Ahh, Christmas at the theatre. It's a weird, wild, wonderful place. People who haven't been to a a play all year will come out to see A Christmas Carol for the 27th time. It's kinda like church.
I saw two plays this weekend. It’s a Wonderful Life played out at the Coleman Theatre Beautiful in Miami, an amazing theater fully restored to its 1920’s grandeur, a genuine architectural treasure and reminder of how even small towns used to regard their theatres as centerpieces of civic community. The second was watching my 4 year old grandson participate in a nativity in the tiny fellowship hall of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Bixby.
I could write pages on the Coleman theater, and if you’ve never been it’s worth the trip. But it’s not going to come as too big a shock that I enjoyed watching my grandson more. But more than that, I enjoyed the performance more, and that is something of a shock, even to me, enough so that I had to think about why that was the case.
With apologies to my church friends, it’s not because I like the story better. The Nativity story (actually a mashup of two radically different Biblical accounts) is beautiful in its way. Apart from any religious belief, if you can’t be affected by a young refugee mother giving birth in difficult circumstances, I’d advise a heart check. And apart from religion, just looking at it artistically, it makes for a great still life tableaux, and has inspired some truly beloved music. But as stage drama it has serious drawbacks, that I won’t go into here. Whereas Wonderful Life the movie, in spite of the sentimentality and Jimmy Stewart’s silliness at the end, remains eerily powerful in places. There’s a reason it’s a classic. So no, not the story.
No, oddly enough, it’s the acting. Wait a second, I’m not saying the Miami Little Theatre has terrible actors, while the children at my daughter’s tiny church are precocious prodigies. OBVIOUSLY, from a technical standpoint the acting was stronger in Miami.
What was different was a sense of the importance of what was happening onstage. For the adults, it was play, a Christmas chestnut, nothing you’d want to take too seriously. For reasons you are free to scoff at or criticize, the kids thought what they were doing was more important than that, and it showed.
To understand that, you have to know that there was minimal adult input in the ‘production.’ The kids had almost complete ownership of everything that went on onstage. The recorder choir wrote its own harmonies and arrangement; the props and set pieces were cut from cardboard, detailed with Sharpies, and (obviously) constructed by the cast. There were no stage managers pushing kids onstage for their entrances. The older kids (oldest 15) helped shepherd the little ones, but every child hit their marks, picked up their cues, and spoke their lines in a clear, enunciated voice without prodding. No pauses for dramatic effect or waiting for an entrance, no show offs, no flubbed lines or giggles.
What the hell? How can these kids do on their own what I spend 6 weeks with an adult cast working on?
The only thing I can figure out, is that they thought what they were doing was more serious than that, and too important to screw around with.
For the love of heaven, PLEASE don’t think I’m saying that Christians or religious people in general make better actors, because in my experience that has usually not been the case. The baggage that Christians carry (for good or for ill) sometimes gets in the way of them reaching their full potential onstage, though that is by no means true in all cases.
What I am saying is that people’s motivations matter. Doing it for yourself is not the same as doing it for the group. Doing it with your head is not the same as doing it with your heart. A reenactment is not the same as a creation.
Again, you will have your own ideas on church plays, church, kids and church, Jimmy Stewart, and me writing about my grandson. In fact, I invite you to share any of those ideas freely in the comments (this goes for any of my posts). Why should I have all the fun?
Thanks for reading.
I'm assuming there's extensive rewriting going on (the article doesn't touch on copyright issues), but the intent is not to do parodies or even to be humorous. It's to challenge young actors, kids as young as 8 and 9, with material that requires dealing with subtext and complex relationships.
I'm not sure how I feel about some of this, but I do know from experience that kids want challenging material. And if nothing else, it's a new approach.
I caught Clark Theatre's production of Catch Me If You Can tonight. The young cast was shepherded and supported by some of the best young adult talent in Tulsa: Robert Young (director), John Cruncleton (sets), Kathy Grufik (choreographer), David Lawrence (lights), Tiffany Wright (vocal director) and with Erin Scarberry as the theatre's artistic director. Not surprisingly, it was youth theatre at its very best. Pretty cool that four of those adults got their start as kids at Clark.
Grufik's choreography was especially effective, and filled the stage with movement and color, helped in no small manner by the constantly shifting array of costumes, designed by Genie Reiman. Not being familiar with the music before tonight, I was impressed at how well the kids handled the sometimes extraordinary demands of the score. It was nice to hear young voices being able to fill the room even without benefit of individual mics.
I have to mention a couple of standout numbers and performances: Quinn Blakely rocked "Don't Break the Rules", but you've got to give equal credit to the dancers for selling this big number: Reid Patten, Miriam Hanisch, Erika Ralls, and Lexi Walker. As has become a trademark for Clark, the chorus work, both vocal and dance, was sharp and energetic. Peyton Grufik was surprisingly moving as the not-so-great role model dad, Frank Sr. And Emma Petherick as love interest Brenda Strong wailed and nailed the heart-breaking, tears-in-her-eyes "Fly, Fly Away" that stopped the show.
Catch Me If You Can marks Clark's movement into doing some more mature material with their senior high actors. Looks like that's going to work out fine.
Clark Youth Theatre has a nice video trailer of their current production, Catch Me If You Can. Kudos to them on the video, and everyone get out to see them. (Full disclosure, I'm a big supporter, as if you didn't know).
The Pop Up Players put on an impressively polished show last night at the Nightingale. This group is composed largely from Clark Theatre veterans, under the (nominally) adult supervision of George Romero. Too many participants to name (which makes the overall consistent quality even more impressive), but the leadership of Quinn Blakely and Jack Allen has to be noted, as does the incredibly off-kilter, absurdist slant of Jack's writing. The Calamaties provide their own, off-kilter brand of post-post-alt-rock punctuating and supporting the comedy throughout the evening. (I should point out that the band pictured is not the Calamaties, but Dance! Dance! Lance Vance and the Fancy Pants. Yeah, I know).
The show runs tonight as well as next weekend. As might be expected when this group bursts outside the confines of a youth theatre, the material often veers towards the "adult", if that's the word for bits like "He shot my dick" (not the actual title, but it might as well be). But keeping that in mind, it's a pretty entertaining evening.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
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