Scripting a sleigh full of fun

HCC play stages secrets of life at the North Pole in `Letters to S.A.N.T.A.'

December 02, 2005|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

Letters to S.A.N.T.A. has a North Pole setting, a missing-Santa mystery, dancing reindeer, singing elves, a glamorous Mrs. Claus and a mean mother-in-law.

It also has 29 contributing writers.

The play, running weekends, tonight through Dec. 17, at Howard Community College, is the latest original production by the school's Student-Alumni Arts group.

As with four previous productions, the actors spent several weeks doing improvisation to develop characters and scenes.

But unlike previous shows, this one started with some central themes regarding Christmas. And while previous shows relied on a series of vignettes developed by the actors, Letters to S.A.N.T.A. enlisted a team of writers to create a single, coherent script.

After about four weeks of rehearsals, there was a turning point, said director Sue Kramer. With such a large cast, "we wanted to make sure that the piece delivered the message [and] involved everyone. The script ensured that."

Michael Wood, Ashanti Cooper and Candace Cooper condensed the best ideas from the improvisations into Act I and then gave it to the performers to work with.

Then, Wood said, the writers had to take more control and pull the story together in Act II - including the ending - which was delivered to the cast two weeks ago. Ashanti Cooper also wrote several songs.

The result is a brand-new, PG-rated holiday tale about life at Santa's headquarters with its power struggles, company policies, troubles and traditions.

Young children may not be ready for some mature themes - including the fact that Santa goes missing in the first scene - but the show embraces the resilience of the Christmas spirit and remains in good taste.

"I can't imagine a more exciting process," Wood said. "We created a never, ever, ever seen before story."

Throughout the production, the cast and the writers have been sharing ideas and comments.

"It is a great check-and-balance system," Wood said. "The hard thing is to know when to stop."

William Stanley of Bowie has written plays and acted in and directed local productions for several decades.

He said that the loose structure - and the relatively late arrival of a final script - is unusual for actors who are used to having a month or more to memorize their lines.

But, he said, "ultimately the process is rewarding. ... It gives the actors even more of a vested interest in the end product."

Robert Hitcho of Bowie said it was interesting to work on a role where, for a few weeks, "you don't know what your character is going to do. You play it as you go and hope you're doing it right."

He said that really engaged his imagination during rehearsals.

Even in dress rehearsals, "you can try something new," he said. "We are not afraid to do that."

"It's all about collaboration," Kramer said. "I believe all of the actors trusted [the process] and trusted the writing team, and the writing team trusted the actors in a way we've never seen."

She said that each time the group does an original show "it keeps getting more and more interesting and brave. I think [the shows] are braver."

Letters to S.A.N.T.A. will be performed in the HCC Theatre Outback through Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets and information: www.howardcc.edu/studentarts or 410-772-4900.

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

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