Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Interview with Jason Lott and Helen Pafumi of Wonderful Life

Actor/writer Jason Lott and writer Helen Murray Pafumi collaborated on writing Wonderful Life currently onstage at the Malibu Playhouse. I caught up with both of them to see how all of this got started and what they feel they have accomplished with their Christmas play.

What motivated both of you to adapt It's a Wonderful Life?

JL: Honestly, it was all Helen's idea. She wanted to do a one-person holiday show at her theatre, but wasn't finding the right script. She approached me about doing the show (whatever it might turn out to be) and mentioned that she was planning to adapt It's A Wonderful Life. I asked if she'd mind if I co-wrote it with her and she was gracious enough to say "Yes." You could make the argument that I only asked to co-write because I knew it would be easier to memorize that way, but that's only half-true (because, honestly, it is easier for me to memorize something I've written). The other side is that I only knew a little bit about It's A Wonderful Life. I knew it was an "American classic" and I knew that I loved Jimmy Stewart's work in other movies, but the embarrassing fact is that I'd only seen bits and pieces over the years. I'd never watched the whole thing in one sitting. Once I did, though, I fell in love with the movie and absolutely wanted to help bring that story to the stage.

HP: I love the story because it celebrates what is best in the season - hope, redemption, gratitude. As an Artistic Director I have a hard time finding shows for the holiday slot that feel like they are in line with the flavor of work we do at The Hub. I searched for a retelling of the movie, and ideally a one person show (there is something so magical about one person playing all the characters), but could not find one that I liked, so I decided to adapt it myself. Having worked with Jason before, I knew I wanted him to do the show. He suggested a co-adaptation and I am so glad he did.

Is the Christmas season special to you both? If so, how?

JL: The Christmas season is very special to me. It always has been. It was the one time of year that guaranteed a great big cinnamon-scented loving cocoon, no matter what stresses I had at school or in my dorky personal life... Like George Bailey, I had Norman Rockwell holidays. The family would gather around a feast for food and laughter and fun. It was a tradition that I loved and will always cherish: Christmas Eve service with my family in my home town, opening presents on Christmas morning, then driving to Northern Ohio to visit both sets of grandparents for 4-5 days of eating and talking and playing games and eating and eating and also some eating. What's not to love?

Like George Bailey, though, you run into life or it runs into you. Grandparents pass away, you move across the country, commitments crop up. The great part is that the season is still special, regardless of the changes. Sure, we can't gather by Grandma and Grandpa's fireplace and sort candy from our stockings, but my family is always finding new ways to make the holiday meaningful. Nowadays, it means traveling to new places and having new experiences, because, like it was true even when I was a little kid, it's not about where you are or what gift you receive, it's about being together.

HP:The holidays are a mixed bag for me. It can get very stressful. I am usually in production, and balancing that with family can be a challenge. But it is also the time of year when people give and help the most. Acts of kindness, closeness of community and being surrounded by family are gifts that are in abundance during the season. I am all for that.

It must have been difficult to make cuts, but you seem to have gotten the most important scenes into the play. How did that work...the process of eliminating characters and moments?

JL: It was extremely difficult to make cuts because the source material is so rich and so deep. How do you monkey with Frank Capra?! What we ended up doing, however, was just using the screenplay as a baseline for the story. We weren't beholden to particular scenes or characters because our primary goal was to tell the story of George Bailey, not to recreate the movie. The end result is that only about 5% of our play is actually taken from the screenplay and those portions are mainly just the iconic lines. The remaining 95% comes from us creating the scenes and the backstories that tell the story.

In early drafts, we played around with more characters (like Zuzu and Annie), but eventually decided that the story needed to be lean and straightforward. It's tough not to incorporate such important characters in George's life, but we think we found the right balance.

HP: For me, it was harder to find the architecture of the play than it was to cut characters, or side stories. We had some very…interesting…early drafts. The play is 90% original writing that is inspired by the screenplay, but only a little of the show is made up of quotes from the film. This took some time to hone. Once we discovered the theatrical means for telling the story it got much easier. We were sad to see some of Bedford Falls’ residents not make the cut, but the town still feels complete and in stripping away the other moments and characters we were able to bring out the rich heart of the play even more.

Jason, is this the first play in which you have played several characters? If not, what else have you done where you have to display a lot of versatility?

JL: No, I've actually been doing multiple-character roles for many years. My first one was The Baltimore Waltz (by Paula Vogel) when I was in college (in the awesome theatre program at Kenyon College). I played The Third Man, which required an outrageous number of accents and characters and I just loved it. I didn't do too many of those types of roles in college, but once I graduated and moved to Washington DC, I started booking more of them. Actually, I found a nice mix of being cast in both single character and multiple-character roles. It's good to give all those personalities a break...

Some of my favorite multiple-character roles include: Alice at The Kennedy Center; Headsman's Holiday, Painted Alice, and Gross Indecency at Theater Alliance; The 39 Steps at Olney Theatre Center; and one of my flat-out favorites is playing The Narrator in The Pavilion at The Hub Theatre. I'm very excited to reprise the role this spring in a new production of The Pavilion at the Malibu Playhouse.

How did you divide the collaboration between you? Who did the actual writing? Describe how you worked on this project.

JL: Dividing the collaboration was fairly easy, actually. Once we brushed out the broad strokes of the story we wanted to tell, we split characters and went away and wrote monologues. Then, we'd come together (often electronically) and fit them together. The structure proved to be toughest, but once we cracked that, everything else fell into place.

HP: Once we settled on the monologue like nature of the play, we divided up the characters and wrote them separately, and then would meet up, or exchange work and make suggestions. While we each have characters for which we were primarily responsible, we had the freedom to tweak it throughout. There are many times, at this point, when I cannot remember what I wrote versus what Jason wrote. The tone of the piece grew naturally and we both honored it.

Audiences seem to be enjoying the play. Do you feel you are reaching a whole new audience with the stage adaptation? Be specific!

JL: I love that we're reaching a whole new audience with this play. I've had multiple experiences where four generations of families come to see the show. The kids are young and might have seen the movie, but the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents know the lines by heart. I'm always slightly nervous when I discover an It's A Wonderful Life super-fan has seen the show, because you never want to disappoint and our version departs a little from the movie. The great thing is that often the super-fans are the loudest supporters. Our play compliments the movie in a lot of ways and even colors in the backstory for some of the characters (like Potter). So, I feel that we are reaching new audiences this way. Some, and I know it is sacrilegious to say, aren't fans of what they call the movie's "whiny George Bailey." I actually met a couple of people who like our play even better than the movie! I'm not sure I've ever received higher praise.

HP: There have been two comments from audience members after the show that have made me feel confident that Jason and I were successful in our work. And I have heard these said repeatedly. “It felt just like the movie.” and “That was so good, now I have to go and see the movie.”
left to right: producer Jeremy Skidmore, Helen Pafumi an Jason Lott

Jason, do you have a certain amount of freedom with the script? If you forget something, do you have ways of covering? Is the play always the same length from performance to performance, or does it change?

JL: Honestly, I don't have freedom with the script and I've never really wanted it. Both of us are very happy with the script and the story we're trying to tell, so I don't have any impetus to change it night-to-night. We do make tiny tweaks here and there, but we always discuss them before I implement them in a show.

Knock on wood, I haven't forgotten anything yet. There are times when I'm so caught up in the story that I'm not sure what comes next, but that can happen when you're living in the moment. You don't want to think ahead; you just need to trust it will be there.

Our stage manager can correct me on this, but I believe the show times out pretty close to the same minute every night. Audience reaction can affect the final run time, but it usually clocks in a little over an hour.

Who are your favorite playwrights? Plays? How did you team up in the first place? Tell me more about the Hub Theatre.

JL: Great question... There are so many fantastic playwrights right now doing such cool work: Samuel D. Hunter, Lauren Gunderson, David Adjmi, Anne Washburn. Having now doing three solo shows, that also makes me a fan of playwrights like Eric Bogosian and Anna Deavere Smith. Oh, and there's this guy nobody's ever heard of: Shakespeare?

The Washington DC theatre community is a pretty tight one, so Helen and I have known each other for a long time. We first acted together, though, in the play Valpariso by Don DeLillo. Helen was starting The Hub Theatre (her theatre company in Northern Virginia) about that same time and I was cast as The Narrator in The Pavilion (her inaugural production at The Hub). We've tried to find ways to work together ever since!

HP: Favorite writers - too many to name, but here are a few: Philip Dawkins, Lauren Yee, Sarah Ruhl, Craig Wright, Carole Frech├ętte, Adam Bock and Jordan Harrison.

Are there plans to take the play further? Perhaps to off-Broadway?

JL: Right now, there are no plans to take the show off-Broadway, but we won't rule it out. Actually, we're both very excited that ArtsWest in Seattle is doing a production of Wonderful Life this Christmas. It should be a fantastic show. Ideally, we'd love to have theatres around the country doing productions every Christmas. It's a heart-warming story, it's easy to produce, and it's a chance for an actor to really shine.

HP: At the moment there are no future plans for the play other than to get it published. But Jason and I are open to anywhere the project might go.

Anything else either of you cares to add?

JL: When the holidays approach, it's easy to get caught up in the rush and the hustle. It's not always simple to find a way to escape and slow down. I mean, personally, I'm always looking for a way to recreate that comforting nostalgia of holidays at my grandparents with my family all around. I like to think that Wonderful Life is way to do that. It's a reflection on a simpler time and it helps remind you that the most important things in life are not the objects that we own, but the relationships that we have with other people.

HP: This show does something very important during this time of year. It gives you a quiet hushed break from the whirlwind. It wraps you up in all the best of the holidays ‘feels’.

Don't miss Jason Lott perform over 20 characters in this fantastic stage replication of It's a Wonderful Life called Wonderful Life by Lott and Helen Murray Pafumi now playing at the Malibu Playhouse until December 20!


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