Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Keeping Tradition Alive

The great thing about holiday traditions is the familiarity; the comfort of knowing you’ll be able to enjoy something again and again.

Certainly, A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker are two traditions honored and beloved in Madison and many other places across the country. And Children’s Theater of Madison and Madison Ballet have the unique task every year of giving audiences the play and ballet they look forward to while also keeping the works fresh and exciting.

CTM’s producing artistic director Roseann Sheridan and Madison Ballet’s artistic director W. Earle Smith recently took some time out to share the latest on their holiday productions—what’s new, what’s improved and what they’ll never change.

Roseann Sheridan

Why do you do this production every year?

A Christmas Carol is a true classic and including the show amongst the holiday offerings for any city demonstrates the cultural vitality of the city. The trio of offerings that Madison provides: the theatrical production of A Christmas Carol, the ballet production of The Nutcracker and the symphony production of the Holiday Spectacular truly speaks to the vibrancy of Madison and the value the community places on the arts.

This is the “signature piece” of CTM. To me, that means it represents our core values: building community, artistic excellence and nurturing an appreciation of theatre in young people. The center of the story is Ebenezer Scrooge who learns to embrace the child within himself and along with that the spirit of joy, exuberance and generosity.

This production has become a tradition for CTM and for our community. For thirty-three years, this company has presented this play, and each year dozens of children, youth and adults participate in the production. In addition, the play allows for actors from eight to eighty to be onstage, and so it supports our commitment to mentorship and to accessibility.

Most of all, the show has all of the elements we love: a great story, family-friendly, a large community involvement onstage and off, and timeless themes of the value of family, friendship, kindness toward all people and a celebration of youth.

How do you keep things fresh and interesting—both for your organization and for audiences?

For the organization, each production is a unique combination of people who create a special family for the time they are together. New actors bring new energies and ideas. Returning actors bring a familiarity with the story and the process; a certain level of comfort and ease. The story itself offers new insights each year, and there are always different choices we can make with characters, special effects, costumes and more. No two years are alike, no two productions are alike—each presents its own set of challenges, its own opportunity to try something new, to better the product or the approach from before. For the audience, each year has something new to offer; in addition to new actors in some roles there are also some new elements like a dance or some added songs.

What’s new this year?

This year, the fun addition is that of local celebrities in cameo roles such as Mayor Dave on opening night, Al Toon and various radio and TV personalities … They will be a party guests in one of the scenes. At various times the other characters onstage interact with them and include them in the festive “parlor games” typical of Victorian England. They will have a couple of lines and also the chance to ad lib—and the other actors onstage will play off of what the guest says. It’s a simple but very fun addition to the show, and one that will retain the integrity of the play as well as give the audience a chance to see a familiar face in a different role! They will be taken backstage at intermission, we’ll have a costume for them to wear, and they’ll have another character onstage who will “escort” them through the scene. There’s enough room for surprises without it getting out of control. And I think the audience will really enjoy the spontaneity of the scene.

Also, there are some new actors in various roles. And the music and singing is stronger than before. Some kids have grown up a bit and are playing older character roles. And there are some new adults in roles such as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present, Scrooge’s younger selves and others. It’s a very strong cast led by veteran Robert Spencer as Scrooge and featuring many of the best actors in Madison: Bill Bolz, Donovan Armbruster, Carl Cawthorne, Georgina McKee, Scott Haden and more. These are actors who are well known to Madison audiences from their years of performing with local theaters here from the Rep to the Bartell companies. And of course, there are all of the kids in the show—twenty-three of them—and the energy and enthusiasm and TALENT they bring.

What will you never change about the production?

What will never change is the story, the timeless tale of Scrooge’s transformation from a miserly curmudgeon to a generous jolly fellow who learns to care for others as well as himself. The other thing that will never change is there will always be GHOSTS! You can’t tell the story without some ghosts! And a bit of spookiness along with it, of course. And, of course, Tiny Tim. The story has to reflect the contrast between the young boy and the old man. For CTM—and I think for all theaters—the inclusion of children in the show is very important. They represent so much and their presence, I think, is critical to the story. I firmly believe that no matter how many times you see the show, the story is what makes you lean forward and wonder “what’s going to happen next.” It’s a great story.

What do you hope audiences come away with this year?

I hope they come away with a feeling of great satisfaction of time well spent together and that they are wonderfully entertained. I hope they feel that they were swept into the world of the play and they get to forget about anything troubling or complicated about today for those two hours they are together in the beautiful Capitol Theater. This is not a play that asks you to think; it’s a play that is accessible to everyone, entertaining and, yes, even magical. I also truly hope the audience comes away with a sense of pride of what this theater—CTM—represents in the community and has succeeded in achieving: quality work by talented local performers, both seasoned and novices; time-proven ability to overcome artistic and financial challenges; and a commitment to being an integral part of Madison’s artistic community. There is much to be said about supporting the artistic work of our local companies, and this production brings it all together through the people onstage, the audience watching and the remarkably high production values. The scale of the show fits the grandeur of the space. And the quality of the acting fits the quality of the story. I know people will be engaged from start to finish, and that they will walk away smiling and feeling uplifted.

W. Earle Smith

Why do you do this production every year?

The Nutcracker is the number-one selling holiday production in the country. The imagery, the music—it’s everywhere and instantly recognizable. That’s what this time of year is all about—icons and traditions that feel familiar. It’s a classic tale, so it’s perfect for families, but it’s elevated to an artistic level that attracts the dance audience as well. It is something for everyone.

How do you keep things fresh and interesting—both for your organization and for audiences?

To a point, The Nutcracker is so popular because it doesn’t change tremendously year to year. Our audiences keep coming back for the familiarity. That being said, I have worked to challenge myself artistically though each of my ten years with Madison Ballet. The dancers change and mature each year and individually they bring something very personal to the stage that I try and capture.

What’s new this year?

The Nutcracker looks all new this year. I’ve made big changes to the story and the choreography. The version of the story that we’ve told in the past implies that Clara’s adventures are a coming-of-age tale. This year we won’t imply that, we will show it. There will be a point when Clara becomes a young woman, and her romance with the Nutcracker is played up, too. This is a luxury of Madison Ballet’s company being in its second year. The choreography has benefited in the same way. Portions of the second act that were typically performed by four or five dancers have become solo roles. I’ve also made changes to “Snow” and “Flowers” that will make the talent of our company dancers impossible to ignore.

What will you never change about the production?

The magic. There is an audible gasp when the curtain rises on the show, and that is my intention. I work to create a vivid world on stage that audience members, young and old, can lose themselves in and embrace the opportunity to dream.

What do you hope audiences come away with this year?

A sense of joy. We are facing challenging circumstances in our economy. Many of us have never experienced anything like this before. Madison Ballet certainly feels it as a nonprofit arts organization. But through it all, we deserve to find reasons to laugh or smile and celebrate time with our family and friends. I hope people leave the theater thankful that they were able to cherish some of those moments with us.

A Christmas Carol runs December 12–21 at Overture Center. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15–$32.

The Nutcracker runs December 19–21 at Overture Center. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., plus a Christmas Eve show at 1 p.m. Tickets are $13–$60.

Photos are courtesy of Children’s Theater of Madison and Madison Ballet.

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