Joy To The World, Holiday Shows Are Back
by Rotimi Agbabiaka
Tis the season for holiday shows and after an almost two-year hiatus, live, in-person holiday theatre is back. In keeping with the unprecedented times, many of the productions on Bay Area stages are adapting, updating, or reimagining classic tales in ways that marry tradition with the needs of a world wearily emerging from a devastating pandemic. Theatre Bay Area chatted via Zoom with Sarita Ocón, Danny Scheie, Lauren Spencer, and Wiley Naman Strasser, Bay Area faves who are appearing in holiday shows at TheatreWorks, the Presidio Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, and the Golden Gate Theatre, about their return to the stage and the relevance of joy for joy’s sake.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Emilie Whelan and Lauren Spencer in Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Theatre Bay Area: Could you tell us a little bit about your holiday show and your role in it?
Lauren Spencer: I’m currently performing as Georgiana in Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley [at Marin Theater Company]. It is the final installment in what has become a trilogy of the Pemberley Christmas plays by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, which follow the lesser known Bennett sisters [from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice]. This play starts in 1815, two years after the events of Pride and Prejudice, at Christmas. Then it jumps to 1835 in Act Two and shows the Bennet sisters all grown up. There are romantic hijinks and love that may not happen but what I love about it the most is that the center of [the play] is a love story of female friendship between Kitty Bennett and Georgiana Darcy, the little sister of the infamous Mr. Darcy.
Sarita Ocón: I’m down over at TheatreWorks for It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. This script is adapted [from the 1946 film] by Joe Landry and it’s a cast of five—two females, three males, and we [actors] are doing all the foley [i.e. the live sound effects]. Our director, Giovanna Sardelli and our sound designer Jane Shaw, had the female [cast members] actually doing majority of the foley as a tribute to Ora Daigle Nichols, the first woman to head a sound department of a major studio. The show is set in a 1940s radio studio and I play Mary Hatch, the primary romance to our iconic George Bailey.
Danny Scheie: I’m in The Magic Lamp at the Presidio Theatre, and we’re doing a Christmas pantomime, which is an art form that everybody in England knows. It has nothing to do with mime but it’s very, very old. It was from the 1700s and it’s got these stock theatrical traditions, which are just wonderful. When I was in college, I did a year in England and I was in one there, and it’s completely informed my aesthetic for the rest of my career. There’s a lot of drag. There’s men playing women. Traditionally, but not in ours, a girl in drag would play the “Prince Charming” part. And there’s a call and response tradition so [an English] audience knows when to respond immediately. Originally, there was a very limited repertoire of children’s fairy tales [that pantomime plots were drawn from]. Aladdin happens to be one of them and you would think it would be like children’s theatre but it’s really raunchy and full of double entendre for the whole family.
I’m playing the villain—a pantomime villain. Captain Hook comes out of that tradition, where there’s a villain but he’s funny and the parents get a kick out of him even if the kids are scared of him.
Wiley Naman Strasser: I’m doing A Christmas Carol at the Golden Gate Theatre. It’s a production that originally was conceived at the Old Vic in London, recently went to Broadway, and this is the first year that it’s doing a U.S. national tour. It’s directed by Matthew Warchus and the adaptation’s by Jack Thorne (who wrote Harry Potter and The Cursed Child) with music by Chris Nightingale.
It’s definitely not your typical Christmas Carol. It’s stripped down, which is not to say that it’s simple—it’s maybe deceptively simple. I’m in the ensemble—I play George and Scrooge’s schoolteacher—and I play accordion and the whistle. We [actors] are all playing hand bells and singing a lot. The music is really beautiful and a lovely example of how a story can be held and carried forward through music.
The cast of A Christmas Carol. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Theatre Bay Area: All of you are in productions that are adapting or expanding on familiar stories, from Victorian era tales to twentieth century films. In which ways did you approach the question of making these stories relevant to today’s audience?
Lauren Spencer: Meredith McDonough, our brilliant director and fearless leader, is not a Jane Austen fan and does not live in that cadre of folks who go to Jane Austen fairs and dress up. So she brought a real, hearty sense of groundedness and encouraged us to honor [the story] but then also just have fun with it. There’s also something to be said for the beauty of the tradition that is held so dear. Reading Pride and Prejudice as a young girl was a big thing for me—seeing a woman be smart and sassy and not the pretty ingenue.
There’s something to be said for just joy and merriment and celebration. Coming out of the pandemic, I was like, “What world do I want to live in and what body do I want to live in as an actor for two months of my life?” It felt exceptional to not be doing something traumatic and it made me think a lot about what makes theatre relevant. Why is joy not relevant for its own sake? And why have I [previously] been disdainful of joy for the sake of joy?
Wiley Naman Strasser: I preach a lot about all the theatre out there and what is actually necessary and then I look out in the houses [at Christmas Carol] and people are there for it, you know? People have a need for this connection and community and, with Christmas Carol, looking at the paths you’ve taken, the paths you could have taken, and the paths you want to take. There’s just such zest [in our production] that gives me life, and it’s surprising and fun.
Sarita Ocón: What’s been really beautiful is that there’s a lot of intention behind the selection of It’s a Wonderful Life and a very open conversation between the adaptation that Joe put together, that’s from the original screenplay, and what we started discovering very quickly in rehearsal. There are some commercial song breaks in the show and we rewrote the commercials, challenging some of the stereotypes, especially when it comes to gender. There was an intention as we were going through the script to change some pronouns.
Some new faces are telling this story. Phil Wong is amazing as both our musical director as well as playing Mr. Potter and many other characters. Moses Villarama is stepping into the track of George Bailey. I could feel the intention behind wanting to understand how would this resonate today? And what became apparent in that initial [rehearsal] conversation was how much this story had impacted our parents who are immigrants and this idea of an American dream. I think we’re dismantling those ideas but knowing that this was a story that embodied so much heart of possibility and hope, and coming out of the shutdown, there was a real sense of wanting to bring out a bit of hope and the story does that.
Danny Scheie and Curt Branom in The Magic Lamp. Photo by Terry Lorant Photography
Danny Scheie: Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life were anti-capitalist tracks as they were originally conceived. They were proto-Marxist takedowns of capitalism and moving back to The Magic Lamp, one of the things that is easily dismissed in this country is camp. It’s “Off with the drag queens and the gays”, and it’s a silly, frivolous thing. But it’s not so in England—camp is part of the theatrical tradition, which is what our show does.
In my own experience, the way that some of my work has been dismissed is: “Oh, it’s just camp”, usually by people who don’t understand how dangerous camp is and that camp means someone has to be excluded in the joke–that usually the enemy is excluded and only the people that are taking down the enemy can understand it. There’s this ability for it to be really, really covert because the people who own the theatre or own the means of production might not even understand what’s going on.
Lauren Spencer: I was thinking, while Sarita and Wiley were talking, about the power of playing. As an actor, it was really refreshing to get into a room, after the pandemic, and be able to play. Our play’s not camp but it’s asking for a size and a celebration and a leaning into zest that isn’t appropriate for some other plays. I think we underestimate the subversiveness of embracing play.
Danny Scheie: I mean, one of the things we learned from the pandemic is how fragile our art form was—one germ and it’s all shut down in the middle of the third day of rehearsal, in dress rehearsal, whenever, it’s gone for who knows how long. And the fact that Pride and Prejudice and this black and white film and some tiny little paperback from 1860 are still around at all even to kick around is amazing. If art is really, really fragile and if it lasts this long, it is worth looking at again, in my opinion.
Theatre Bay Area: Have you been surprised by anything that you missed or anything that you are discovering as you return to in-person theatre?
Lauren Spencer: The sweetest thing of our rehearsal room was whenever you weren’t [onstage] rehearsing everyone would sit along the perimeter. We would just sit and raptly watch each other rehearse and laugh. The childlike sweetness of appreciating each other’s craft and appreciating each other’s joy was just the most miraculous thing because it didn’t wane. It wasn’t like, “Oh, there’s the table read in the first rehearsal and now everyone’s on their phones.” Everyone would go sit on the sidelines and just watch and be audience for each other.
Sarita Ocón and Moses Villarama in It’s A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Sarita Ocón: I would have to add yes to that, because for our process, we’re all on stage all together, no one leaves. So it’s been a gift to be able to witness the play, the discoveries, the craftsmanship and dedication, the joy, the humor. We get to watch each other and throw that focus to whoever is in that scene along with the audience.
There’s a lot of gratitude and there’s a lot of thankfulness and there’s also that feeling like it could be gone in a moment’s notice.
Wiley Naman Strasser: I cried more just watching my cast mates in rehearsal, from table read through yesterday’s performance. And I hadn’t credited that to being away from theatre for two years. I had credited it to the adaptation but I think it’s both. It’s funny, we’re a cast of 18, which sounded big, but very quickly did not feel big.
Theatre Bay Area: What’s it like being in front of live audiences again? Have you noticed any differences in your relationship with the audience?
Wiley Naman Strasser: The line “God bless us, everyone” is said, and almost always there is applause because people just know and love this story. There’s something to be said for this communal moment of being able to gather in these numbers. And then to sit there and wish each other well. I’m not religious. It took me some translation to make that line mine but, yeah, it’s a communal moment, for sure.
Lauren Spencer: Whereas before it would feel like you walk out on stage and maybe a theatre is half full and you’re like, “Oh God, what a slog”, now, even when there are smaller audiences, the energy is just so different—you can feel that people are so excited to be there.
Danny Scheie: Yeah, our audiences seem hopped up on goofballs. They go nuts for an ABBA song like they haven’t danced in years.
Sarita Ocón: It’s interesting, for us there’s an invitation again to what it means to listen to a story. I just sense from everyone that I’ve had an opportunity to touch base with that folks seem really grateful and are like, “Yeah, I’m going to go see this because I have to show full proof of vaccination and I’m happy to wear a mask.” There’s a delight and there’s joy and you hear the laughter. So even though we can’t see their faces, it feels like we’re learning to listen in a different way.
Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. Rotimi is an actor, writer, director, and teaching artist. Learn more at RotimiOnline.com