POSTED ON NOVEMBER 28, 2012:
Refreshing a Classic
Six delinquent siblings dive into the Christmas story
Pretty much everyone knows the story of the Herdmans and their wild ways. It's kind of the Star Wars of Christmas plays in that everyone has at least heard of it, and even when you find one of those weirdoes that claims never to have seen it, they can, when pressed, tell you the major plot points.
"It's a classic tale of the Christmas spirit in so many ways," said director Rebecca Blackmore. "The Herdmans are a group of children who are bullies in school and have been outcast from their peers. I think that fuels their desire to join in."
And you know the rest: they swoop in and boot out the Sunday school kids who are regulars in their annual Christmas pageant cast, shaking things up and learning things about God, love, themselves, and others along the way.
"They first get involved for the perks -- you know, 'We go to Sunday school, and we get cookies.' But they grow, and it's all about how the Christmas spirit can change one person," Blackmore said.
One challenge facing the director Clark Theatre's twelfth annual production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: how do you keep fresh something that isn't new to anyone? Like absolutely any other traditional Christmas play or musical -- so many of which play every single year in Tulsa, often by the same company each season -- it is a clichéd idea, but still a very real idea that must be tackled.
Like any good director, Blackmore had an answer.
"It's a different show every year," she said, almost as if the idea of stagnation rearing its head in repeated productions wasn't any issue at all.
"I think it's fresh every year," she continued. "There are things we do every year to keep it fresh."
By way of example, she offered up Clark's unofficial rule for casting this play.
"No actor plays a part they've played before," she said, which is not always the way it's been.
"I played the mother character three years in a row, but I think this change allows more actors to feel out the different roles," Blackmore said.
Oh, yeah, there's that: Blackmore has been a fixture at Clark since her early childhood, starting when she was still in the single digits, age-wise.
"As an actor with Clark, there were probably four shows a season for about nine years," she said. That's more than 30 shows. That's a lot of youth acting.
"I pretty much lived there and grew up there," she said. "In fact, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was the first show I ever did, and it kind of spiraled from there."
Anyone involved with theatre probably recognizes the perfection of her choice of the word "spiraled," by the way.
And being that involved in a company gave her some insights that led to the guideline mentioned above that keeps kids from reprising roles.
"I don't feel like I got to grow much year after year in the same role," she said. "It's kind of a great process for them, because they're able to approach the show in a different way each year. And with a different director, that helps too."
This idea of new blood every year -- even if there aren't actually very many new people -- goes a long way to maintaining the show's freshness.
Then again, having kids involved helps a great deal, too. In fact, as the company's name itself suggests, Clark Youth Theatre casts only actors under the age of 18. And since kids will be kids, and since kids are hardly ever afraid to try something new, the Herdmans' tale remains an engaging one.
"No one's afraid to change it up year after year. It's the same script, but there are always different ways to go with it," Blackmore said.
She also said that the kids involved are less set in their ways as actors (and as human beings, for that matter) than are adults with whom she's acted or directed in the past.
"The kids are much more creative, intuitively," she said. "They're not afraid to take chances. Especially this cast -- it's extremely young, and because I'm working with younger kids, they haven't reached that age where they're afraid of their peers, and they're not afraid of me. They're young enough that they haven't lost that creative spark that we sometimes seem to lose when we get older. It reminds me not to lose that in myself."
So just like the Herdmans inadvertently teach the kids they've been bullying a lesson about the universal nature of Christmas, these kids are teaching Blackmore how to retain some part of what it's like to be a kid. And hey, who doesn't need that reminder from time to time?
It's fair to say that, even though this production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has focused on remaining fresh, that focus has been on returning the show to its roots -- no fancy concepts of updating the setting or the time period or anything gimmicky.
"It's kind of going back to what I would say would be the original. It's kind of a homecoming for me," Blackmore said. "It's unique in that it's not the Christmas Pageant that's been performed in the last 11 years."
She again referred to her many years as a kid participating in this very show.
"I'm trying to see it through my own eyes a child when I was first introduced to the story," she said. "Our Beth is named Lexie Cutler, and she's very young and very spirited. I've tried to see what the story is through Beth's eyes. The story is narrated through her eyes, and it's her telling, you know, 'Let me tell you what the Herdmans did this time.' But her stories aren't always accurate. There's a little spin on it because you're seeing it through her eyes."
Blackmore has come full circle with Clark, and this isn't her first go-round as a shot-caller rather than an actor.
"It's kind of been a long time coming," she said. "I've been working with Heller and Clark for off and on maybe three years. I've been filling and teaching some homeschool drama classes and things like that."
And now she steps into the director's chair for Clark, ready to bring Tulsa yet another solid rendition of this classic Christmas tale.
Clark Youth Theatre presents The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at the Henthorne Performing Arts Center -- 4825 S. Quaker Ave. The show runs Friday through Sunday, Nov. 30 through Dec. 9. Shows start at 7:30pm on Friday and Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets are available at the door, but audience members will have a much better chance of actually getting tickets before they sell out by calling 918-746-5065.
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