Social Distancing: Finding A Way Back To Bedford Falls
If the year 2020 was a town, actor and radio producer Geof Knight says, it would be Pottersville — the upside-down seedy world George Bailey wakes up to after wishing he had never been born in the 1946 classic "It’s A Wonderful Life."
Knight produces the Paul Schadt and Sarah Lee morning show on 96.9 The Kat.
"George Bailey and all of us, I think, want to go back to the world being more like Bedford Falls," Knight said. "And we’re that hoping 2021 does that."
Knight is no stranger to playing Bailey. He’s brought the character to life on the Matthews Playhouse stage in years past.
"Part of the thing of playing George Bailey is you got to be able to give a little bit of the voice you know, the way he stammers," Knight said, rolling out a very recognizable impression.
His ability to emulate Jimmy Stewart's iconic voice and cadence is especially helpful this year. Because of the pandemic, the theater decided to shift from an in-person to online experience — but with a twist. This year’s performance is presented as a 1940s radio show — sound effects included.
A $10 donation gives viewers access to the performance, which can be streamed from the Matthews Playhouse website through Jan. 3. Viewers can stream the show multiple times.
"We all know in the arts world that things are not good," Knight said. "And this is a way to help raise money for No. 1, this particular arts house, Matthews Playhouse. And No. 2, to keep arts top of mind to people in general who still have the ability and the means to be able to help out."
The final production is a polished live-to-tape recording each actor performed in different settings. For Knight, that was his home office. There’s still the quick back and forth between characters, but instead of acting next to each other in person, it’s their screens that are side by side.
It was an interesting challenge, he said, to be acting virtually.
"When I’m just standing in a room by myself, it’s completely different than having somebody there to play off to feel that energy that they are bringing to the scene," he said. "It’s completely different and much harder to feel it and to give it through Zoom or through whatever video platform you’re using."
He recalls in years past acting out the famous scene near the end of the film in which Bailey is back in Bedford Falls and he’s running through his home looking for his children. They pile on him, and Bailey gives his wife, Mary, several big kisses.
This year Knight didn’t have that in-person connection for the scene. So he looked through old photos of his past performances on stage in front of a live audience.
He presents a picture that’s almost a little jarring in this pandemic world: Knight as Bailey on stage, children hugging and hanging off of him, the actor who played his wife in his arms. No masks, no distance. Just smiles. He looks at that picture now to help capture the sweetness of that scene — to help translate the feeling virtually.
"I would look at those before that scene to try and get that feeling," he said. "All the warmth and the love that you feel when you’re actually doing that."
Either way — whether on the stage in person or virtually — Knight sees a little of himself in the character. Both are family men, and just like Bailey, Knight said he likes to make people happy.
Knight says if Bailey was alive in 2020, he’d probably be trying to figure out a way to help others.
"What would George Bailey be doing during a pandemic? That’s a great question," Knight said. "I would think he would be helping in a hospital somewhere. He doesn’t have a medical degree, so he wouldn’t be a doctor, but he might help the patients who were stuck there and couldn’t be with their loved ones. He would find something to do there."
And in its own way, Matthews Playhouse is trying to help people through the pandemic by bringing some holiday joy and the arts into people's homes.
Hopefully, the timeless message of the film will transmit through screens — most notably the lesson learned by George Bailey that no man is a failure who has friends. That's a sentiment we can all hold close to our hearts, no matter how far apart we may be this year.
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