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When Laura Ambler and I wrote The Santa Diaries we thought about the Avalon stage. It’s not so big. There is some room in front of the curtains if they are pulled, but if you are in the balcony you might not see the very front of the stage. We also took into consideration that the budget for sets might be minimal so the original play was written with just a few set changes, mostly done by lighting different areas of the stage. The Avalon, however, had more ambitious plans.

We don’t know who came up with the concept, but it made a huge impact on the show. Floor to ceiling white screens were placed at an angle on the stage and set walls were projected onto the screens using rear projectors. This allowed local artists Maggii Sarfaty and Katie O’Neill Theeke to create multiple set images, adding a richness to the play that was better than we could have imagined and would not have been possible with physical set changes. When Sandy’s living room is on screen we see actually see snow falling outside the windows! The drawings were evocative, adding to the magic of the show. This YouTube video shows some of the set changes.

For the opening monologue a film was made and projected onto the two screens. The prerecorded voice over is of Sandy Hawes (David Foster) writing in his diary. Laura created a montage of Will Hawes’ life in Hollywood by photoshopping actor Casey Rauch’s face onto purchased images. In about three minutes we were able to get a huge amount of backstory into the play visually. In the dream sequence the same technology was used with incredible effect. At one point we see flames turning the theater into an inferno and Will’s dream becomes a nightmare. I don’t know how they did any of that, but the result is spectacular. We actually see a Victorian village scene being painted before our eyes by Bud, Frisbee and Woody (played by Tom Barwick, Dale Rauch, and Mark Ledford).

Using rear projection and only two blank screens meant the room on the stage was reduced to a large triangular area. This called for some creative blocking, but it all worked. It also created some behind-the-screens issues. The actors couldn’t get in the way of the projectors. During rehearsals the kids learned that they could make awesome shadow puppets by getting close to the screens. That discovery was put to good use during the dream sequence. The Avalon’s vision and the hard work to make the rear projection system function made the show spectucular in a way we could not have imagined.

Is It Really Over?


I knew there would be a letdown when The Santa Diaries was over, but I hadn’t anticipated how abrupt it would be. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Going to rehearsals, doing script revisions, marching in parades, etc. had taken huge chunks of time. The rest of our lives revolved around the play. Then on Sunday, December 23rd at 4:30 pm it was over. Producer Liza Ledford had announced before that last performance that everything would be gone that evening. As Laura and I left, the cast was gathering one last time and the chairs on the main floor were being stacked.

We still have a couple of loose ends. The big banner we had made from the poster Laura designed is someplace at the Avalon and we want to get that back. I bought The Night Before Christmas book used in the show and promised that to Tyler Sabatino who played Timmy.

I’m going to continue to blog on this site for awhile. I got background information about most of the actors just days before the show and there wasn’t time or energy to do more posts mentioning all of them. Every person in the cast was integral to the show and I want as many as possible to be highlighted. The set was spectacular, more than we could have imagined, and I want to blog about the woman who created the original art as well as talk about the technology.

Except for Tim Weigand, we don’t know the names of the guys who moved props around on stage, but they were instrumental in moving the play along each performance. As were the mothers downstairs who wrangled the kids into costumes and got them lined up for timely entrances. To everybody who helped make the magic, Laura and I are so grateful.

People are emailing us, stopping us on the street and in the grocery store, and telling us how much they loved the show. They say they laughed and cried and a number have told me that something about our story has stayed with them and they keep thinking about it. We couldn’t have hoped for a more wonderful response.

My husband and I had Christmas dinner with Laura and her family last night. During desert we went around the table and said what the most memorable thing about 2012 had been. For me it was the show. I’ve done alot of things in my life, but this was a peak experience . This was better than being on Oprah!

Laura and I wish everyone great things for the coming year. I have a feeling that some of the newbie actors may have been bitten by the acting bug and will be seen again on local community theater stages. As for what’s next for Laura and me…we need to sit down and talk about what additions to the play we thought worked and those we didn’t. We’ll do some rewriting before we put it away. Writing this story as a movie script was part of the motivation for writing the play, so that’s on the horizon. It’s reassuring to know that even though the run of the play is over, The Santa Diaries really isn’t.

Feedback Loop


I keep forgetting that live theater is a feedback loop. The actors draw energy from the audience and the audience feeds energy to the actors. Opening matinee had alot of energy. A full house downstairs at the Avalon and. despite some minor hiccups with cues and set changes, the show was very good. You could tell the audience really appreciated the effort of the performers. Monday night was a dinner theater and the energy that rocketed between the audience and the actors was palpable. It was a great show. The actors has settled into the characters and were the most believable we had seen. Everybody left the theater pumped. Just the way you’d want it to be.

Avalon dinner theater

Tuesday night was another dinner theater. Sold out! But it seemed like the audience didn’t react to much of anything. Laura and I were sitting at a table toward the back and wondered if the microphones were on. Cece Davis at the tech table assured us they were. Even if you couldn’t hear all the lines, you’d have to ooh and aah over the cute kids in elf costumes.


It seemed like the only people reacting to the play were Bannings wait staff. Even though the actors were all doing what they had done the night before,  you could feel the energy ebbing by the end of the first act. Cece said it was bad juju because of something positive Tim Weigand, the director, had said to the actors in the green room. “Theater is full of all sorts of superstitions,” she told us. I guess it’s that break a leg thing.

Cece turned the amplification up for the second act and Laura whooped and hollered from the back. The energy began to pick up and the audience got more into the play. They gave the cast a standing ovation at the end, but the performance just didn’t have the energy it had the night before. Tonight is an evening performance. It will be interesting to see what happens between the audience and the cast.

My head knows this is not a film where you get to choose the best takes and edit them into a cohesive whole; my heart wants every performance to be over the top fantastic. I know that’s what the cast wants, too.  They want to audience to love them. I’m hoping for good juju tonight and a rockin’ feedback loop.

Premier of The Santa Diaries

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Today is the premier of The Santa Diaries. At last night’s dress rehearsal I was glad I did not have heart problems. Missed actor and tech cues, kids who were in the green room when they were supposed to be on stage, props that stayed in the middle of the stage where they DID NOT BELONG – a long list.  The director reminded us about the old adage that a terrible dress rehearsal means you’ll have a fabulous opening. I wish we had another week of rehearsals, but we don’t and the show will go on at 2pm. Live theater is not for the faint of heart.

dress rehearsalEveryone has worked hard for the last three months to get to today and here’s the wonderful news. This community has embraced our play and pulled so many people into the effort to make the words we wrote last summer come to life. It is the actors who make the characters live on stage, but the unsung heroes are those who attend to the million of tiny details behind the scenes. We, the writers of The Santa Diaries, are grateful to all of you.

Break a leg!

Spotlight on Casey Rauch

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Casey Rauch 2What do civil engineering and acting have in common? The answer is Casey Rauch, the male lead in The Santa Diaries. A civil engineer by day and an aspiring thespian in his off hours, Casey says he got involved in acting because he “was looking for an artistic outlet that was completely different from what I do for a living.” He started out by working with Tim Weigand and his theater company ArtHouse Live when he moved back to Easton in 2006. He helped out with shows and played bit parts, but by their final production, Brooklyn Boy, he had landed a lead role.

Casey took a break to help his wife with their two young boys, a job he says was way harder than the limited acting he had done. He was an extra in Cecile Davis’ short film Jolene which premiered at the Chesapeake Film Festival in October 2012 and the acting bug flooded back. Tim Weigand reached out to him to audition for The Santa Diaries and he landed the part of Will Hawes.

Casey said the hardest part about playing this role is making the audience hate his character at the beginning of the play, but like him and root for him by the end of the show as his character undergoes an emotional shift. He says he will know he’s successful if his three year old son enjoys the play. Casey loves that The Santa Diaries is a family show. He hopes all the kids who come will leave feeling happy, energized and in the Christmas spirit.

Buy Tickets.


The Cassell/Barwick Family

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Cathy Barwick Cassell has lived in Easton her entire life. She’s married to Marty Cassell and they have four sons. In The Santa Diaries Cathy plays the role of Mrs. Cratchit and also a barfly – two very opposite roles.

Tristan and Cathy CassellA Clinical Social Worker by day, Cathy enjoys travel, photography, arts and crafts and spending time with family and friends. When asked what is her favorite thing about Christmas, she replied, “the entire deal.”

She told us she had never been in a play except for the part of “the little red ant” in the first grade. She came to auditions to support her son and her parents, Tom and Betty Barwick, and ended up in the play.

Cathy’s son, Tristan Cassell, is an honor roll fourth grader at Easton Elementary School. In the play he performs as young Will and Child #1. This is Tristan’s first play and he wants people to leave the performance full of the Christmas spirit.

Tom Barwick 2Tristan’s grandfather and grandmother also have parts – his grandfather, Tom Barwick, plays Bud, and his grandmother, Betty Barwick plays  Glory Bea.  Betty Barwick









The Cassell/Barwick family wants the community to be proud of the Avalon Theatre and the dedication of the cast of The Santa Diaries. Buy Tickets.

The Green Room

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The Green Room at the Avalon Theatre is in the basement of the theater. Actually it’s a warren of hallways, small rooms, a single bathroom. There are steps up to a landing, then more steps up to the stage. It’s not at all like the green rooms you see in the movies where show girls sit in front of well lit mirrors.

Perhaps most small theater’s below stage space is like the Avalon’s.The first time I saw it I thought about all the famous acts and people who had inhabited these spaces before going up those very stairs to perform and wished it were less shabby.  But it’s what happens above that’s important.

green roomNext Sunday the space will be filled with kids and adults, racks of costumes, make-up stations and adults wrangling actors into groups to wait quietly on the steps for the next scene. A large white board will list the scenes and every person in each one. Adrenaline will peak as the call goes out. Fifteen minutes, ten minutes, five minutes. Line up! actors line up

Laura and I won’t be downstairs in the Green Room before the performances. We’d just be in the way.

But, here’s what I think will happen next Sunday. We’ll both be a bundle of nerves standing at the back of the theater as we watch the house fill. The opening montage unfolds, the audience settles, the curtain goes up, and the play starts. Our “hopes and fears” of the last few months will evaporate as The Santa Diaries unfolds.

The kid’s hiccups on stage will be adorable, seasoned and strong newbie actors will carry the show and the friendly local audience will love the performance. Everybody involved in putting on this ambitious project will go home proud of the result.

The next day we’ll all come back and do it again. The Green Room will be filled for two afternoons and five nights – seven performances in all. Proceeds of The Santa Diaries benefit the projects of the Avalon Foundation. Buy tickets.

Shall We Dance?

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Cavin with kidsThe Santa Diaries is lucky to have a gifted choreographer working with the cast. Cavin Moore, from Cambridge, Maryland, graduated in 2008 from Sarah Lawrence College with a B.A. in dance performance and composition. While at Sarah Lawrence, Cavin choreographed several pieces for student showcases and collaborated on several theatre projects including a stage version of the 1900’s to 1940’s comic strip “Krazy Kat” created for the Downstage Theater Fall Season.

Cavin has performed at INTAR Performing Arts Center and at The Rover Soho in New York City. In 2011 she choreographed for Kaleidoscope Children and Youth Productions of Salisbury, Maryland and worked on The Avalon Foundation’s production of  “A Christmas Carol.” Most recently, Cavin choreographed The Underground Actors’ production of “Pippin.”

Cavin performs with Floofie Films; a production company founded in 2009, along with her sister, Henley Moore, and Cecile Davis. Their latest project is the short movie musical “Jolene” which premiered at The Chesapeake Film Festival this past fall.

Watching Cavin work with the kids and the adults has been awe inspiring. She is a wonderful teacher with endless patience. The Santa Diaries is lucky to have her on our team. In the photo above, that’s Cavin in the center. Shall we dance?

Brother and Sister Act – the Wagners

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Seth WagnerThe Avalon Theatre summer camps have been creative outlets for brother and sister Seth and Selene Wagner. A first grader at St. Michaels Elementary School, Selene has been acting on the Avalon stage since she was five through the camps. She enjoys dancing and singing and playing with her friends. Her older brother, Seth, is a fifth grader at St. Michaels Elementary School. He has been acting on the Avalon Stage for five years. He enjoys acting, singing, writing and creating fun skits with his friends.

Selene WagnerIn The Santa Diaries Seth plays Zack, Child #2 and Selene plays Della, Diary Kid #1.

Seth and Selene will be walking in the Christmas in St. Michaels Christmas parade Saturday, December 8. This photo is of Selene getting ready to march in the Easton parade last Saturday night.

In the St. Michaels parade the kids will be wearing elf vests and Santa hats. This day time parade is great fun.

Maybe we will be by the llamas. I am told by parade master, Mert Jarboe that he has to keep the llamas away from the horses. They don’t get along! I know llamas are in the camel family and horses are, well, horses, but hey, guys, where’s your Christmas spirit?

I Love a Parade

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The dancing Santa on the poster Laura Ambler designed is part of the branding of The Santa Diaries. Last night we carried the poster in the Easton, Maryland, Christmas parade along with cast members from the show. Marie U’ren had outfitted people in Victorian costumes, and although those will appear only briefly on stage they are colorful and evoke the season. From left to right in the photo are Cathy Cassell, Laura Ambler, Mala Burt and Erik Higgins.

Easton paradeThe big weatherproof poster has been hanging in front of the Avalon Theatre. On Saturday afternoon when Laura  went to pick it up and it was still hanging outside. Nobody was around to help her get it down so she found a stool behind the ticket desk in the lobby and used it to climb up and unhook the poster. All the while she’s thinking “this is not a good idea” especially when she discovered the top of the stool swiveled. But need prevailed over common sense and she retrieved the poster, attached it to a dowel rod, and added red bows. It was parade ready.

At the staging area I made my way back in the line up of floats, old cars, and kids wrapped up like Christmas boxes until I found a group of people in Victorian costumes. Laura was there with the poster. As it grew closer to the start time we wondered where Marie U’ren was. Erik Higgins got a call from a mother of one of the kids saying her daughter couldn’t find the group, then a little later a call to say she had found them – except Selena wasn’t with us. So we knew there must be another group of Victorian costumed parade walkers somewhere in the line up. Someone took off toward the front of the line, then came running back. The rest of the our people were three back from the start of the parade. We found the other group, and got ourselves organized just as the whistle blew. We were off.

The Easton parade is held at night and the floats and fire trucks were decked with lights. The streets were lined with  waving kids, smiling adults and well behaved dogs. The kids and adults in our group handed out postcards about the play and candy to the children. As we passed the Avalon Theatre we saw Jessica Rogers, Cece Davis, Liza Ledford and other Avalon staff. Play Director Tim Weigand was walking with us.

It was chilly, but not bitterly cold. Just a perfect night to watch the glitter and lights that signal the beginning of the Christmas season. At the end of the parade Santa wound his way through town in a cherry picker. What fun! When it was all over Laura and I met our husbands at Bartlett Pear Inn for dinner. It was a wonderful night. Next Saturday we march in the Christmas in St. Michaels parade which starts at ten in the morning. It’s all part of letting people know about The Santa Diaries play and branding our dancing Santa.