"Teacher says: Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."
— Zuzu Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life
In the stage production of It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, every time a bell rings, it means John Gzowski is on the job.
It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play
Adapted by Philip Grecian, based on the film by Frank Capra
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
To Dec. 15
Tickets $27-$100 at royalmtc.ca
Gzowski is a Toronto composer/sound designer. Also a musician and instrument builder. And yes, he is the son of Canadian broadcasting legend Peter Gzowski.
He’s also an actor in It’s a Wonderful Life, a stage adaptation of Frank Capra’s beloved perennial Christmas movie from 1946 about how an angel named Clarence shows a desperate small-town everyman what life in his community would be like if he had never existed. That is: Gzowski, the foley artist in charge of sound effects, plays a radio station foley artist.
Call it typecasting if you like.
But be assured Gzowski, 54, knows his stuff. This is, in fact, his second go-round on the Royal MTC stage after playing the same role in the 2009 iteration of the show.
"This is a performance," he asserts while taking a break in the Royal MTC’s rehearsal hall. "They’re doing it live like it would have been done to radio at the time, in the ‘30s and ‘40s."
This is to explain the period-appropriate collection of weird props that surround Gzowski, house-right in the show’s old-timey radio station set. A giant sheet of metal above him makes thunder. A huge wooden barrel-like cylinder with a crankshaft is a wind machine.
The door of an ancient refrigerator sounds precisely like a car door when slammed shut. When trod upon, a cushion stuffed with corn starch makes the precise sound of feet walking through snow.
A car engine? That’s a sewing machine rigged to beat on a snare drum. Then there’s the minutiae of the job: Whistles, bottle caps and of course, angel-begetting bells.
It’s a challenge, he acknowledges, making each sound at the precise correct moment in the script.
"We have to do the right sound effect, make it sound good, but also make the cues and don’t slow down the action, so that you’re telling the visual story of what would be happening through sound.
"So if you closed your eyes, you would be able to tell what’s going on with the characters, where they are and what actions they’re doing."
Gzowski grew up in Toronto, where the occasional juvenile visits to his dad’s CBC recording studio made him comfortable in the realm of performance. He went from playing electric guitar in rock bands on Queen Street (you may remember him in a four-year weekly gig at the Cameron House with the Garbagemen) to experimentations in jazz, new music, classical music and world music.
"It was not a great living as a musician," he says. "Then one day, I got asked to do music for a play and that ended up being a lot of fun and the show did really well.
"The next year, I got asked to do 14 plays," he says. "And since then it’s been pretty steady."
Whether doing state-of-the-art sound design or cranking an ancient wind machine, Gzowski says he loves the variety of theatre work.
"(Doing) this work in film, you would be isolated," he says. "You could either be a composer or an arranger or you could be a recording person, or you could do the sound effects or you could do the mix or the foley.
"But generally for theatre, I do a bit of everything, so every job is a little bit different," he says. "That’s pretty fascinating."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.