The voice of Christmas

Jonathan Williams

Photo By mike blount

Catch It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, December 18-24, at Capital Stage, 2215 J Street;

Jonathan Williams’ parents were so impressed with their hyperactive child’s ability to stand still for 15 minutes during a school play that they plunged him into the world of theater, taking him to auditions for every role they could find. Williams relished the attention and has been onstage ever since. Ultimately, he found a home in Sacramento with his wife, Stephanie Gularte. Together, the pair and Pete Mohrmann founded the Delta King Theatre in 1999. Six years later, they renamed themselves Capital Stage, and in 2011 they converted the Old Sacramento Armoury in Midtown into their permanent home. Now, in the spirit of the holidays, the company will stage It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. The production is inspired by the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, but performed as a live radio broadcast from the 1940s in front of a studio audience. Williams, who channels Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey for the play, talked with SN&R about breaking the fourth wall, wearing pajamas to work and why he’s OK not owning a Porsche.

Sell me on this production of It’s a Wonderful Life. Why is it better than catching one of the many TV broadcasts of the movie?

(Laughs). To me, it captures the real essence of Christmas—that’s kind of the reason why we do the production. It gives people that nice shot in the arm for the holidays. … I’ve [done] Jimmy Stewart as a voice since I was a kid and really honed it. When we got the opportunity to do it, we really embraced it. It takes the idea that there’s a group of radio performers [putting on the show]. The story around the story is you’re seeing the actors come in and being introduced to the audience as if they are putting on the play live. What you’re seeing is not Jimmy Stewart but an actor playing Jimmy Stewart.

You’re an actor playing an actor, who’s playing an actor?

You got it.

What about theater drew you in?

It’s the storytelling element in combination with the fact that it happens live and you’re affecting people right there. Not in an egotistical, “Oh, I love when people laugh or clap,” kind of way, but just that shared communal experience.

Speaking of the audience, have you ever broken the fourth wall?

(Laughs.) Yeah, absolutely! There’s one occasion I remember that things went so completely wrong onstage that I had to do it. [Once], myself and another actor played 30 characters—just two actors—inside of a two-hour show. There were times there were literally four- and five-person scenes, but there’s still only two actors, so you’d step to your left and say another line to yourself. It was ridiculous and over-the-top, and part of the humor of it was how “out there” it was. I say that my fellow actor stole the line from me because just before the play started, he came up to me and asked, “What do you say after I say such-and-such line?” I looked over at him and a piece of music started playing and we literally had to walk out on stage. When we got to that point in the show, I couldn’t remember what that line was because he stole it out of my mind. … Luckily, I had enough presence to stay in character—it was a big Irish piece, so you had to be a bunch of Irish characters—and I looked to our backstage person and asked, “Do you have a line back there for me, Boyo?”

Do you plan to stay in theater exclusively or are you open to voice acting, TV or film?

I’ve dabbled a bit in the film and television thing. I don’t find the same kind of level of satisfaction with that from an acting standpoint. … From an economic standpoint … in the past, I would do a commercial because it would help pay the bills. When I lived in Los Angeles, I got a pretty steady gig doing voice-overs for National Geographic. You know when the foreign-language speaker would start to speak and then it would fade out and someone else’s voice would come in to do the translation? I did that, and it was great because you could show up in your pajamas if you wanted to.

You said you always knew you wanted to be a theater actor, but was there any point that you doubted yourself?

There’s been a few times, but it’s been when the desire to do art and the reality of making a living and how are you going to keep a roof over your head and feed yourself come into contrast with one another. I’ve been very, very lucky in that I’ve been able to find a way to make almost my entire living as an actor and theater artist. The way I look at it—especially if you are young—it’s about being very clear about your expectations. You’re probably not going to be a theater actor and drive a Porsche.