Acting: It's a Wonderful Life!


"Once an actor, always an actor."

St. Ambrose's Theatre Department teaches that motto to its students to show them that acting can extend beyond their four years in the department. Many alumni of the program take this to heart, continuing to act at both local theatre companies and theaters outside the Quad Cities area. The department's professors are no exception.

Current acting professor Dr. Cory Johnson and theatre Professor Emeritus Michael Kennedy recently finished acting in It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at the Black Box Theatre in Moline. The play follows the storyline of the classic 1946 holiday movie, but with a unique twist: it's presented in the style of a 1940s radio broadcast.

The radio broadcast format of the play included various differences from traditional plays. Instead of set pieces, only three microphones were used to create the radio station. The acting in the play also focused solely on the spoken lines; since a radio audience would only be able to hear the lines, the actors simply moved to different mics instead of using movement to recreate scenes. The simple format of the show included minimal elements, such as the small cast of six actors and practical sound effects done by Foley sound artists. For example, the sound of someone jumping into water was recreated on stage by sloshing a water cup.

group of people in front of mic

It's a Wonderful Life

Performed as a live, radio play

The play follows the storyline of the classic 1946 holiday movie, but with a unique twist: it was presented in the style of a 1940s radio broadcast.

With this relatively simple setup, rehearsals went by quickly. This show is performed at the Black Box Theatre every year, and 4 of the 6 cast members had performed this before. Johnson said this could have been intimidating, since she and Kennedy came in to the play with a group of "almost pros." However, the rest of the cast was very welcoming and helpful to the newcomers, and the full cast was able to perform together successfully after only three group rehearsals!

The returning cast members were able to help with the show's challenge of voice acting, especially since three of them played multiple roles with different voices. Johnson said that finding and maintaining distinctly different voices for her five plus characters was one of her biggest challenges. The rehearsal process with the returning cast members helped her find creative solutions to her characters; she even pinched her nose to get one unique voice! The cast members also learned from the newcomers. Regarding Kennedy, the other newcomer to the cast, Johnson said, "I am always amazed by his acting ability. He makes distinct choices, and I always learn about acting by watching him."

In addition to learning from each other, Kennedy and Johnson continue to play important roles in teaching actors at St. Ambrose and in the Quad Cities area. Kennedy is a retired theatre professor who started the St. Ambrose Theatre Department and taught at SAU for 38 years. His annual scholarship helps first-year and transfer theatre majors. Johnson is a current professor and director for St. Ambrose's theatre department as well as other local theatre companies such as the Mississippi Bend Players.

With how active both are in teaching acting, it might seem that they would be "too busy" to continue acting. Johnson is also frequently involved in directing, which can be far more labor intensive. However, both continue to act for multiple reasons.

"As an acting teacher, I want to keep acting professionally so I can bring fresh experience to my classes," she said.

She acts in at least one show per year to become a stronger acting teacher for her students. Kennedy perhaps shows most clearly why actors of all ages continue acting.

"I don't act particularly because I want to or for money purposes," he said. "It's one of those things where I have to do it. Some people do games, gambling, or hobbies. This is the thing I choose to do over all of them.... If you really stop and think about it, you're doing it [acting] because that's who you are."

With their November performances, Kennedy and Johnson were able to get students into the Christmas spirit just in time for Cinderella and the children's holiday party. From the teachers to the students, their continued acting experiences show us that theatre is "a wonderful life!"

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