WILMINGTON—On Friday night Thalian Association will open its locally produced holiday show via screen instead of the stage in “All We Want for Christmas is You: A Holiday Variety Show.” The theater-film hybrid has become a new normal for community theater companies that have hosted livestreams and pre-recorded shows to reach audiences during Covid.
“There’s only so many things theater companies can do right now,” the association’s artistic director, Chandler Davis, said, “and we’ve all been doing concert-type things. I was racking my brain on what else we could do; we were looking for things more light-hearted to bring some cheer.”
Davis settled on a variety show that will include elements of song and dance, various sketches and storytelling, plus a game show.
Before the second wave of Covid-19 numbers began to rise, Thalian Association hoped to reprise its holiday hit “Elf the Musical,” with Jeff Hidek coming back as Buddy. Instead, Hidek will join a 36-deep cast in “All We Want for Christmas,” along with Jon Wallin.
“I think the most challenging thing about this process, besides shaking off eight or nine months of rust, has been adjusting my performance for the camera,” Wallin said.
He will sing the popular David Bowie and Bing Crosby tune “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” with John Markas. Wallin also will perform in group numbers for the Christmas classic “Silent Night” and Paul McCartney’s “Having a Wonderful Christmas Time.”
“When I’m on stage, I can usually get a pretty good sense from the audience whether what I’m doing is working or not,” Wallin added. “Not so much with the camera.”
Wallin leaned more into trusting his instincts and Davis, who had to direct the show in groups of 10 to keep within Covid-19 protocols. All the actors practiced in face shields, spaced 6-10 feet apart and couldn’t touch.
“It’s weird because theater people are so huggy and hive-fivey, and we hang out a lot, especially after rehearsal, just to chat with everyone,” she said.
This time Davis had to ensure they cleared the rehearsal space and went home without congregating. The process, overall, provided a few unexpected challenges that can translate to stage, too.
“When you’re doing a regularly formatted musical or play, you’re exploring the plot, building camaraderie with castmates, and getting to know them personally and professionally,” Davis said. “This [experience] has been, get on stage and turn it on: ‘Be more smiley, more Christmas-y, hit your mark, sing.’ When we did ‘Elf,’ the cast was hanging out for five weeks and had explored the nuances of their characters. It’s just different now.”
While the cast adapted to the additional time it takes to get one number down, Davis said it didn’t come easy. They spent three weeks in rehearsal on one song that in normal circumstances would take only a week to knock out.
“It’s harder to rehearse and takes more time when you have to section it out this way,” she said.
Davis has been directing and running lights, while community art center director and Thalian Association operations director Samantha Chappell has been the master behind the lens. Chappell studied film production in college and runs the association’s film camp every summer.
“Sam’s the one who is getting the show out to the people,” Davis said, referring not only to various close-up and wide-angle shots but also numerous hours spent editing it all. Davis said the cast had at least three takes per number to get into the new formatting.
“It was tough because I was saying things like, ‘I need you to sing straight out with your shield on and stay away from the rest of your cast,’” Davis explained. “So it felt more like a choral performance than normal.’”
The camera intimidated some as well, including Mathis Turner, who performs in the show as an Elvis persona in “Here Comes Santa Claus.” “I’ve done a good amount of camera work before, but something about knowing that the camera is doing close-ups of me doing theater is something I definitely had to adjust to,” he said. “I forgot the words way too often.”
Yet, taking on the mannerisms of the lip-snarled, hip-swiveling King of Rock ‘n’ Roll came with years of practice for Turner. In fact, it runs in the family.
“My father was an Elvis impersonator growing up,” Turner said, “so I watched him do Elvis shows every Christmas.”
According to Davis, by the third take, everyone in the show seemed to forget the cameras were rolling and appeared more loose — bopping and swaying, finding a new level of comfort. Davis told them if they cracked up in the middle of it all, that would be fine — even welcomed.
“I think it’s OK for people to see us not being super performative, and just being ourselves and having fun,” she said.
There will be quite a few Christmas-themed game-show segments in the production, including Team Mary versus Team Christmas duking it out in Pictionary. There also will be Charades and traditional trivia. Instead of buzzers that folks would commonly push to answer — a no-no per germ-sharing in Covid — Davis had the contestants say “meow” instead.
“There’s also a section where you jam as many peppermints into your mouth as you can, and try to say words for your team to guess,” she said. “So, I don’t really know what that’s called.”
Songs will run the gamut from traditional classics to pop covers, including Lindsey Stirlings’ “Carol of the Bells” and “Turkey Lurkey Time” from the 1968 musical “Promises, Promises.”
“It’s arguably the best holiday theatre song out there,” Davis said.
Choreographer Tammy Sue Daniels handled all dance numbers, while Linda Markus directed the music, which is being tracked rather than played by a live band. Davis called Markus’ quartet version of “Jingle Bell Rock” a stand-out. “She really focused on harmonies with everyone and they sound so good.”
Tickets to “All We Want for Christmas is You: A Holiday Variety Show” are $15 for one streaming device and $25 for two. Buyers can choose which day they want to watch the show, Friday or Saturday, 7:30 p.m., or Sunday at 3 p.m., Dec. 11-13 or 18-20. Davis encourages the whole household watch together.
“It’s definitely a deal, compared to individual theater tickets,” she said.
A link will be emailed to buyers to access the show, which can be screened up to two hours after showtime.
“It was great to work with some really talented folks again and reconnect with friends I haven’t seen in awhile,” Wallin said. “I hope everyone has a safe and healthy holiday, and I look forward to seeing what the new year has in store for us performance-wise.”
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