Washougal students bring radio play back for holiday

Soundstage middle-schoolers will present 'It's a Wonderful Life' on the school district's website, Dec. 10-11

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The Washougal School District Soundstage performing arts club put on three three radio plays during the 2020-21 school year, performances that received praise from parents, district employees and other community members. The club’s production of “A Christmas Carol” was especially popular, garnering more than 1,000 clicks on the district website.

“The feedback that I got from ‘A Christmas Carol’ was incredible, and I got to share it with the kids,” club adviser Diane Larson said. “I had one person who (told me that she) was suffering in the hospital, and she got to listen to it and what an encouragement it was to her. Those are big deals, and big deals for the kids to know.”

Given the success of those productions, Larson never doubted that she wanted to bring another holiday classic to life this winter as well. The club will present “It’s A Wonderful Life,” a radio play adapted from the classic holiday film, on Friday, Dec. 10, and Saturday, Dec. 11, on the district’s website. The production, adapted by radio playwright Tony Palermo, will feature 34 Washougal middle school students in starring roles and professional sound effects from Larson and music producer Vic Sorisio.

“The kids are able to use their acting ability in a way that they haven’t done yet,” Larson said. “They’re having to take more adult roles and stretch quite a bit in their acting. There’s a lot of learning that goes into this — learning how to present themselves, articulate, speak clearly. They’re learning skills that have a lot of crossover (into other parts of their lives), and the confidence building that happens from this is enormous.”

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a 1946 American Christmas family fantasy drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on the short story and booklet “The Greatest Gift,” which Philip Van Doren Stern self-published in 1943 and is in turn loosely based on the 1843 Charles Dickens novella “A Christmas Carol.”

The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his personal dreams in order to help others in his community. His suicide attempt on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of guardian angel Clarence Odbody, who shows George how he has impapcted the lives of others and how different life would be for his wife Mary and his community if he had not been born.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is considered one of the best films of all time. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has been recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 best American films ever made.

“I like to teach the kids about some of the classics because a lot of them didn’t even know what (‘It’s A Wonderful Life’) was,” Larson said. “Also, I really like to see the kids share with the community, and I know the community as a whole will be interested in this. It has a moral purpose, a real positive ending to it, an encouraging, uplifting (message), and I think we obviously live in a time when we could really use as much of that as we can possibly get.”

The group has been working on the production since October, alternating in-person rehearsals with at-home recording sessions.

“It’s an energy-packed rehearsal, with lots of laughter and joy and excitement,” Larson said. “It’s more challenging (than last year’s productions), but worth the challenge. If all that ever came out of it is that the kids got to do it and it went on the air, that would make me happy. But I want people to listen to it because it’s joyful. It’s cool. I hope people will take advantage of it, because it’s an encouragement.”

Soundstage, part of Jemtegaard Middle School’s (JMS) Club 8 after-school enrichment program, produces music and visual media that let students explore performance, storytelling, and creative expression, supported by industry professionals who volunteer their time.

“This is so much more than a performing arts group,” Larson said. “It was a lifesaver during COVID for a lot of the kids. It’s wonderful to see how they work together. Soundstage has become a social community of sorts — some of the kids are going on their third year in the group. They’re very encouraging to each other. We have kids that are on different levels of learning, and to see them work as a team and assist each other (is great). They do love being there.”