When it comes to the holidays, I have far more in common with Jack Skellington than with the Grinch. I love Christmas, even down to its corniest, cheesiest aspects. I love the light and color, as my play and short story “Christmas Rose” bear witness. I love the music, though I admit that “Jingle Bells” tries my patience a little and I may be picky about which versions of particular songs I will listen to. I love the TV specials, and will write about my favorites soon. I even love the occasional visits to the mall. But one of the things I love most, and look forward to year in and year out, is performing in the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company’s annual Christmas show. This year’s show will mark the eighth in which I have participated since I joined the company. We will perform in Stockbridge, GA on Saturday, December 12 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, December 13 at 2:30 p.m.
Five things I love about ARTC’s Christmas shows:
They’re pro-Christmas. With our pop culture’s often bitter seasoning of cynicism and irony, pro-Christmas entertainment (at least recently or currently made) can be hard to find. Unapologetically Christmas-hostile movies like Krampus and Gremlins at least have the virtue of being up-front about what they’re offering their target audience, but most recent attempts to make a holiday-positive movie have resulted in bland misfires like Four Christmases, Christmas with the Kranks, and the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Today’s Hollywood has trouble conjuring that combination of intelligence, sincerity, and sentiment needed to make a high-quality pro-Christmas movie or show. Yet this is the very combination ARTC’s shows have in spades.
They have variety. The shows change just a little year to year, as ARTC’s leaders choose scripts best suited to the venue, time, and talent available. Yet every year the chosen scripts offer a delightful mix of flavors and moods. This year the scripts range from riotously funny parody (Sketch MacQuinor’s “Blue Hannukchristmas Carol,” in which a young man is visited by the Spirits of Hannukkah What-Happened, As-It-Is, and What-Could-Be — only they’ve come to the wrong apartment) to gentle romance (Thomas E. Fuller’s “Are You Lonely Tonight?” which features a fortunate meeting of two singles at a company Christmas party, and “Cut-Out Christmas,” in which an impoverished husband and wife find a way to give each other Christmas even though they can’t afford presents). The only thing an audience won’t find: mean-spiritedness.
They feature stunning performances. I have my favorites among the mainstays, performers who have put a solid stamp on a particular role even though they may not be able to play it every year. One that springs immediately to mind is Ron N. Butler’s portrayal of “Crazy Richard,” whose devotion to all things British moves him to enlist as a soldier in World War I three years before the US entered it, landing him on the Western Front the miraculous night of the Christmas Truce in Fuller’s “O Tannenbaum.” Another that always makes me smile is Daniel Kiernan’s performance as Irving, a cantankerous Wise Man (with a Brooklyn accent) who gets “mightily miffed” when the other Wise Men question the appropriateness of his gift for the Christ Child in Brad Strickland’s “Legend of the Poinsettia.” Nonetheless, here’s the bottom line: we are all awesome in our roles.
The stories offer a variety of perspectives. So much Christmas-oriented entertainment, from songs to TV specials, centers on families and children. Certainly many of ARTC’s Christmas scripts feature charming depictions of children’s holiday doings, among them “The Ultimate Christmas Play,” “Tree Comes to Atlanta,” “Mr. Currier, Mr. Ives, and All That Snow,” “Santa Claus Blues,” and my personal favorite, “Davy Crockett and Me,” in which two brothers remember the Christmas when all they really wanted were official Davy Crockett coonskin caps. Yet these stories are counterbalanced with portrayals of grown folk celebrating the holidays, no kids involved, such as “Are You Lonely Tonight?”, “Cut-Out Christmas,” “O Tannenbaum,” “Blue Hannukchristmas Carol,” and “U.S.O. Christmas,” which tells of two soldiers during World War II, one black, one white, both from Columbus, GA, who meet at a U.S.O. party in Atlanta and forge an unexpected bond. Our scripts present all perspectives, and all relationships, as valuable. As the introduction proclaims, “Everyone’s family at Christmas.”
The shows give me a chance to connect with a vital figure in ARTC’s history. I never had the privilege of meeting Thomas E. Fuller, ARTC’s head writer, face to face. He’d passed away from a heart attack not long before I entered the company in 2004. Yet I gain a glimpse of him — his insights, his empathy — when I read and perform his words. An Atlanta Christmas, the ARTC Christmas show in its original form, is his work. Over time, other writers like myself, Ron N. Butler, Daniel Taylor, Brad and Jonathan Strickland, Cyd Hoskinson, Paige Steadman Ross, and Sketch MacQuinor have made contributions, adding to that welcome variety of perspectives. Yet Fuller’s generous and warm-hearted spirit prevails, evidence of a fine writer’s immortality. I regret never having met him during his lifetime, but he still casts a blessing on me, all of us actors, and anyone who hears our shows.