave that outside of the door. And none of our members of color had to, you know, do the code shifting we all do where we try to be a little bit whiter than, you know, we actually are. None of that had to happen in our 1940s ….. Everybody in the room was in the room because that was the community we built and that was the world that we decided we wanted to create and live in.”
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play plays at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center through Dec. 23, and free museum admission is included in the cost of tickets.
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