Actor Jerry Richardson stars in This Wonderful Life as George Bailey ... and Old Man Potter... and even little Zuzu.
In fact, Richardson plays all 32 roles in the show, which is running through Dec. 22 at People's Light and Theatre. We reached out to Richardson to ask about the perks and challenges of such an undertaking.
Malvern Patch: Is this the largest number of roles you've taken on in one production?
Jerry Richardson: Absolutely—this is the only one-man show I have ever done. Normally, I play one role, which is plenty challenging in and of itself. I think the one-man show genre presents a unique set of challenges to the actor. Hopefully we are successful navigating them here!
How do you prepare to play 32 roles in a one-man show?
JR: I try to approach the play like any other, and identify what each person wants, what are their life circumstances, their obstacles, etc. But the reality of playing these roles all by myself means I have to craft a voice, gesture and body somewhat resembling these iconic figures, so that the audience will follow who is doing what, as there are lots of somewhat seamless character shifts throughout the play.
The challenge is grounding them with the very personal truth of who they are and what they want, yet still keeping them recognizable as the characters we know and love from the film. We are seeing these people through the lens of the narrator, who has his own take on them, as well—which adds another level of perspective. And yes, I watched the film many, many times!
Do you have a favorite character in This Wonderful Life?
JR: I really identify with George Bailey, the underdog fighting the big shots who grew up in a small town. I did leave my small town, unlike George, but I think we all struggle with never feeling like what we do is enough and losing track of what really matters when faced with measuring ourselves against the material wealth of others. It's easy to feel like a failure in life—that is, until you realize just how special you are and how much you matter to the people who love you.
What's the most challenging scene for you in This Wonderful Life?
JR: Given the one-man show reality, doing that Charleston dance scene, where the pool opens up under the dance floor and they all fall in, presents a number of technical hurdles. It requires tons of energy, precision and lots of gusto—yet a very sweet and tender moment for George and Mary (which I don't want to lose in the pyrotechnics of the dancing). I'm definitely sweating by the end.
What are the perks of performing in a one-man show?
JR: I think the creative control over the flow of the show is unique. And I love the technical challenge of doing something so physically exhausting yet requiring such relaxation and physical/mental precision. Those are tough to balance, and you can only exercise that muscle doing a one-person show. You know who will show up at the cast party, too. :-)
What is the most physically taxing part of playing multiple roles, and how do you cope with it?
JR: I'm repeating my previous answer, but the focus of keeping track of each emotional and mental beat shift through switching characters and finessing the smaller points, while making such big physical choices, is the toughest challenge for me.
Do you miss the camaraderie and energy of working with other actors during a one-man show like This Wonderful Life?
JR: YES! At the same time, I have a great group of technical folks around me for this show.
According to your bio, you're an avid cyclist—have you had a chance to bike in the Malvern area?
JR: I love cycling—I'm a bit of a bike nut. This is a great place for it, and will be even better, I'm sure, once the [Chester Valley] trail is complete. I've taken the trail along the river from Phoenixville to downtown Philly and back. I'm looking forward to getting to know the cycling routes around here a little better.