Count com­mu­nity the­ater among hol­i­day tra­di­tions for many

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - By Melissa Kossler Dut­ton

The Rails­back fam­ily in North Carolina en­joys lots of con­ven­tional hol­i­day fes­tiv­i­ties — get-to­geth­ers, spe­cial meals, ex­chang­ing gifts.

But for the last sev­eral years, they have added another tra­di­tion that il­lus­trates the mean­ing of the sea­son for them: per­form­ing in the High Point Com­mu­nity Theatre’s “A Christ­mas Carol: The Mu­si­cal.”

“It’s a huge part of our Christ­mas,” said Kristina Rails­back, who has played the role of Mrs. Cratchit since the the­ater first pre­sented the pro­duc­tion five years ago. Her hus­band, Eric, and sons, Liam, 14, and Caleb, 18, also have taken part ev­ery year, ei­ther per­form­ing on­stage or work­ing in the pro­duc­tion crew.

She loves that the com­mit­ment brings the fam­ily to­gether of­ten for re­hearsals, and she finds the mes­sage of Charles Dick­ens’ clas­sic tale sets the right tone for the hol­i­days.

“It’s such a story of redemp­tion that the Scrooge char­ac­ter has a chance to be­come a bet­ter per­son — it moves me ev­ery sin­gle time,” she says.

More than that, she rel­ishes the en­ergy and feeling of kin­ship pro­duced when peo­ple of all ages and back­grounds come to­gether to do some­thing cre­ative. “I look for­ward to it all year,” she said.

Com­mu­nity the­ater pro­duc­tions take on spe­cial mean­ing at the hol­i­days, agreed Tabi Bryner, who has been di­rect­ing plays in Hem­ing­ford, Nebraska, since 2008. The per­for­mances give au­di­ence mem­bers a way to re­con­nect with the mean­ing of the hol­i­days, said Bryner, who stud­ied the­ater in col­lege and worked as an Eq­uity stage man­ager for over a decade.

“Live entertainm­ent takes you away from re­al­ity for a short cou­ple of hours,” she said, and the hol­i­day-themed plays “help cre­ate won­der­ful mem­o­ries. We al­ways choose a heart­warm­ing story. At­tend­ing the play has be­come in­grained in the com­mu­nity. It’s what they do.”

Bryner said the per­form­ers in her com­mu­nity pro­duc­tions range in age from tod­dlers to se­niors — “It’s what makes the plays so pop­u­lar,” she said. “Home­town folk act­ing as though they are paid pro­fes­sion­als — they take it very se­ri­ously to cre­ate great the­ater. The laugh­ter is hearty and the tears be­come real from the au­di­ence.”

Eleven-year-old Grace Lil­ley-Gitch has acted in two Hem­ing­ford pro­duc­tions, in­clud­ing “The Best Christ­mas Pageant Ever,” a pop­u­lar hol­i­day play based a chil­dren’s novel. “It’s re­ally good for the com­mu­nity that there’s a hol­i­day play be­cause it’s an event for every­body to go to,” she said. “There’s usu­ally a mes­sage about what Christ­mas is re­ally about and how to be grate­ful.”

In Grove City, Ohio, Lisa Rad­wan­ski says she reg­u­larly takes her fam­ily to see friends per­form in the hol­i­day shows put on at the Lit­tle Theatre Off Broad­way. Past per­for­mances have in­cluded “The Twelve Daze of Christ­mas,” a com­edy based on the Christ­mas carol and “‘Twas The Night Be­fore Christ­mas,” which retells the clas­sic poem with the fo­cus on a mouse and a rein­deer.

“It is fun to watch chil­dren we know on stage, and see them grow up more each year,” she said. “We leave the pro­duc­tions hap­pier and filled with Christ­mas spirit.”

And in St. Paul, the Min­nesota Jewish Theatre Company launched a hol­i­day show in 2000. Ini­tially, the in­tended au­di­ence was Jewish fam­i­lies, but the an­nual pro­duc­tion, which uses both paid ac­tors and com­mu­nity vol­un­teers, has be­come a hol­i­day tra­di­tion for peo­ple of many faiths, said Katie How­ells, man­ager of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and au­di­ence en­gage­ment. “It’s just re­ally grown,” she said.

The the­ater, which some­times com­mis­sions play­wrights to cre­ate shows based on Jewish chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, looks for themes that pro­mote cul­tural unity and help ed­u­cate the com­mu­nity about Jewish tra­di­tions, while set­ting the mood for Hanukkah, she said. This year, the troupe will per­form “Hanukkah Lights in the Big Sky,” a com­mis­sioned work based on the true story of a com­mu­nity in Billings, Mon­tana, that ral­lied around its Jewish neigh­bors af­ter a brick was thrown at a meno­rah in a child’s win­dow.

The the­ater of­fers low­priced stu­dent tick­ets and en­cour­ages schools to at­tend as a field trip.

“It feels re­ally im­por­tant to me to pro­vide this op­por­tu­nity for young peo­ple — a lot of whom have never been to the the­ater — to come and learn and en­joy,” said Bar­bara Brooks, pro­duc­ing artis­tic direc­tor.

At one re­hearsal ev­ery year, she serves potato latkes to the cast and crew. “There are al­ways peo­ple who say, ‘I’ve never had them.’ So it’s kind of fun,” she said.

Copy­right 2019 The As­so­ci­ated Press. All rights re­served. This ma­te­rial may not be pub­lished, broad­cast, rewrit­ten or re­dis­tributed.

JUST SHOOT ME PHO­TO­GRAPH­ICS

This 2017 photo pro­vided by the Hem­ing­ford Com­mu­nity The­ater in Hem­ing­ford, Neb., shows a scene from “On the Worst Day of Christ­mas,” one of their hol­i­day pro­duc­tions. The the­ater’s mis­sion is to pro­duce en­gag­ing and entertaini­ng the­ater, while giv­ing youth op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­velop life skills through stage skills, while fos­ter­ing a love of the arts in the the­ater’s ru­ral com­mu­nity. For many, com­mu­nity plays are a hol­i­day tra­di­tion.

BRAD MCMIL­LAN

This 2018 photo pro­vided by High Point Com­mu­nity Theatre in High Point, N.C., shows a scene from the 2018 pro­duc­tion of “Ebenezer Scrooge.” Jim Free­man, shown here, pro­claims his detest for the hol­i­day sea­son in the show opener, “Noth­ing To Do With Me.” For many, com­mu­nity plays are a hol­i­day tra­di­tion.

JERRI SHAFER

This 2018 photo pro­vided by the Lit­tle Theatre off Broad­way shows a live per­for­mance for the the­ater’s 2018 hol­i­day show. For many, com­mu­nity plays are a hol­i­day tra­di­tion.

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