It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Study Guide
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play
Adapted by Joe Landry
Based on the story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern from the screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling
Directed by Herbie Barnes
This guide was written by Natalie Saba. As you scroll through the guide, you will find curriculum connections, discussion questions, units of study, and more. If you wish to create your own lesson plan from the study guide copy, we have created a lesson plan template for your use. We hope you will find this guide to be a useful resource. Should you have any questions or feedback, or have inquiries about the use of this guide (which is copyright protected), please feel free to contact Karen Gilodo, Associate Artistic Director, Education at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play by Joe Landry is based on the story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, and the screenplay of the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra and Jo Swerling. A central theme of the story is the power of community. The story demonstrates how important caring relationships and positive actions are, especially during challenging times. Through humility, gratitude, friendship and kindness, characters in this play ultimately discover resilience and ways to navigate discouragement.
The Seventh Generation Principle from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy is based on the philosophy that people should act with the intention to always create a better future for the next seven generations. While this refers to engaging in sustainable actions for the environment, the Principle can also be applied to human relationships. This Principle is exemplified in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play with the story of George Bailey. His good deeds in the past positively impact others and prove to be essential to their well-being in the future.
What we do in this world will affect the future, and it is with that knowledge we need to act accordingly so that people are better off than they were before.
Throughout his life, George Bailey has solved problems by putting others’ needs ahead of his own. But on one Christmas Eve, it would seem as though he has met his match with a situation he cannot fix. When George feels like there is no other option than to leave everything behind, he is promptly met by Clarence, a guardian angel. Clarence takes George on a journey around town, showing him what the world would be like if he never existed, and if none of his good deeds transpired.
This story is told by an ensemble cast of five, retelling it as a radio broadcast in 1945. The stage is set as a radio studio and the audience becomes the studio audience. Actors tell the story together through their voices and foley sound effects.
In this story the character of George Bailey begins to doubt his worth and becomes overwhelmed due to a financial crisis. He drinks alcohol and goes to a bridge to consider suicide. There George meets Clarence, an angel who takes him on a journey that shows him the positive impact he has had on his family and community. George remember his worth and the immense love around him. There are also references to a fist fight and the use of alcohol.
If at any time before, during, or after the show you or your students feel as though you would benefit from mental health support, please see our Resources page at the end of this study guide.
The Arts – Drama, Music
Social Sciences and Humanities – Exploring Family Studies
Health and Physical Education (Social-Emotional Learning Skills)
Caring for each other
Long-term effects of positive actions
The power of community
What is Radio Drama?
Initially developed in the 1920s, Radio Drama refers to a dramatized play that is an auditory and acoustic performance. This style of work is grounded in “foley” (which includes dialogue, music and sound effects) allowing the listener to imagine the story. The stories performed were usually written for the radio specifically, but could also include adapted plays or films, such as that of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.
About the Playwright
Joe Landry is both a playwright and designer. In this play, he turns the well-loved story It’s a Wonderful Life into a stage production, writing it as a 1940s radio show. He originally wrote the piece as a full-scale play for a friend of his who was a high school drama teacher looking for a stage adaptation but having found none, reached out to Mr. Landry. This script was produced a handful of times, but it eventually proved difficult considering it required 25 actors and an extremely high budget. At the time, Mr. Landry fell in love with film Radio Days, which introduced him into the world of radio drama. Mr. Landry decided to change the play into a radio drama, and ever since its premiere in Stamford, Connecticut in 1997, it has been continuously produced internationally. Mr. Landry has adapted other successful stories for the stage such as The Great Gatsby and A Christmas Carol. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America.
The Arts – Drama
- select and use appropriate forms (e.g., a radio play, improvisation, or series of tableaux) to suit specific purposes and present identified issues from a variety of perspectives
- engage actively in drama exploration and role play to explore, develop, and represent themes, ideas, characters, feelings, and beliefs, with a focus on examining multiple perspectives related to current issues and relationships from a wide variety of sources and diverse communities (e.g., use improvisation exercises to explore how they might think, feel, and act in specific real-life situations)
- construct personal interpretations of drama works, connecting drama issues and themes to their own and others’ ideas, feelings, and experiences
Language and English
- extend understanding of oral texts, including increasingly complex or difficult texts, by connecting, comparing, and contrasting the ideas and information in them to their own knowledge, experience, and insights; to other texts, including print and visual texts; and to the world around them (e.g., respond in role as a character from an oral text while being interviewed by another student)
- evaluate the effectiveness of the presentation and treatment of ideas, information, themes, opinions, issues, and/or experiences in media texts (e.g., explain the similarities and differences in the treatment of a particular topic or theme in different media texts and evaluate the relative effectiveness of the treatments)
- explain how skills in listening, speaking, reading, and writing help to make sense of and produce media texts
Social Sciences Humanities – Exploring Family Studies
- demonstrate individual and collaborative problem-solving skills that could be applied in situations involving family, peers, or members of the community
Health and Physical Education – Social/Emotional Learning Skills
- apply skills that help students identify and manage emotions in order to improve their ability to express their feelings and understand and respond to the feelings of others
- apply skills that help them develop habits of mind that support positive motivation and perseverance as they participate in learning experiences in order to promote a sense of optimism and hope
- apply skills that help them build relationships, develop empathy, and communicate with others as they participate in learning experiences in order to support healthy relationships, a sense of belonging, and respect for diversity
Pre-Show Discussion Questions
- What does it mean to be a part of a community?
- How do you define friendship?
- What does humility mean? How can someone show humility?
- What is the “golden rule”? Do you think it is a rule people should follow? Why or why not?
Units of Study
The units of study within this guide prompt students to think about what it means to be a part of a community, reflect on the importance of togetherness, as well as experiment with different creative outlets.
Pre-show Unit of Study
Warm Up Exercise: Speed-Friends
As the activities for both pre-show and post-show will involve a sense of community, it is important for students to get to know each other. This goes beyond names, but also knowing what one another likes, dislikes, etc. This warm-up gets students up on their feet and talking to warm up their bodies and minds.
A large room or open space where students can gather.
- Assign each student a partner.
- Once students are in pairs, ask them to choose one person to be “A” and one to be “B”.
- Ask all students who are an “A” to make a circle together.
- Ask all students who are a “B” to find their “A” partner and face them – this should make a circle of “B”’s within the “A’ circle. Thus, there should be two circles.
- The instructor will then call out a question, and each student will take turns answering. It is recommended that students say their name before answering.
- After every A and B have answered, ask the “A”’s (outside circle) to move one spot to the right. They should be in front of a new partner.
- Then ask another question, and again each student will answer. This is where saying names before answering is important, especially if students do not know each other well.
- After everyone has answered, ask the “A”’s to move over again. Repeat this process until the students again meet their original partner.
You may choose your own questions, but below are some examples. Detailed responses to questions are not needed. The point of the warm-up is to quickly meet one another and learn something new. If you have more time, you can switch up the circles so that the “A” students can meet one another, and same with the “B” students.
- Favourite number?
- Favourite colour?
- Favourite season and why?
- Favourite subject and why?
- Least favourite subject and why?
- Ideal superpower and why?
- What are you really good at?
- What are you not so good at?
- How do you get to school?
- Favourite movie?
- Favourite sport?
Exercise: Community Count
This activity is great for building a sense of community, as it requires your students to not only work together, but also rely upon one another. If done successfully, it can create a bond between students and a feeling of connectedness as a class.
A room for students to gather in. Chairs can be used to sit on, or simply the floor.
- Ask students to stand (or sit) in a circle.
- Explain to them that, as a class, they must count to 10, but no two people can say a number at the same time.
- If while counting students do say a number together, the class will have to re-start the process from the beginning (i.e. “1”).
- No patterns should be followed, and no cues or signalling is allowed.
- If students quickly reach the number 10, allow them to keep counting just to see how far they can go.
- What about this exercise was difficult? How did you succeed as a group?
- What did it make you think? How did you feel while waiting or while speaking?
In order to focus intensely on listening and collaboration, you can ask the students to close their eyes.
Culminating Exercise: Minimal Script
This exercise allows students to understand the affects of different dramatic forms and elements. By identifying the contrasting ways messages can be shared, students will be able to understand how perceived meaning changes.
Chart paper or a whiteboard and a writing utensil.
- Write this short script on chart paper or a whiteboard:
A: Did you see that?
B: What time is it?
B: Grab my bag, would you?
A: I feel like we might regret this.
B: I don’t want to think about that right now.
As a class, brainstorm the different ways this script could change meaning, and how. What would the actors need to do to show what is going on? For example, how could the tone of voice of the actors change the story? How could the movement of the actors change the story?
- Ask for two volunteers to read the script aloud in front of the rest of the class. Ask the rest of the class to tell the volunteers what the story or context is (who are the characters and what is happening?). Then ask the volunteers to read the script with this given context in mind without using movement or gestures, only their voices.
- Now ask the volunteers to read the scene again adding movement and gestures. Discuss as a class the choices the actors made. Were the characters clear? Was the situation clear? As an audience how did it feel when you saw a scene performed in different ways than you might have originally imagined it?
- What other production elements could be added to this scene to help tell the chosen story?
- How could costumes add to the scene?
- How would lighting change the scene? Think about what different colours of light could insinuate.
- How could music or added sound effects effect the story told?
Extension (for Grades 9-12)
Split the students into pairs or groups and assign each group a different production element or creative element. Give students time to practice their scene, and then have everyone present to one another in a theatre-in-the-round style. This will allow students to witness the different ways a story can be received, depending on how it is performed.
For a more senior class, introduce the concept of objectives. Once each pair/group has been assigned a creative element for their scene, each individual person will receive an objective. This will provide an added layer to scene’s delivery that will furthermore change the performance.
Post-Show Discussion Questions
- What were the advantages of seeing a live radio play? Were there any disadvantages?
- How did the actors make it clear they were switching characters?
- What foley or sound effects did you see and hear created on stage?
- When does George show his humility?
- Why do you think George chooses to return to his family at the end of the play?
- How can we contribute to our own community, and not just in times of need?
Post-Show Unit of Study
Warm-up: Together Time
This warm-up exercise allows students to get focused and build their energy. It concentrates on togetherness and connection, while keeping the individual learning headspace active. This warm-up teaches students about ensemble work and demonstrates that it is not always easy to rely on others. All of these objectives relate to the play students have just seen, and it furthermore incorporates trust building and encourages students to be supportive of each other.
A large space for students to move around.
- Ask students to walk or move around the room together, in any direction. They are to walk as themselves and create space for everyone.
- When the students are ready, give an instruction for the group (e.g., “when you are all ready, you will stop as a group.”). They cannot talk or use hand signals, but are encouraged to use their peripheral vision. If they are unsuccessful, they can try again.
- In this example, after students have successfully stopped as a group, they will continue to walk as normal until another instruction is given (e.g., “when you are all ready, please stop as a group and then jump as a group.”)
- The tasks can get harder or easier, and in any order. It is up to the teacher’s discretion.
- What about this activity was difficult? What strategies did you use? Were they individual or group strategies?
- What does it feel like to be in tune with each other?
- What is possible when you are working together as a group?
This exercise allows students to start thinking about sound in new ways. After seeing the foley in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, this exercise gives students the opportunity to explore creating their own sounds with both their voice and body, teaching them about creativity and collaboration.
A room or space for students to comfortably line up or circle together.
- Tell students that today they will be making a machine, using just their voices and bodies. The purpose of the machine will be decided by the end of the activity.
- One student will walk to the centre of the room and make a noise and gesture that is repeatable (e.g., saying “boop” and pointing their finger)
- The student will continue to make their sound and gesture, and once the rhythm is clear, another student will join them in line.
- The second student will demonstrate a new noise and gesture that must be somehow connected to the first student’s (e.g., they sit in front of the first student and clap their hands together, but are in a position where the first student’s pointed finger cues their action, making them connect).
- When a third student comes up with an idea for how to add another noise and gesture that connects, they will find a place amongst the other two students to do so. There are now three people who are part of the “machine”.
- This process of one student joining at a time will continue until everyone is a part of the “machine”. Remember that everyone must be connected somehow, making a sound and gesture. No repeated actions or sounds are allowed.
- Once the “machine” is complete, allow it to run for about 30 seconds so that students can witness their creation fully in action. Encourage students to listen to the collective sound being made.
- When students are ready, announce that the “machine” is going to sleep. They will count down from five, and at the end all students will shut down their sounds, similar to how a machine sounds once powering off.
- In the end, what was the purpose of the machine? In other words, with all of your sounds together, what did it sound like?
- Did the purpose of the machine change as more sounds were added to it?
- How could the machine be improved or intensified?
- Was it difficult to keep your concentration through this exercise? Did you get off-rhythm or lose track at any point? What were your strategies when that happened?
Students bring in objects that create sound effects or foley, and then build a machine with these sounds.
Culminating Exercise: Slideshow
This is a fun and engaging group activity that builds students’ teamwork and develops tableau (see Glossary) skills. It also allows students to tap into their creativity, as they will be re-enacting scenes they have not physically seen.
Chairs (about 3-4 for each group)
- Arrange students in groups of five or six.
- In their groups, students will pick three scenes from It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play that they thought were the most interesting.
- In their groups, ask students to create a tableau for those three scenes. Give students about 15 minutes to practice/create their tableaus. The chairs can be used to create levels, or they can act as another prop in the picture.
- In each tableau, it should be clear who the characters are and what is happening.
- Each group must select a designated “storyteller”. This person will stand off to the side and narrate the story before the tableau is shown. Their role is to give context and inform the audience of what has just happened in the play.
- As the storyteller speaks, the other group members will wait in neutral positions.
- When the storyteller is finished, they will say “click”. The group will then immediately transform into the tableau that correlates with the details the storyteller just explained. (e.g., “And before they knew it, a mob started to barge into the building. CLICK”)
- The group will wait a few seconds to ensure everyone can see the tableau, and then transition back to neutral for the storyteller’s next explanation.
- Why did you choose these scenes?
- How did you show the emotions of the scenes through the tableaus?
- How did having a storyteller affect the creation of the tableaus?
Extension (for Grades 9-12)
Ask the students to make five tableaus per group where three must involve the use of sound (e.g., music or foley). The storyteller can be responsible for ‘creating’ the sound as the rest of the group is frozen, but it is up to the group’s discretion.
Humility: to know yourself as a sacred part of the creation
Neutral: inexpressive voice and acting
Theatre-in-the-round style: circle formation, where each performer can be seen from all areas
Objective: a character’s goal within a scene
Tableau: a depiction of a scene with actors that is still and silent
Levels: different heights (standing up, sitting, lying down, crouching, etc.)
Foley: custom made sounds (e.g., crushing corn flakes to create the sound of ice cracking)
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