Playing now at the Gamm Theater in Warwick is what seems to be a tradition: the playing of "It’s A Wonderful Life." Their version brings us to WGAM, a fictitious radio station of the long-gone era before television when families gathered around the radio to listen to shows.

The stage is set as an old radio station where actors perform for the microphone and regularly break the fourth wall as though we, the audience, are in a small studio as part of their world. For this week’s Artscape, morning host Luis Hernandez spoke with Tony Estrella, Artistic Director of the Gamm Theatre. He started by asking how he was able to recreate that early 20th-century radio studio feel throughout.

Tony Estrella: You have to be very careful because if you overdo the visual elements you have in front of you, which is your natural instinct on stage is to make it as visually interesting as possible, you work against the piece itself. I always say to my actors, when we're working, or students when I'm teaching, we still call the theater an audience, which means it's meant to listen to, whereas, with TV, we call it a viewership, which is a different way of engaging the art. So this takes a step further into the audio, and because of that, you just have to ensure that the audience engages with you right from the beginning and accepts that. We suspend our disbelief whenever we enter the theater; we just have to suspend it differently for this. And I think when the audience comes in, right from the beginning with the pre-show, and how we work them in with the 12 days of Christmas, they understand the vocabulary, that goes a long way to kind of settling them in, by the time the story starts, they're ready to listen. The radio station feels warm and acts as the hearth, so to speak, that we're all sitting around. So it works. 

Luis Hernandez: What's interesting about that old-time radio is the sound effects. You have an SFX person sitting over at a table with a bunch of everyday objects that they have to use to try to create whatever sound effect goes with the story. 

Estrella: That’s Will Malloy. He’s doing a great job. This is the first time he's doing it, too. 

Hernandez: Because of it, we see what he's doing at the beginning. But then, you forget he’s there the rest of the show. But tell me about some of the challenges. 

Estrella: Will was our second full backup. It's his first time on stage doing this with us. It takes an appetite. And it takes timing. And it takes a certain musicality. Will is also a musician. And he has to really work in concert with the actors. When you watch the show, you can see communication between the actors and Will. They look at each other because the actors are reacting to the SFX. And he does an entertaining thing at the beginning, where we do the 12 days of Christmas before the show starts. And each day, he connects sounds to the song in a funny and surprising way. 

Hernandez: When you are casting, especially the part of George Bailey, what goes into picking the role? 

Estrella: I have done it myself for the past few years. And it's one of the great privileges I’ve had as a performer to take that on because of such an iconic and beautiful role. And yes, you do have the kind of anxiety of influence, but then you have to forget it, and you have to go and know that you have to do it yourself. Jeff Church, who's playing it this year, has been in the show for the past few years and playing other parts playing Harry the brother in several, like 15 different roles, and Jeff’s a virtuosic performer in those other roles was doing ten different voices. I used to say that playing George I had the easiest job because I only had to play one character, but Jeff jumps in, is a terrific actor, and you look for somebody with that sense of generosity and kindness, directness, forthrightness, ambition still, but, a kind of deep soul and Jeff certainly has that.