You've read Charles Dickens' classic book. You've seen the Omaha Community Playhouse's “A Christmas Carol” on its main stage.
Now you can catch the documentary film about it on Nebraska public television. The film will first air Friday, which also is opening night of the annual classic's 37th run at the Playhouse.
“Casting Call to Curtain Call” follows the 2011 production of “A Christmas Carol” from start to finish in an hourlong show brimming with humor, history, backstage drama and local personalities.
NET Television producer-director Michele Wolford, who grew up in Omaha, had long harbored the idea of following a community theater play from page to stage. She pitched it in May 2009, spent nearly two years finding funding and began meeting with staffers at the Playhouse in early 2011.
Wolford didn't have “A Christmas Carol” in mind then.
“This could have been any theater, any show,” she said. “I just knew that the world of community theater always has struggle and great characters. I wanted to capture the cadre of volunteers, staff, actors and crew — people who put incredible hours into this art form, most of them unpaid.”
The Playhouse, the nation's largest community theater, was receptive but wary.
Playhouse Artistic Director Carl Beck and Associate Artistic Director Susan Baer Collins worried that filming might interfere with rehearsals and distract the show's many child actors. Even the logistics of squeezing a cast of 41, directors and staff into limited space was daunting, never mind adding a film crew.
“And we didn't want anybody to come off in a bad light,” Collins said. “You have concerns because of reality TV. We knew the documentary itself would have to have some kind of drama in it.”
In the end, the upside of publicity for the Playhouse and its signature show was too good to pass up.
“Almost immediately, people forgot the camera was there and went about their business,” Beck said.
Every auditioner but one signed a film waiver. “I think a lot of the kids now think auditions have film crews,” he quipped.
Wolford said she didn't realize the scope and reach of “A Christmas Carol,” or its complex inner workings, until filming began. Two professional Playhouse tours rehearsed simultaneously with the local production, taking the show to the East Coast and across the Midwest. All three casts have the same directing team, which puts in 12-hour days for about 2½ weeks.
“It's impressive,” Wolford said. “At the end of the day, you can't tell those directors have been doing this for 12 hours, tag-teaming and coordinating an unbelievable number of people. They stay fully engaged.”
She was concerned the process might be on autopilot, rote after so many years of doing the same show. She quickly learned it wasn't.
“I was impressed with how Carl and Susie have such different directing styles that complement each other,” Wolford said. “Susie is very giving to the actor, laughing at lines, making Scrooge's face while he's acting a scene. She can't help herself.”
Beck, she said, has a dry sense of humor and definite ideas of what he wants from a scene.
“His face is not as open, but he's in it every bit as much. He jumps on a moment quickly when he wants to change something. He fights for the scene.”
Wolford structured her film, painstakingly edited down from more than 50 hours of video, into four acts: auditions, rehearsals, performance and final curtain.
Her script came entirely from interviews and footage, with no narrator other than the show's creators — stage manager Jeanne Shelton, scenic and lighting designer Jim Othuse, sound designer John Gibilisco, choreographer Michelle Garrity, assistant director Amy Lane, Beck, Collins and the cast — particularly the kids, who provide much of the show's humor.
In the end, Wolford and her crew of two found the drama they were looking for, as the directors worked to bring new actors up to speed.
A payoff appears in the documentary. Tiny Kian Roblin, who caused worry early in rehearsals as a too-subdued Tim Cratchit, comes alive before the camera on opening night. He beams with surprise when his “Coventry Carol” solo draws applause.
“He's hooked (on performing) now,” Beck said. “He'll be eating ramen noodles till he's 35.”
The camera also caught a slice of history in the lobby on opening night. Dick Boyd, 86, who played Scrooge for 30 years on the mainstage, congratulates Jerry Longe, his successor in the role.
“It gets better every year,” Boyd says.
At a Playhouse preview screening last week, an invited audience of about 300 greeted “Casting Call to Curtain Call” with rapt attention, frequent laughter and sustained applause as the credits rolled.
“It was what we hoped it would be,” Collins said. “I was very impressed.”
Wolford said she felt great about the crowd's response.
“We told the story we wanted to tell,” she said. “This isn't a promo piece. It's only interesting if it's true, accurate and has a story arc, with some laughter and struggle. It's a great story, and not just for those who love theater. It's a look behind the curtain.”
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