After Hurricane Sandy…

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It was cold in the Avalon last night (October 30, 2012).

The temperature had dropped after the hurricane and we all came in winter coats and didn’t take them off until we got upstairs to the Stoltz Listening Room. It was cozy there, but downstairs was cold. Cavin Moore warmed up the kids by putting them through their dance routines.

Then Cavin worked with the “casserole ladies”, a group of women of a certain age who are interested in our widowed main character, Sandy Hawes (played by David Foster). Cool it, ladies. Martha got there first! In the original script these casserole ladies were supposed to be able to tap dance. Laura and I had an idea that the Talbot Tappers might try out for the parts, but by the time auditions came around, the tappers were already booked for the holidays. So our ladies will do some sort of routine. We’re just not sure what it will be yet. Cavin seems to have it in hand.

Upstairs Cecile Davis worked with the adult actors. In one scene Will Hawes (Casey Rauch) has to be angry by the scene’s end. Cece had him play the whole scene being angry over and over again. She called them “anger runs”. Casey was getting hoarse, but the red eyes in the photo below are from the flash. He didn’t get that angry. Then she had him play the scene in the regular way, but at the end the anger was so much more authentic. She said the anger runs were to get some body memory about anger for the times you need to call on this emotion. We are finding these mini acting lessons fascinating.

Laura has ordered a banner of the Santa Diaries poster she designed (see below). We’ll carry it at the head of the play people who want to walk in Easton’s Christmas parade on December 1. Some will be in period costumes and some not. Laura and I rode in the Christmas in St. Michaels Christmas parade last year – in a pink Cadillac – holding a poster for our book The Santa Diaries – Memories of a Small-Town Christmas. That little book was the inspiration for the play now in production. We get to be in another parade. Life is good!

Hurricane Sandy? The Show Must Go On…

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With only 47 days until opening, almost everyone made it to rehearsal yesterday (Oct 28, 2012). Director Tim Weigand was late because he was at Talbot County’s Office of Emergency Services watching the track of Hurricane Sandy and making disaster preparedness videos for the local cable channel. I think the people who came had already completed their storm prep before arriving at the Avalon. We all hope the storm will pass our area without too much damage and Tuesday night’s rehearsal will happen as scheduled. There is still lots of work to do.

One of the longest scenes in the play is when Will (the male lead and LA star) holds auditions for the community play. Everybody in the cast is on stage and the majority of them are kids. Trying to keep everybody focused is a real challenge. I am amazed that nobody is yelling, but from the back of the audience I want to collar some of the older kids and tell them to listen up and help corral the youngest. Being present on stage is crucial and is being drummed into everybody, but it’s a hard thing to do.

Cecile Davis worked with Talley Wilford and choreographer Cavin Moore on a variety of blocking options for this complex scene. Moving people about and then expecting them to stand quietly while she gives instruction about how to do it better is difficult. Some people have to be at the front of the group at a given time and that requires shuffling of the cast. The stage at the Avalon is not large and if people are too far front they are not visible to those in the balcony. Lots of things to consider.

Portia Hughes plays the part of Marley, the imaginary come-to-life stuffed animal (dog) belonging to Tim Darling. This is a great role with lots of physical humor. Portia came prepared for her hands-on-knees role with kneepads. Good thinking, Portia.

We are beginning to hear some discussion about lighting issues. There are times when certain stage areas of a scene need to be spotlighted, and then another and another in quick sequence. People have to be in place when that scene begins and stand quietly until the spotlight is on them. I am beginning to understand why there is a technical week at the end of the rehearsal process. I might be biting my nails at that point.

After most of the kids were released around four in the afternoon, the rest of the cast went up to Stolz to continue rehearsing. They are all to be off book in a week or so and only some are there at this point. Tim Weigand talked about the importance of pauses in dialogue and not rushing ahead. Timing for laughs is something the actors may not really get a handle on until the play is being rehearsed on stage and there are people reacting in the audience.

The actors are getting more comfortable in their roles and Tim, Cece and Tally are encouraging them to try different “takes” on their characters until they find the one that really works. This has to feel risky, but feeling safe enough to try is crucial. There are no mistakes at this stage of the game.

Rehearsal 10-21-12

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Yesterday (10-21-12) was the fourth rehearsal of The Santa Diaries. Laura and I sat in the back of the auditorium watching Cece Davis and Cavin Moore putting the kids through their paces. It is truly astounding to see what has been accomplished in such a short time. It’s not perfect yet, but you can see the outlines. We were so impressed.

Rehearsals of various scenes were taking place in three different spaces at the Avalon yesterday. At times, in the theater, Cece Davis was on stage with some kids and Cavin Moore was on the floor where the chairs usually are with another group. Up in the Stoltz Listening Room the main characters were working and on the third floor another actor was getting some one-on-one help.

 Cavin on the theater floor…

while Cece blocks a scene on stage.

 Meanwhile upstairs in Stoltz…

Tim Weigand is directing.

Tyler Sabatino, the boy who is playing Timmy, is adorable with a smile that lights up a room. Like many of these kids he seems born to the stage. He has no fear about being up there. Today he was running a scene that included the live counterpart of his stuffed dog, Marley. His mom, Mindy, was patiently waiting downstairs. When he returned, he got a snack and a hug from Mom.

 Tyler and his mom, Mindy Smith-Sabatino.

Marie U’Ren was around taking measurements of the cast so she can figure out who will wear what Victorian costume in the final scene of the play. Some of the adults and kids will walk in the December 1st Easton Christmas parade. Laura and I plan to march at the front of the group holding a banner of the play poster which Laura has designed. We’ll preview the poster here in a few days.

When Laura and I left a little before six, Marie was sitting in the lobby nursing a hard cider from Bannings. She was patiently waiting to catch Casey Rauch (he plays Will) and get his measurements. We had a short discussion about the Marley dog costume which is currently being used in a local children’s theater production of Annie. In Annie it’s a cat costume but we’ll alter the ears and tail. Recycling is the name of the game in community theater. Tomorrow Marie told us she would be moving costumes from one place to another and might need help. I volunteered my husband and told him over a glass of wine last night. Please tell us somebody is working on sets! This production takes a small-town…

Acting 101

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Originally posted on on October 17, 2012

Tuesday night we watched Tim Weigand work with four of the leads in The Santa Diaries. He led them through some acting exercises designed to get them out of their heads and into a space where they become their character. It was fascinating to watch the actors reach that “aha” moment when that happened.

Casey Rauch plays Will Hawes. He has a huge part – the most lines and is on stage most of the play. He is the “grow and change” character and we have to see him transition from being an LA dick, just full of himself, to a man who remembers what’s important in life.

Jessica, the highschool sweetheart Will left behind, is played by Jenny Madino. Jenny is a singer, and has not had an acting role before, but she brings to this role a natural empathy for the character. She told me early on that she is the girl who decided to stay in her small town and not take her talents out to the world. Wait till you hear her sing!

Ashley Chroninger plays Brandeee (yes, three e’s — think Beyonce, Madonna — you have to set yourself apart). Brandeee is Will’s Hollywood starlet fiancee. This is a demanding role as it could easily slip into characature. We have to believe that Will loved her enough to want to marry her.

Erik Higgins, known locally as Groundhog, plays Will’s business snarky manager, Josh Shankman. Erik is having so much fun with this role. At one point last night he asked Tim, “Could I try this as a gay?” “Go for it,” was Tim’s reply and the result was hysterical. Nobody knows yet how this character will be presented on stage, but early in the process the actors have to try on different ways of portraying the character.

It seemed to me that Tim was trying to get the actors to create a universe on stage, inhabited only by themselves.  Learn to shut out the audience. You can only react to the people who are on stage with you. And you have to stay in character 100% of the time. The audience will know if you start thinking about the clothes you left in the dryer or the almost empty needle on your gas tank. And the minute you do that, you lose the connection with the other actors and your audience.

Tim said that when people think about great art, they think, “I couldn’t do that.” When they think about great music, they think, “I couldn’t do that.” But when they think about acting they say, “I could do that.” Watching the acting exercises last night let me know there’s way more to it than just standing in front of people and knowing your lines.

Controlled Chaos and Collaboration

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Originally posted on on October 15, 2012

Watching the table read of The Santa Diarieswas amazing even with Director Tim Weigand telling the actors to just read at this point. He said there will be lots of readings before they start acting – that at this point the goal is becoming familiar with the script and other actors lines. He told them they needed to be “off book” by November 1. I think that means they need to know their lines by then.

Laura and I have been working on the script since the beginning of June. I know there will be tweaks, additions and subtractions almost to opening night. Now we are learning about the myriad details involved in getting the script on stage.

Someone had to go through the script and put the scenes on a spreadsheet with all the characters (even walk-ons) down the left side and then indicate which scenes (across the top of the spreadsheet) each character is in. I couldn’t figure out how to print it out, let alone do this herculean job – which had to be done before a rehearsal schedule could be compiled.

Not every actor has to be at every rehearsal which will be taking place in three different places in the Avalon Theatre: on stage, in the Stoltz Listening Room and on the third floor. Some actors will be running between these locations. Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons are going to be chaotic. Then there are the changes. Tomorrow night the stage won’t be available because Capital Steps will be performing. Main leads only in Stoltz.

This is what controlled chaos looked like yesterday afteroon. I was amazed that the kids actually were getting the dance routine down. Remember, this was the third rehearsal!

I am coming to realize that controlled chaos is how you produce a play. The writing part was easy compared to the details that now have to be handled. Sets, costumes, directing, choreography, and a whole bunch of things that have to happen that I’m not aware of. Let’s not forget the important role of front of house – marketing, ticket sales, vacuuming the theater between performances. Truly, putting on a play is a collaborative effort. I’m beginning to think Laura and I did the easy part.

Yes, Maryland, there is a Santa Claus…

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Originally posted on on October 10, 2012

Yes, Maryland, there is a Santa Claus. His name is David Foster! Last night was the first (mostly) complete cast read through of The Santa Diaries at The Avalon Theatre. David Foster is playing Sandy Hawes, a small town Santa Claus, descended from a long line of Santas.

Tim called David’s understated and completely mesmerizing read, “Gorgeous!” And gorgeous it was! When you closed your eyes, it conjured visions of Wilfred Brimley and Garrison Keeler – a velvety voice that captured the spirit of a warm, compassionate, yet savvy Santa. You could almost see the twinkle in his eye and hear that he knows exactly who’s naughty and who is nice. It is a brilliant piece of casting by the Avalon!

The adult lead actors rehearsed in the Stoltz Listening Room (2nd floor), while the younger actors worker under the direction of Choreographer Cavin Moore in the main Avalon Theatre on the first floor. Avalon Director Tim Wiegland, Assistant Director Cece Davis and Producer Liza Ledford, were up and down the Avalon stairs all night! I don’t envy them.

Parts Are Cast

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Originally published on on October 8, 2012

Sunday (10-7-12) afternoon at the Avalon Theatre everyone who tried out for a part showed up to hear what part they got. Lots of kids and lots of excitement. Liza Ledford and Cece Davis did the honors and handed out rehearsal schedules and pages of script. The entire script was given to the leads although it wasn’t the tweaked script Laura and I sent to them Saturday afternoon. I think script tweaks will be an ongoing process.

I’m excited by the people cast for the two major parts. Jenny Madino will play Jessica Darling and Casey Rauch will play Will Hawes. Both look like just like I imagined these characters would look. They will be the first to ever perform these parts!

Some of the kids knew each other, some didn’t yet but they will by the time the show goes live. Tim Weigand asked all the actors to come on stage…

…and then asked for a group hug.These actors are going to be in close quarters on stage and back stage so he got the process started.

On Tuesday night there will be a table read with the main characters. This just gets better and better.

Auditions Continue

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Originally published on on October 4, 2012

I was out of town for a week so Laura attended the rest of the casting sessions. Photos will be posted as soon as they can be transferred from her camera to my computer. In a community theater show like this pretty much everybody who shows up to audition gets a part. Some get lines. Some are walk ons. We’re putting some baby ballerinas in pink tights and tutus, but only for a brief appearance on the stage. Any longer and they’d steal the show.

Another meeting while I was away was prompted by the possibility that the title of the show would be changed. We sent in a bunch of suggestions, but felt strongly that The Santa Diaries built on the PR of the last year and a half for the book of the same name that we wrote as a fund raiser for Christmas in St. Michaels. Ultimately (at least at this moment) it seems the title remains The Santa Diaries.

Casting for the play will be announced on Sunday. We’ll be there. Laura was able to make suggestions, but casting is in the hands of the capable Avalon staff. Takes us off the hook. People can gripe to them if they didn’t get the part they wanted.

Two days ago we were asked to write three new scenes to accommodate eleven additional people. Oh, and the new scenes are needed by Monday.We worked yesterday for five hours. Still more to do, but we will make the deadline.

First read through is coming up next week. How long is this epic going to be? It will be interesting to see if we have to begin to cut scenes and chunks of dialog.

Saturday Laura and I go to Rehoboth Beach for a fund raiser cocktail party kicking off the Rehoboth Beach Film Festival. Laura’s artwork was chosen for this year’s Festival poster. She is one talented lady. I’ll post a picture once I get the file. Anyway, she got two complimentary tickets. Her husband is going to be out of town so she asked if I wanted to go. Said she would bring her laptop and we could work in the car. I’ll drive and she’ll keyboard. We are some multi-tasking ladies.

Auditions Begin: We Are the Santa Diaries

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Posted originally on on September 25, 2012

The Santa Diaries is about a small-town guy who has played Santa for years and really believes he has a calling. He wants his son to continue the tradition, but son Will left home to become a big Hollywood star. In the process, he lost touch with what’s real. The story arc is the son’s recognition of what’s he’s lost and what he wants for his future.

One of the lines in the play is “Welcome to community theater. We may not have a budget, but we more than make up for it with talent, creativity and enthusiasm.” Midway through last night’s first auditions for the Avalon’s Christmas play, I realized that Laura and I are the play. Would the Avalon do justice to our play, our baby? Could the local talent bring our vision to life? We have to rely on the local pool of talent, creativity and enthusiasm.

The first night’s auditions were a little chaotic. For starters, the auditorium keys got locked inside the auditorium. At 5:30 nobody had shown up to audition. Exhausted Tim Weigand, Cece Davis and Liza Ledford were coming off a long Film Festival weekend and gamely plunging into a new project. But the first kid on stage was so good, we immediately felt better; and then another talented performer and another. The local talent really is amazing.

The folks auditioning were asked ot do a simple dance step, read some lines and sing. Most importantly Tim needed to see if they would take direction so they were asked to do a scene several different ways.

Laura, who has written three original songs for the show, worked with Tim and Cece showing them how the duet of “At Christmas I Believe” will work.

Some local dogs will have walk on parts. Will we have a dog audition?

It’s Really Happening

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Originally published on on September 22, 2012

Laura writes: This article says that the Avalon Foundation is casting roles for its Christmas production. A new original play written by Laura Ambler and Mala Burt. Yikes! That’s US! There in black and white for everyone to see. Yes, I know Mala’s been posting about our Santa Diaries meetings with the Avalon, even documenting them with photos, but that doubting, insecure, neurotic writer part of me was absolutely certain that the Avalon folks just didn’t want to hurt our feelings. That they were being gracious and humoring us, but would eventually say, “We’re sorry, but it’s not for us.” The delicate way of saying it stinks.

But seeing the notice in Friday’s Star Democrat’s weekend section that auditions for The Santa Diaries are starting THIS MONDAY – September 24th – from 5:30 to 8:30 at the Avalon, was truly a Sally Field Oscar moment. And no, not that they loved us, but that we’d created something that they believed would showcase local talent and resonate with the community. We will SO be there! What writer could resist seeing something they wrote actually being performed!

Writing is such a solitary pursuit. When you write fiction you never get to sit next to the reader and see how they react to what you wrote – unless you’re REALLY obnoxious – and yes, I admit, I’ve forced people to read something I wrote while I watched them – namely my husband – and pounced on their (his) every physiological reaction – “You sighed! Were you moved???!” The usual reaction… “No, I was just breathing.” Sad. Me. Not them (him).

Even writing movie screenplays, in which I’ve optioned and sold a few and even had one produced is similar. The studio or production company tells you what you wrote was FABULOUS! Then when you see the actual film or rewrite find they’ve added unicorns or ogres and flaming fireballs to your heartfelt family film. Or changed it from a man against nature drama to a murder car chase flick. Seriously.

Writing with Mala is such a joy. We’ve worked on novels and screenplays and teleplays. We’ve made each other laugh to the point of tears. And tortured her poor husband, Roger – our resident expert on everything from political to psychological – with innumerable questions – and yes – he always has the answer, not to mention the raised eyebrow at our sanity. But this is the first time our writing will be a supreme collaborative venture. A romantic comedy Christmas musical. Inspired by….

… but more on that later.

The Avalon folks, Tim Weigand, Jessica Bellis Rogers, Cece Davis and Liza Ledford not only READ our play. They liked it! Along the way they have had fabulous ideas about how to make it better! We loved the feedback.

To actually seeing them acting out some of the parts was like (I imagine) heroin! Or fudge. Or cheese! Pick your poison. I want more!

And based on seeing this notice in the Star Democrat, I am salivating. I will get my cheese on Monday. There will be actors and dancers and musicians wanting to bring The Santa Diaries to life. Adding their own vision, passion, and experiences. Amazing. It’s really happening.