By Ned Warwick for the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia
Holiday shows are everywhere these days—in schools, on community stages and in professional theatres, big and little. It strikes me that part of the explanation for the popularity of this theme is the confluence of theatre’s natural exuberance and instinct for the moment with the holiday’s raised cry for celebration. At two appearances of the Philly Theatre Casting Couch this month, the inevitability of the Holiday season and going to the theatre played out again and again, as people spoke about the meaning of theatre for them. And it was obvious—as any Google search of the words ‘Christmas” and ‘Theatre’ will confirm— A Christmas Carol remains far and away the most popular holiday show.
Having just read the book again, the reason is obvious. It is such a big-striding drama in whatever story telling format one chooses, with strong, vividly-etched characters, splendid dialogue and a twisty passage to redemption that swells up on us in the bright sunlight of Christmas day. Dickens gave us a classic so powerful, so affecting it has become a central work in the moral-of- Christmas canon. In my house, my father collected different editions of A Christmas Carol. On Christmas Eve, he would gather the family in a circle, each with one of his books, and for two hours we took turns reading aloud from the tale.
On the Philly Theatre Casting Couch, the range and diversity of holiday theatre was emphatically on parade. One of the celebrity interviewers at Love Park in Center City was Anjoli Santiago, who is performing in and helped write a bi-lingual Christmas play, Un Viaje, A Christmas Journey, put on by B. Someday Productions at the Walking Fish Theatre in Fishtown. The play was done partly in recognition of how the theatre’s immediate neighborhood includes both white and Hispanic populations.
Santiago said the inspiration was “to build a bridge between the two communities” and urged out-of-towners to come see the play in order “to view all our (city’s) different cultures and the vibrancy of everybody here.”
At the Winter Market at the Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties, a professional actor recalled on the Philly Theatre Casting Couch a moment in another play that caught the true Christmas spirit in all its sweet luminosity through the power that theatre has to reach quickly and without fuss to our hearts.
Early in his career, while performing in a production of Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Seth said there was a scene towards the end of the play where a group of kids are horsing around and then all but Seth’s character ( a 10-year-old boy named Dan), and the boy playing Dylan Thomas run off. The two talk and in that sideways joshing way typical of boys when they are trying to say something sentimental, acknowledge the depth of their friendship. At that point, the boys put their arms around each other’s shoulders and sing in quiet harmony the Christmas carol I Saw Three Ships. Seth remembered in the sublime simplicity of that moment the connection they the performers and the audience had with each other, a moment where the true unadorned meaning of Christmas shone through. To this day, Seth remembers how each night he looked forward to that moment in the play “because I knew it was special for me and for the audience.”
For a couple from Baltimore who took their turn on the Philly Theatre Casting Couch, coming to Philadelphia was almost like a pilgrimage. Kera and Match Zimmerman are both in theatre and dance and once lived in Philadelphia, a city they found extraordinarily welcoming to artists. “And you can’t say that about a lot of cities,” said Match.
The Zimmermans, who try and make it to Philadelphia each Christmas season, urge others to do it and, when they do, to take a walk down The Avenue of the Arts –an appropriate name for South Broad Street, which they described as a “cathedral to the creative arts.”
“I fell in love with this city,” said Match. “There is just so much going on here.” Philadelphia should be proud of how much theatre is a part of that.