There will be 44 productions of Christmas Belles across the United States this holiday season.
Playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten will see one of them: Studio Players' production, which opens this weekend and runs through Dec. 5 at the Carriage House Theatre on Bell Court.
"We went there first just to party, and it's going to be a delight to get to see one of their productions," Jones said during a phone interview from the trio's home in Asheville, N.C. "We thought so much of them, and we're so pleased it's worked out like this."
The trio dropped by Studio Players in summer 2008 on the way from one production to another. They saw that Studio had their Dearly Beloved on the schedule for the coming season, so they thought they'd say hi.
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Their reception was a big part of why they chose to grace Studio with their presence this year.
Hope says it was "the barbecue," and Jones says, "Don't forget the bourbon. It was lovely."
If a homey, small-town feel is the secret to getting Jones, Hope and Wooten to come see your production of one of their shows, they say it also is the secret to the success of the seven published plays that they have cranked out in five years.
"The heart is a very small town, it's a small community," Hope says. "No matter where you live, if you've got family and friends, it's a very, very compact universe.
"We pride ourselves in having tapped into that, and ... everyone has one of those characters in their family or many of those in their family."
The trio met many years before they started writing plays together. Jones and Hope ran a community theater in Austin, Texas, before they moved to Los Angeles, where they all wrote for film and television. Wooten was a writer and producer for The Golden Girls.
"It was only in the last five years that we wised up and looked at each other and said, 'Let's go back to our roots, because we're all from the theater," Hope said. "We said, 'Let's go back to our roots and write for the thing we know and love.'"
So they moved to Asheville, where they share a three-level home and write on their screened-in front porch. That's when they're not banging around ideas on road trips, one of them tapping on a laptop while they tear down the highway.
In those five years, they have created eight Southern-fried comedies, and at the heart of them is "the Futrilogy," the three stories that focus on the Futrelle sisters of Fayro, Texas.
Christmas Belles is the second in the series that starts with Dearly Beloved and ends with Southern Hospitality. (The Futrelles also show up in the newest play, Dashing Through the Snow, which has its world premiere in Vevay, Ind., in December.)
For the Studio Players production of Belles, director Tonda-Leah Fields has reassembled almost all of the cast of the spring 2009 production of Dearly Beloved, including Debbie Sharp as Frankie, now very pregnant with twins; Robin Dickerson as Honey Rae, directing the church Christmas show to try to reform her loose reputation; and Shea Baker as Twink, out on work release from a jail sentence for accidentally burning down a trailer park during her attempt to torch her ex- boyfriend's NASCAR collection.
"It feels like we're starting ahead of the game," Dickerson says of playing the same character in a sequel.
Sharp says the playwrights "just know how to write this stuff." As evidence of the series' popularity, Studio had to add performances before the show opened because the original run sold out, including the Dec. 4 performance that the playwrights will attend.
"Gauging from the abundance of Southern hospitality, we know we're in good hands there," Hope says.
Maybe they can even be lured back with a production of Southern Hospitality.