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School holiday performances: adorable and hard work

The Cardinal Shehan School Catholic choir performs "This Christmas" for a Facebook Live concert. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)

School holiday concerts and shows range from preschool pageants with children squirming onstage as they jingle bells to sophisticated ballets and oratorios presented by high schools for the performing arts. The reactions people have when it comes to attending these festivities are equally as varied. As someone once responsible for several decades of Christmas shows at a local Catholic school, my perspective is one of an arts educator for whom these events were far more than a mark in my gradebook.

When I embarked upon what was to become a 36-year career in private school education, I was mentored by a patient, creative and skilled high school music teacher. She was a poised and exacting religious sister who guided me through the details of assisting her as we mounted a festival of lessons and carols in December 1981 — my first Christmas show.

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My theater students posed in tableau as her exquisite glee club and a cappella choir sang a glorious arrangement of “The First Noel.” To this day it remains among my favorite carols. My drama class also performed a one-act play based on O. Henry’s classic story, “The Gift of the Magi.”

When the curtain goes up on the Charm City Ballet production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for the first of two shows Dec. 16, 84 dancers will be ready to tell the story — sans dialog — of Ebenezer Scrooge’s pathetic past, forlorn present and promising future.

One year, when I suggested to Sister that we explore the possibility of the theater students presenting a comedy, her eyes twinkled with excitement at the idea. But she cautioned me to make sure that the girls exercised restraint. Well-planned sharp wit is splendid, but at a secondary school where the life of the mind was paramount, we wanted to make sure to avoid self-indulgent nonsense or infantile slapstick. Novelty songs such as “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” and “Jingle Bell Rock” weren’t in Sister’s repertoire. Hers was an era of “Carol of the Bells,” “Silent Night,” and, of course, “Ave Maria.” Preferring the classics, I could not have been happier.

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One year we staged what I had hoped would be a groundbreaking interdepartmental effort to involve my fellow English teachers’ students. It was the first and only time we staged an abridged adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” The audience was confused, probably because half of the cast had mastered outstanding Welsh accents, and the others sounded straight out of Baltimore.

Over the years I was privileged to collaborate with many colleagues — music, art and English teachers — each December as we would immerse ourselves in preparing for the Christmas shows. Our stagecraft students would decorate the school auditorium; guitarists often would welcome audiences as they entered the lobby. Several plays became standards: Once every four years we would present a one-act adaptation of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” My mind’s eye recalls at least five different student actresses as Lucy. One year, we decided it would be engaging to invite toddlers and preschoolers in the audience to sit directly onstage with the cast and choirs. That was the first — and last — time we attempted it. Some children crawled up and down the choral risers nonstop as others cried for their mothers at the first glimpse of a scary character. (I think that was one of several times we presented the Grinch.)

The holiday calendar includes a good deal of family-friendly concerts, plays and other events in the Baltimore area.

We produced “A Christmas Carol” more than any tale. Students loved the idea of playing Dickens’ ghosts, especially one student, whom I will never forget. She found a box of rusty iron chains, which she commandeered as props for her performance as Jacob Marley. Her entrance, enchained, groaning and moaning, was a showstopper.

Equally as memorable as the plays was the music that I’d hear either from my position backstage or seated in the balcony taking notes. One year my talented colleague in the music department, a new November bride, undertook the ambitious “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” with her choir. I covered a few rehearsals as she honeymooned, and she had told me, “All you’ll need to do is listen. They know exactly what to do.” Was she ever correct! That’s a true teacher; those young ladies were totally solid in their lyrics, harmonies and self-confidence. I gave them a boisterous round of applause.

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No longer directing the Christmas show, I have already marked my calendar to attend holiday concerts of the BSO and several local schools. It’s a new role as a spectator, but as I watch, I’ll smile and know exactly how much hard work has been involved preparing for the main event.

Carolyn L. Buck (bucklaz@aol.com) is a local writer and former English/theater teacher. She has directed over 40 plays and musicals and over two decades of Christmas shows.

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