We Talk Bringing Holiday Cheer to the Stage With Giovanna Sardelli, Director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Giovanna Sardelli, director of "It's a Wonderful Life" at Theatreworks. Photo by Deborah Lopez

In this pandemic age, we’re all eager to get back to the way things were. As the holiday season befalls us, we’re all doing our best to re-establish those holiday traditions we’ve held so dear with our friends and family. Picking out just the right tree at the Christmas tree farm. Lighting the menorah with those we love. Lighting Kwanzaa candles with our families. Sipping eggnog with dear friends. There’s a sense of sweet nostalgia this holiday season, perhaps, because of COVID, more than ever before.

Giovanna Sardelli, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s artistic director, has that feeling, too. So much so, she’s not only showcasing one of the greatest holiday movies of all time on stage, It’s a Wonderful Life, but doing so in an even more nostalgic fashion—as a live radio play.

It’s a Wonderful Life, for those who don’t know, tells the story of George Bailey, a man who has given up on his personal dreams to help others in his community. He tries to commit suicide one fateful Christmas Eve night that brings about his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody. Clarence shows George how his life has impacted the lives of others and how different life would be for his wife and the community of Bedford Falls had he not been born.

We sat down with Sardelli to talk about cherished memories, iconic films, and holiday wishes.

Jonathan Shipley: What are some of your favorite Christmas or holiday memories?

Giovanna Sardelli: Years ago, when my mother was still alive, several members of my Brazilian family came to stay with us for Christmas. We have a pretty small immediate family, so it was wonderful to have extended family together for the holidays. It was the first time my sister and I had seen my father and his brother together. We sat around the table telling stories in, what we call, Engliguese, since only my father and one cousin are fluent in both English and Portuguese. While I know there was one, I don’t have any memories of language being a barrier to all the family stories that we shared.

the cast of "It's a Wonderful Life" stand together in 1940s clothing
The cast of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at TheatreWorks. PHOTO BY PACIANO TRIUNFO

What, to you, is the definition of “the spirit of Christmas”?

Kindness and generosity. It always seems to feel like we’re trying harder at this time of year to spread joy and kindness.

What is it about It’s a Wonderful Life that makes it timeless?

In addition to being a beautifully written story, I think it’s because it’s about sacrificing for something larger than one’s self and celebrating those who often feel unseen and unvalued. It offers hope about who we can become. It reminds us of the best within ourselves—our ability to overcome adversity and our ability to support one another. It shows us that we can create a better world together.

What about your production might be surprising to Its a Wonderful Life movie fans?

How magically theatrical it is and how it transcends the radio play format. Also, how it connects to the present day.

Why do the production as a radio play at all?

Because it’s so much fun! Watching a group of five actors bring the story to life—with all the depth and heart of the original—is something to see. Then there is the added bonus of watching the cast perform all the foley. These are the sound effects that create the world of Bedford Falls. In some ways, it makes it a show within a show!

What does a radio play bring to audiences that other forms of entertainment dont?

Well, a radio play asks that you really listen to the story and that you use your imagination and join in the creation of the story with the actors. It has a good campfire feel to the storytelling. It’s a shared experience.

What is your Christmas wish this year?

From the universe, I wish for health and healing for all of us. From my Secret Santa, I wish for chocolate.

It’s a Wonderful Life plays at TheatreWorks’ Lucie Stern Theatre December 1–26, 2021. Tickets $25–60 and are available online.

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Oh Reader!, among other publications.