Stage & Dance

New Christmas play wrote itself, sort of

VERSAILLES — Terry Withers auditioned for The Christmas Presence with a lounge-singer rendition of Jingle Bells.

When he got the script, he found that the character type he played in the audition was in the script, with a name and description: Tony LaSalle, a open-shirted, gold-chain- wearing, womanizing crooner who performs every weekend at the bowling alley on the edge of a small American town called Vigil.

There's no coincidence here. The inclusion of Tony, a bit of comic relief in Woodford Theatre's holiday show, is an example of what can happen when you cook up your own Christmas production.

This is the world-premiere production of The Christmas Presence, written and directed by Woodford Theatre artistic director Beth Kirchner, with a lot of inspiration from her cast.

"There were nights we'd have rehearsal and I'd ad lib something, and the next night, it was in the script," Withers says.

Kirchner says she came upon the idea of creating an original show while trying to pick a holiday play.

"We've done all the classics fairly recently," Kirchner says in her office, where a poster from the 2007 production of A Christmas Story is visible, tucked behind a cabinet. "It made sense: Why don't we just write our own show and utilize our own talent?"

Part of the inspiration, Kirchner says, came from improv classes that had been held at the theater, producing a group of actors who had become pretty sharp at thinking on their feet.

When auditions were held, there was an outline of a story and a fairly complete first act.

The comedy is about a mayor trying to sell, at considerable profit to himself, the community center where the town's annual production of A Christmas Carol is presented. It's a wildly unpopular decision with Jacques and his fellow thespians; with the mayor's ex-wife, Helen, who wants to form a community chorus to perform at the center; and with high school students, who want to form a glee club to perform there.

The mayor says he will hold off on selling the center if the competing groups can agree on what kind of Christmas show to present; he thinks they will never agree.

But it's Christmas, so we know that the spirit, the "presence" of the season will come into play.

Kirchner says, "There are six definitions of the word presence in the dictionary, and we tried to touch on all of them."

The definition that is the message of the show is "the act of being present," Kirchner says. "So many times we can get caught up in activities and giving gifts and we forget that the greatest gift we can give is our presence, the gift of being fully there for the people we love."

A recurring scenario is that the mayor and Helen are so wrapped up in their enterprises that they forget their son, Sonny, who becomes a key to the story's resolution.

When rehearsals began, getting to that resolution was a work in progress. Kirchner would give actors scenarios and have them improvise their ways through them.

"Often at the second or third rehearsal of any show, I will say to each actor, 'Give me three words to describe your character,' and then play to those words," Kirchner says.

It was a particularly useful method in improv, and many things that happened, as well as things Kirchner thought could have happened, ended up in the script.

It's is a script written for Woodford Theatre, but Kirchner says she hopes it might be published and make its way into other theaters in coming holidays.

But the focus now is the next three weeks.

"We want our audience and our patrons to be uplifted and experience Christmas spirit and joy, and presence," Kirchner says.

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