Bath, Maine Welcomes The Santa Diaries in 2018

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Maine wasn’t as cold as we expected, but it does get dark early. It was a short flight from Baltimore and by the time Laura Ambler and I landed at the Portland airport and were in the rental car (complete with ice scraper) it was getting dark. It was an hour drive to Bath. We checked into our hotel, found a place to eat dinner and walked to the theater to see the opening night show at the Chocolate Church Center for the Arts.

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Thom Watson, the producter, told us before the show that the light board had gone out that afternoon and they were using dimmers and spots. The show must go on and it did to a full house. We were entranced.

Chocolate Church Center for the Arts is a wonderful theater space. The bones of the original church are still there, and it has great acoustics. We were told that on Friday afternoon two hundred school children kids had attended a performance of The Santa Diaries, many of them seeing their first live stage performance. The photo below was taken before Saturday’s matinee. The light board was back up.

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The director of the show was Dennis St. Pierre, an Actors Equity  and Screen Actors Guild member with 20 years of professional work in the theater, tv and music industry as an actor, singer, director and producer.  He is currently the interim Executive Director for the Chocolate Church Performing Arts Center and recently created an Arts Education program that allows for collaboration with local school programs. It was that program that brought all those school kids to see The Santa Diaries.

In the opening scene of the show, cute elves deliver packages to Sandy Hawes who believes he has a calling… to be Santa.

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The large cast exemplifies a line in the play…”It’s community theater. Anyone who wants a part, gets a part.” The photo below doesn’t show all the adorable elves who occasionally escaped their wranglers backstage and made an early entrance!

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Chocolate Church did something clever to facilitate scene changes. They created three wheeled set pieces: a left and right window and a center piece that was the fireplace in Sandy’s living room (not seen in photo above). Each of these set pieces could be turned around to show something different on the other side. And for the finale (the community theater renovated after a fire) Christmas lights were turned on to show decorations in the actual theater. The audience went, “Awwww.” It was beautiful.

Before the show on Friday night we walked around the quaint main street of Bath. There was  a snowman with a fire in his belly and kids were roasting marshmallows. With lots of adult supervision, of course. The only thing missing was lightly falling snow.

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If we had stayed longer we would have attended the free community carol sing at Chocolate Church, a tradition on the last Monday evening before Christmas. And we would have spent more time at the Maritime Museum where the Christmas tree was made out of lobster pots.

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At home, on the Chesapeake Bay, we have crab pot Christmas trees .

After three traveling weekends it was lovely to be home and put away my suitcase. Requests for perusal scripts have been coming in from theaters around the country, so it will be interesting to see where The Santa Diaries finds community theater homes in 2019. We already know one production will be in Tennessee.

 

You Know You’re in Minnesota — A Christmas Wedding — December 13, 2018

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You know you are in Minnesota in December when the windshield washer fluid freezes on the windshield.

Laura and I flew into Minneapolis late Friday afternoon with an entourage … our husbands, Laura’s mother and a friend.  It was cold. I don’t think the day time temperature ever got above 20 degrees Farenheit the whole time we were there. Fortunately there was no wind, but there was still snow on the ground from the previous weekend and icy spots on sidewalks.

We checked into the house we’d rented and headed to town to check out the marquis at the Paradise Center for the Arts. World Premier! TMP stands for The Merlin Players.

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That night we were honored on stage…

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…and presented with a fabulous gift basket which included a handmade ornament created by Stephanie Weiss who plays Martha in the show.

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The show was more than we could have hoped for. Laura and I had not reread it before we went and kept wondering what was coming next. It was lovely to see it that way — almost with fresh eyes.

Saturday morning we had breakfast at Bernie’s Grill, a local institution with terrific food. My husband commented that it was breakfast that tasted the way he remembered breakfast tasting when he was a kid. Bernie’s had A Christmas Wedding poster by the cash register. They were all over town. This is Cary (Laura’s husband), Laura and her mother, Mary.

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I don’t have the show photos yet, but will soon. Then I’ll do another post.

On Saturday toured the Faribault Woolen Mills, explored the Shattuck-St. Mary’s (a coed prep school) campus, had lunch at the Cheese Cave, and then the ladies explored a consignment shop which had been a Catholic Church. We were told there were three Catholic churches in Faribault and the powers that be decided to build a new church south of town and sell the old churches and rectories. The house we rented had been the rectory. It was full of gorgeous oak woodwork.

Saturday night we ordered take out and ate around the dining table at our rental property before we went to the show. During intermission the sound operator, Shelley Wold, came around to introduce herself. She’s a panda lover and there’s a mention of pandas in the show. Great job, Shelley! We owe so much to the behind the scene folks. There wouldn’t be a show without them.

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After the show we got some photos with the cast. Left to right: Michael Lambert (Will Hawes), Heidi Nelson (Jessica), Mala Burt (playwright), Matt Drenth (Josh), Laura Ambler (playwright), Mandie Siems (Brandeee), Stephanie Weiss (Martha) and Jerry Fox (Sandy Hawes). Honestly, we couldn’t have had a more talented cast for the first production of A Christmas Wedding. Accoustics were excellent and everyone knew their lines and where they were supposed to be. What was superb was how the actors stayed in character even when they weren’t speaking. That’s hard to do.  Stephanie, thanks for these photos that I pulled off your FaceBook album.

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This is Jerry Fox (Sandy Hawes) with Thomas Drenth (Tim).

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Stephanie Weiss (Martha) in her foxy post make-over Mrs. Santa costume, complete with bull whip. She is now camera ready. Embrace the crazy!

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Two weeks before opening night the director, Juliana Skluzacek, had a heart attack and triple bypass surgery. She came home Friday, the day the show opened. Her hard work shone in every scene. It wouldn’t have been the same play without Julianna’s vision. But we would be remiss if we didn’t applaud the cast and crew who rose to the occasion and brought the show home. Laura and I were in awe.

Several people asked us if there will be another in the Santa Diaries saga. We’ll have to give that some thought. If we fast forward too much we’d have to kill off Sandy and Martha and the Merlin Players will never allow us in Faribault again.

 

The Sugar Creek Players Do Us Proud

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You know you are in Indiana when your rental car comes with an ice scraper, but the weather Gods smiled on Laura Ambler and me the first weekend in December 2018. We never needed the scraper, but I was glad I’d packed an umbrella.

We flew into Indianapolis and drove to Crawfordsville. An hour on the interstate led us right to the Vanity Theater.

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It’s a thrill to see our play in marquis lights.

On opening night the house was full and we were escorted to our seats by two of the cast members who play volunteer firemen in the show.

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After welcoming remarks by Director Keith Strain, the firemen escorted us to the stage where Crawfordsville Mayor, Todd Barton,  presented us with a proclamation announcing this week as The Santa Diaries week.

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The stage at the Vanity Theater is tight…just 22 feet wide. It’s deep however, and the director made use of several levels including a scrim (you can see it on the photo above with a photo projected on it) and a small raised area which served as Timmy’s bedroom.

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Sandy, Will, Martha, Brandeee and Josh. Then the Casserole Ladies begin to arrive.

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When most of the cast is on stage, it’s crowded, but risers in the back help.

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Adorable elves help Sandy read letters to Santa.

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Marley Dog, Timmy and Will

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There was an after party on Friday night where all the cast and crew gathered.

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On Saturday Director Keith Strain and his wife, Betsy, took us to lunch. And in the afternoon a local cooperative art gallery hosted a reception for us. Laura and I supported the local ecomomy and bought jewelry and met people from this vibrant community.

On Saturday night we saw the show again. The staging of every production is unique and every actor interprets his/her character differently. It’s why we travel to see productions. Sometimes there’s a bit of business that we want to keep. This time it was a reprise of At Christmas I Believe (an original song in the show written by Laura Ambler) sung by Will’s mother’s ghost. It was a nice touch. It would give a director an option for the character of Alice.

Community theaters across America provide a cultural venue for their communities. Sometimes they serve as the focal point for the revitalization of a small town. And for some, they are a place where people come together — regardless of politics, religion, gender or sexual orientation — to put on a show. And that’s just what the Sugar Creek Players did at the Vanity Theater last weekend. They put on a great show and did us proud.

 

A Call for Reindeer

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Reindeer are featured in Martha’s Christmas decorating efforts in the new show – A Christmas Wedding – so the Merlin Players sent out a tweet.

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Laura has been doing some rear projection images for the new show. She put a bulletin board on the wall of the community center where much of the action takes place. It’s an homage to sweet potato hot dish recipes, auditions for  the Christmas Carol — the perennial holiday show in our imaginary small-town — and a photo of the playwrites with Merlin Players director Julianna Skluzacek.

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In twenty days we’ll be in Crawfordsville, Indiana watching the opening night performance of The Santa Diaries (the original show) performed by the Sugar Creek Players. Life doesn’t get much better for writers.

At Christmas I Believe

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I have a Santa decoration that lives in my kitchen year round.

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The wine cork ornament was a gift from the mother of the little boy who played Timmy in The Santa Diaries premier in Easton, Maryland in 2012. For Christmas last year Laura gave me the Believe ornament which I immediately hung on Santa’s hand. We believed that our movie script would get bought in 2014. Didn’t happen, but we continue to believe that it will happen at some point. Einstein told us time is fluid… in Hollywood.

When we went to Faribault, MN to see the third production of The Santa Diaries I came home with several additions to hang on my Santa.

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The red ball was a handmade ornament by Stephanie Weiss who played Martha in the Merlin Players production. The Santa riding a reindeer hanging below the red ball was a gift from the local thrift shop. Laura and I were perusing their wares and the gal at the counter was so thrilled to meet us she asked us each to choose an ornament to take home as a remembrance. The big Santa hanging on the right was in the large basket of Minnesota goodies that the Merlin Players Board of Directors had put in our room at The Loft.

The only problem now is that it is getting difficult to open the cupboard to the right of the Santa. It’s where the plates and bowls are stored so I am in it several times a day.

Any inconvenience is worth it, however, as I see these reminders every day and remember the joy of each production of our play. It’s a way of celebrating every day of the year.

As Josh Shankman says in our play, “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Feliz Navidad, Happy Kwanza or whatever politically correct holiday you people celebrate. It’s all good!”

Laura and I send our wishes for joy, peace and love in this very special season of the year. Re: selling a movie script…there’s always next year. At Christmas I believe.

A Thank You to the Merlin Players

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Laura created an animoto Thank You for the cast and behind-the-scenes crew who did such a wonderful job of producing our play, The Santa Diaries. We couldn’t have asked for more.

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We were made to feel part of the theater community. It was a very special weekend.

Minnesota Nice

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Laura and I flew into Minneapolis/St. Paul on Friday afternoon. We needed to arrive in time for the 7pm performance of our playThe Santa Diaries.

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We rented a Hoodie Hamster car (Kia Soul)and drove to Faribault. We didn’t know that we were heading toward one of the friendliest towns in America. Our suite at Be My Guest – The Loft was amazing. Sleek, modern, but cozy and warm at the same time. And on the table was a welcome basket from the Merlin Players Board of Directors. It was full of all sorts of Minnesota food items. We brought most of it home in our suitcases and plan to have a Minnesota Night Dinner with our husbands after Christmas.

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We settled in and then went in search of a place to get some dinner. The Loft was only two short blocks from the theater and The Cheese Cave had been recommended (more about that in another post). On the way we saw the marquis of The Paradise Theater. A kind of surreal moment. In fact, the whole weekend was rather surreal, but in a good way.

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It turned out the Cheese Cave was closed because that night the restaurant was having its Christmas Staff party. Really, on a Friday night? We ended up at a Subway a few doors down. We knew we’d get to the Cheese Cave eventually. At that point we just needed some food. We’d been on planes all day, surviving on little packets of peanuts.

Merlin Players Director Julianna Skluzacek had asked us to meet her at the theater at 6:40. It was the first time we’d met in person, and she was warm and welcoming and thrilled that we had come to see the show. It felt like we were old friends.

Julianna gave us a brief tour of the beautifully restored theater. It is truly a gem – and it turns out to have incredible acoustics. The auditorium holds 210 people and was full for the three performances we attended.  The dancing Santa logo was on the screens on the stage as we watched the auditorium fill . How would The Merlin Players treat our baby?

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From the opening montage we felt ourselves relax. This was going to be really good. The cast was professional and polished. Even the small children were excellent. No one in the cast wore mics and we could understand every word – those amazing acoustics.

The Casserole Ladies of the original script had morphed into Midwestern Hot Dish Ladies, complete with hot mitts and hot dish carriers. Even funnier than the original. We were told that the reception after opening night had featured a hot dish buffet. Brilliant. I wonder if they had any sweet potatoes with bananas and bacon?

This holiday chorus line will have you laughing out loud. Photo by Edward Brown, courtesy of The Merlin Players.

At the end of play we were presented with flowers and ushered to the stage where the audience whooped and applauded the cast and us. Surreal. I already said that, didn’t I.

We then walked back to The Loft where there’s a party space on the first floor and a cast party was soon in full swing. I hadn’t stayed up that late in forever.

On Saturday we walked around the town. Everybody seemed to be expecting us. I commented to one lady that this was the friendliest place I’d ever been. She said, “It’s called Minnesota Nice.” The world could use more of that.

More about the show and our visit to Faribault in the coming days.