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Around The U.S., Holiday Theater With Local Flair

Nov 30, 2013

Whatever they are, our holiday traditions tend to be a mixture of the universal and the specific.

If we celebrate Christmas, for instance, we might have stockings and trees just like our neighbors, but we might also be the only ones in town who wear homemade elf hats while we open presents. It's a mix that helps us feel closer to the rest of the culture while reaffirming what's special about our own little community, family and home.

That balance also energizes theater this time of year. For every touring production of The Rockettes or comforting remount of A Christmas Carol, there's a holiday show specifically intended for a local audience, bringing together a block or a city instead of the world.

Take The Christmas Schooner, a musical about real-life sailors in the early 20th century who risked their lives to carry a boatload of Christmas trees from Michigan's Upper Peninsula across Lake Michigan to sell them to Chicago's German immigrants. Written by John Reeger and the late Julie Shannon, the show has been produced in the Windy City almost every season since it premiered in the mid-'90s; for the last three years, it's gotten a highly polished treatment from the Mercury Theater, which opened its latest remount this week.

Even though he's seen the show over a dozen times, Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones remains charmed by its local heart.

"It's the only Christmas show in Chicago that is really a Midwestern story," he says. "It's driven by the Great Lakes and Lake Michigan, which we see every day, and I think seeing this show is one of the few times it dawns on Chicagoans to say, 'Oh yeah, there were those communities up there around that lake.'"

For Mercury Theater's Walter Stearns, who directs The Christmas Schooner, that sense of place is a compelling reason to keep the show going.

"Hopefully, you see this show, and you feel like more of a part of the community in this building and this area," he says. He adds that certain aspects of the production, including a ritual called "blessing the Christmas branch," have become so popular that some audience members recreate them in their own homes.

Parochial theater isn't only about tradition. Sometimes, local holiday shows invite outsiders to see themselves as part of the season. That's why Randy Sharp wrote Seven in One Blow, Or The Brave Little Kid, which she's currently directing in its 12th annual production at New York City's Axis Theater Company.

Loosely based on the fairy tale "The Brave Little Tailor," the play, which opens this year on Dec. 6, follows a young city boy on a variety of adventures.

"For me, it's a very New York City play," says Sharp, who is also Axis theater's artistic director. "I wanted to touch on stuff like kids whose parents work, or kids with two dads, or kids with one parent. I was a latchkey kid, a city kid, and I feel like people aren't writing fairy tales about city kids. I wanted to reach out and not just tell a story about some good little angel in some imaginary land."

Though Seven in One Blow has been produced in other places, it's certainly connected with New Yorkers year after year.

"We have kids who have been coming since they were 10 years old, and now they're 22," Sharp says. "We had a kid who started coming when he was around 11 or 12, and last year, we saw him bring a girl he was engaged to."

In Atlanta, the troupe Dad's Garage has found a singular way to get repeat business for its annual holiday show: It asks audience members to help create it.

Invasion: Christmas Carol, which opens on Friday, Nov. 29, begins as a typical version of the Dickens classic. But soon enough, the company members, all trained improv performers, ask patrons for suggestions about how the plot should change. One of their first contributions is deciding who "invades" Scrooge's story.

In the show's previous five seasons, the interloper has been everyone from Jack the Ripper to Paula Deen to a guy in a hot dog costume.

"You get the best of both worlds," says Dad's Garage artistic director Kevin Gillese, who also plays Scrooge. "You get the production design and familiarity of a scripted holiday show, and you get the chaos and audience engagement of an improvised show."

The upshot: "It's just fun every time. Our artists are happy and inspired to do it again year after year."

Gillese suggests something important: As much as they mean to audiences, local holiday shows can also be powerful for the artists who return to them every season. They can provide a chance to focus on the community-within-a-community that a theater scene so often creates.

"We go on these challenging journeys through the year with our primary work [at Axis], but we always come back to this holiday family," says Sharp, noting that most of the performers in Seven in One Blow have been in the cast multiple times.

"It's like we let ourselves indulge in the holiday spirit, too. I mean, this year we slogged through this research and development on a project about the Dust Bowl, but now we're getting together for this show that we know and that we love, and that so many of us do every year. It's almost like a family dinner."

Mark Blankenship edits TDF Stages, a magazine about theater and dance. He tweets @iamblankenship.

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