An Interview with Jim Nellis

The director of Miracle on 34th Street

Jim, you have played major roles in a number of Entity theatre plays over the years, then made your directorial debut last year with a staged radio rebroadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life that could also be listened to on social media platforms as though it were an actual radio broadcast. How did you decide that Entity was ready for this sort of new theatre direction? What challenges did you have to deal with?  

Actually I didn’t decide Entity was ready for this, the board did.  I just proposed it to them because I had read the script and I loved it.  And since I’d never directed before, I thought this would be an good way to get started.  In a regular theatre play, there are a bunch of moving parts that a radio play doesn’t have.  For example, we had no set and our lighting was pretty static.  Our costumes were just period costumes and the makeup was standard stage makeup.  So as a first-timer, there were fewer ways for me to get things wrong.  As far as challenges go – the biggest one we had was that we’d scheduled too few performances.  We sold out the first performance further in advance than any previous Entity show.  When we added a second show, the same thing happened.  When it comes to challenges, those are the ones you want!

Now this year you are directing an actual radio rebroadcast of Miracle on 34th Street on social media platforms without any staged performance at all to allow the actors to be safe during the COVID pandemic. Was that a challenge when you were doing the original casting? How did you deal with that?

Actually, I think the casting was easier than when staging a regular show.  Since this year’s performance is radio-only all I needed to cast were voices.  As a result, actors were able to record their auditions and email them to me.

There were no props, no visual clues, no staging – sometimes one actor’s lines in a scene were recorded earlier or later than those of the rest of the actors in that scene – this sounds like a pretty steep challenge for a relatively new director to overcome in order to create an entertaining and believable story. How did you deal with them?

One of the biggest challenges was that we had to record scenes out of order from the text, just as they do in a movie or a TV show. The advantage of this was that there is less pressure to “get it right” because we could record one actor’s performance several times and then, using audio editing, select the best from each actor’s clips, match to the best sound effects, and produce the final result. The disadvantage is that the actors might have recorded the scene just before the one they are working on now a week earlier. Obviously this is a challenge to maintain consistency of voice and emotion so that the final broadcast will sound as though it had been performed in sequence. This, by the way, gave me a much increased appreciation for how movies and TV actors maintain their consistency between scenes.

I found that reviewing the scene before the scene being recorded was quite helpful in supporting the actors in maintaining that energy that was built in the proceeding scene. It was also helpful to give them a “practice” recording however they wanted to and then guide them to what was needed.

Another challenge was working with our younger actors both during rehearsals and during recordings and creating an environment where they could feel supported, have fun and experience a sense of success and accomplishment.

I admit that, going into this project, I was a little nervous because I have never directed younger actors before. Jodie Foster began her career at quite a young age and has created some wonderful resources on direction. Her advice: when a younger actor says “they’re done”, they are done. So I made sure that we had a lot of breaks built into the schedule and checked in quite often to make sure that they had what they wanted to keep going.

They say that people can tell if you’re smiling when you’re talking to them on the phone and I agree with that.  So when it came time to do one of the scenes with our younger actors I really wanted them to get into the act physically. Sometimes you can’t just ask, you have to show and do! So before recording such scenes I would do a quick staged rehearsal so that they could have a real experience of the underlying physicality that is essential for stage actors.

Here is a picture and a video that really give you a feeling of how well these folks worked together:

Kris Kringle, (John Yates) and Susan Walker (Silvia Pfleghar) work through their scene together. (Cate Vieth CC BY 4.0)
Mortimer  (Fabian Weiss) and Monika (Marcia Mosig) had to do their lines rapidly (in some cases simultaneously) together with John (Kris Kringle) in order to make the scene believable. I decided to help them out by getting in front and ‘conducting’ them.  The result was really special.
 (Cate Vieth CC BY 4.0)

I must say that these young actors each bring such passion and enthusiasm to the craft that they’re an inspiration for those of us who have been doing this for a while. I had an absolutely wonderful experience.

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