It Takes a Small-town

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Rehearsal 11-25-12: More people are becoming involved as The Santa Diaries becomes the project of Easton, our small-town.

Laura and I sit toward the back of the auditorium. Behind us is a door to the alley and a bearded guy is going in and out. I don’t know his name, but I think he is one of the set people and perhaps the father of one of the child actors. I’ve seen him at previous rehearsals. Sometimes he’s using a circular saw with the door partially open and the cold air blows in on us. Sometimes the door is almost closed. In any event he’s trying to be as quiet as possible, but like everyone in the theater he has a job to do.

On stage behind the actors a guy is at the top of a really tall ladder. He’s using a portable drill to attach something to something we can’t see. The actors are ignoring the distractions and are running their lines, incorporating some changes Laura and I were asked to make two days ago. This is a good sign. It means the actors are really focused on their characters.

A little later the ladder guy moves to the side of the stage apron and begins drilling. A long roll of something white is at the very back of the stage. Can this be part of the scenery project we’ve been hearing rumors about?

Behind us Marie is putting the finishing touches on outfits for kids and adults walking in the Easton Christmas parade next Saturday evening. In the Avalon entrance hall Cavin Moore is rehearsing a dance sequence. Cece Davis with her new love, Ralphie, a French bulldog in a holiday sweater, is at the sound board inserting sound effects (a door bell, a drill that shorts out, a Santa ring tone, background music) into the scenes—sometimes where they belong, often missing the mark. This is what rehearsal is all about.

But all those details are being worked on and progress is being made. I have loved watching locally produced theater, but I now have a much more realistic appreciation of what is involved behind the scenes of creating a play. This doesn’t take a village, it takes a small town.

A Busy Avalon – Sunday Rehearsal 11/4/12

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The Avalon Theatre is a busy place. On Sunday afternoon there was a Mozart concert performed by Easton’s Choral Arts Society on stage, and the Cinema Society met Sunday night and needed the main stage AND the Stoltz Listening Room at 4:30. In fact, the stage won’t be available for rehearsals all this week and weekend as a Waterfowl Festival event is being setting up in the auditorium. Hopefully all will be back to normal next week.

So on Sunday rehearsals were limited to adults in Stoltz from 2 – 4:30. One of our characters sings with the Choral Arts Society so she couldn’t be there. Rehearsals are a huge commitment of time and accommodations to people’s schedules are constantly made.

The acting instructions continue to be fascinating. Assistant Director Cecile Davis brought some of the character books  she had created for productions in which she has appeared. The books had pictures of what she thought her character looked like, the backstory she imagined for her character, comments and direction from the director, and magazine photos and research from the time period of the play. She encouraged the Santa Diaries actors to create their own character books.

Cece recommended two books to the actors. The Enneagram Made Easy by Renee Baron and Elizabeth Wagele, and Trusting the Actor by Brian Astbury.

In a previous blog we mentioned the directors putting the actors through an “anger run”. It seems there are all kinds of acting “runs.”  Cece did a “spoken thoughts” run with Casey Rauch (Will) in which she followed closely behind him speaking the kind of thoughts that might be going through his character’s mind. It must have been hugely distracting, but Casey stayed focused got through his long speech without a hitch. Then she did an excercise with Jenny Madino (Jessica) in which she had her do a scene using a variety of emotions (anger, sadness, happy, childlike), louder and softer, faster and faster. We could all feel the energy this created. Note to Jenny from the authors: it’s The Night Before Christmas, not The Nightmare Before Christmas. LOL.

At one point Cece referred to The Santa Diaries as “our play”. Laura and I got goosebumps. The more ownership everyone feels the better the show will be. The Santa Diaries is OUR community play.

p.s. On Sunday Laura and I left rehearsal early because we were going to Baltimore for theater. At Tuesday night’s rehearsal we learned that Cece had two of the leads doing a scene while doing push-ups. So sorry we missed that!

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.

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.

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?

Play Update

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Originally published in on 09-06-12

The fourth draft has been read by the Avalon team and we are in the process of scheduling a meeting to arrange a table read and talk about marketing. The table read will tell us approximately how long the show will be. We had the rewrite of the beginning of the play critiqued at our Working Writers’ Forum last night. Some terrific suggestions. Thanks, all.

We are also in the process of novelizing the play and this has had an interesting side effect. Writing this story as fiction allows us room to do all that lasagna stuff I wrote about previously. As we did that, we got to know the characters better and it was easier to make the play longer. (We had been asked at the last meeting to add 20-30 pages.) When you find out that somebody wears red high tops you know something about them you didn’t before.

The Tim and Cece Show

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Originally posted on on July 9, 2012

Laura and I had our second “notes” meeting last Friday with Tim Weigand and Cecile (Cece) Davis from the Avalon Theatre. They had more perceptive suggestions about layering depth into the dialogue and suggesting physical actions that show the audience something about the character. When you write a screenplay you give an occasional suggestion about how a character reacts, but anything that smacks of telling the director what to do is a big No, No. You only put notes in when it is absolutely imperative that the director keep that piece of business. In writing this play, we are being encouraged to state the way we see action unfolding. I think they want to keep our vision. We’re not prima donnas. We’re happy to have Tim, as director, add his own vision to the production, but we’d love to sit in on the casting sessions.

At one point Tim and Cece jumped out of their chairs and started acting out one of the scenes, adding chunks of improv dialogue. What a treat. We couldn’t write their ad libbed lines down fast enough. They weren’t just doing a table read, they were in character. This made the script come alive. Laura commented later that although we have gotten excellent reviews for our novel (Big Skye Ranch), hearing someone say the lines in our play was a new, thrilling experience. It actually gave me goosebumps.

On Saturday we worked on revisions for five hours. Laura must have had a lot of coffee because we were in some sort of weird humor zone and ended up laughing until we were wiping our eyes. I reread that part this morning. Not sure if it works or not. Dog with an eyepatch – you’ll have to see the show! But we’ll probably leave it in and see what Tim and Cece think. It’s incredible to work with such talented people.

This is so much fun, but the icing on the cake is that we realized once the play is produced we can add “Produced Playwright” to our resumes. That’s pretty cool! Laura is already a “Produced Screenwriter” but neither one of us has done a play before. This afternoon we’ll make a few more tweaks and then email it off to Tim and Cece at the Avalon Theater. I’m sure they’ll have more terrific suggestions. The script gets better with each pass.

The Progress of the Play – June 30, 2012

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Originally Posted on  June 30, 2012 by Mala Burt

Laura wrote: Two weeks ago Mala and I had a meeting with Tim Weigand and Cecile (Cece) Davis at the Avalon Theater. We had sent them the first draft of the Christmas play “At Christmas I Believe” and wanted to know if we were remotely on the right track. If they told us it was crap and start over we’d have done that. If they’d told us it was crap and to go away, we would have done that. But we got lots of warm fuzzies about how much they liked it and then suggestions about how to make it better.


Cece said, “It reads like a script.” Funny she should say that since scripts are what Mala and I have been writing for the last two years. We knew “At Christmas” had to be fixed to read like a play. There are some significant differences. In a film you can close in on an actor’s face to show a wide range of emotion. In a play the back row has to get the emotion through the voice and the power of the words. In fact this has been one of the hardest things for Mala to get through her head about screen scripts. In this play we have an actor hold up a Christmas ornament he made as a child. He says, “I made this for Mom when I was in second grade. (beat) Sure is ugly.” In the play you have to say that because the people in the back row can’t see how ugly the handmade ornament is. In a film, the camera would zoom in and show the viewer so you don’t have to have that line of dialog. It’s something like the showing vs telling we pay attention to as fiction writers. It’s just done in different ways in a screenplay, in a stage play and in a novel.

In a screenplay you insert slugs that tell you the location of the scene. For example, “INT: WILL’S BEDROOM”. Film can establish place with visuals. Stages can establish place, but with a much more limited repertoire. Films can take advantage of multiple locations with what are called establishing shots. A flyover of Washington, DC and you know the general location where the next scene takes place. But the next scene might be in Boston with some sort of visual to alert the viewer to the location change. Stage plays usually have just a few locations to minimize scene changes.

Also, stage plays usually have a much more limited cast. In a film, an extra can walk through a scene, say nothing or say one line, and walk out. On the stage the cast is usually restricted with some actors occasionally playing multiple parts. However, this is a community theater production and the cast will be large.

Of course the biggest difference is that once the curtain rises on a play, the show goes on until the end. The rehearsals may have taken months, but the actual play is time limited and there is never a chance for a do-over – until the next performance.

How The Santa Diaries Play Came About

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In late April 2012 Laura Ambler got a phone call from Tim Weigand of the Avalon Theatre asking if she would be interested in writing a play for this year’s Christmas season. After she and her writing partner, Mala Burt, confered, she replied…


Hi, Tim…

Attached is our proposal for the Avalon’s Christmas production. It is inspired by our recent book, The Santa Diaries. My writing partner, Mala Burt, and I had envisioned and planned on turning it into a screenplay so it seemed quite a lucky coincidence to get your phone call last week. We are thrilled to have the chance to put something together for your consideration.

We have adapted our story to be performed onstage, with ample opportunity to use local talent with a minimal production budget. We also inserted things locals will recognize immediately as well as create the opportunity for audience participation.

If after reviewing our proposal and think it might be worth pursuing, we’d love to meet with you and anyone else involved to see how we could more specifically embed ideas, actors, singers, musicians, dance groups, etc. that the Avalon would like to work with.

We look forward to your thoughts.

Sincerely, Laura

From: Tim Weigand []
Sent: Thursday, May 10, 2012 4:08 PM
To: Laura Ambler
Subject: RE: Avalon Christmas Project


I love what you have,  Would love to see a script. The powers that be upstairs have it to read as well.  I am sure they will see it all.

I loved it. Will be in touch soon.


From: Tim Weigand []
Sent: Sunday, May 13, 2012 2:58 PM
To: Laura Ambler
Subject: RE: Avalon Christmas Project


We would really like to go with this.  WE LOVE IT and see the potential.  Are you and Mala available to do a meeting sometime? Just send some days and times over when things are convenient.

Thanks.  We are really looking forward to doing this.  I almost can’t wait until Christmas now.


From: Tim Weigand []
Sent: Monday, May 14, 2012 8:59 PM
To: Laura Ambler
Subject: RE: Meeting


Can you both come to the theatre?



05-18-12 – We have the first draft of the first act completed and we are tweaking. Play at this point is titled At Christmas I Believe.

05-20-12 – Laura sends me the first draft of her two original songs for the play.


Hi, Tim!

As promised here is our first draft of Act One. We’ve change the name of the project to “At Christmas I Believe.”

We’re looking forward to your thoughts, input, and suggestions.

We are so loving working on this project!!!!

Laura and Mala



Attached is our first draft (entire script) of “At Christmas I Believe.” We’d like you and your Avalon cohorts to have a read and give us your thoughts, input, etc.

Perhaps we can schedule a meeting when you’ve all had a chance to read and discuss?

We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can do to make sure that this major fundraising effort is a success!

Laura and Mala

And so The Santa Diaries Project began…

The Santa Diaries Project

The Santa Diaries, an original play by Laura Ambler and Mala Burt is now in its third production by the Merlin Players in Faribault, Minnesota.  This is community theater at it’s best. Performances will be held at the Paradise Center for the Arts, a restored movie theatre much like the Avalon where The Santa Diaries premiered. There will be seven performances in early December 2014 – other exciting collaboration between the authors, the actors, the directors, producers and every other person involved in getting this play on stage.

This blog recounts the journey of The Santa Diaries. It premiered in Easton, Maryland on December 23, 2012 and that run of seven shows raised over $31,000 for the Avalon Foundation. Ambler and Burt are excited to see how the Merlin Players puts its own stamp on their play.