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ActorQuest - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Bway 5

This November, Kristin Huffman made her Broadway debut as Sarah (flute, piccolo and sax) in John Doyle's production of Company.  The actress continues her collection of stories about a 15-year career that has led her to the door of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

As I sit in my living room looking at all the Christmas cards I have YET to even open, much less respond to, I thought, "It's not too late to run this story from my Christmas last year."  THIS year, due to COMPANY opening on Broadway in November, I hardly noticed as Christmas went by.  There just wasn't time!  But since my neighbors still have their Christmas decorations up, I thought that sharing a Christmas story with you was still "seasonally appropriate". 

Christmas Curse

It's that time of year again ---the time of year I dread because my theatrical training "volunteers" me to direct the all important children's Christmas Pageant at my church. You know: little shepherds wearing bathrobes for tunics and towels wrapped around their heads, herds of holy poodle flocks stealing the show in the manger, the fight over which pretty girl gets to be Mary, the fight over which boy will have to play Joseph. And then there is the unavoidable "Christmas Pageant Curse," the moment when it all falls apart.

This year, I decided to check out some other Christmas pageants in the area just to get some fresh ideas.  Names have been withheld to protect the innocent, but suffice it to say, there were the usual amount of pets turned into barnyard animals, boys with Burger King crowns acting royally pained, and Prima Donna "Marys" with attendant mothers fussing with their costumes and MAKEUP! 

I decided that if my 'friends' at church were going to 'volunteer' me for our pageant this year, then I was going to use my progressive instincts that I have learned from John Doyle to liven up the scene and give it some edge.  So when the poodles were offered as the manger lambs, I declined. When Cindy, "Mary" for the last three years and star of the most recent production of ANNIE, was offered to me for that coveted part, I said I'd think about it. The only thing I planned on retaining was the Baby Jesus Cabbage Patch doll. Wanting to be 'authentic and real' I thought about using a real baby, but I just didn't want real crying to contradict the "no crying he makes" part of "Away in a Manger." Sure, the real Jesus did a bit of crying, but that is one bit of realism that would cause me to become an atheist.  My "vision" was that everything should seem authentic and organic so that the audience could be teleported back to that holy time.

I chose the shyest girl as Mary, much to the consternation of Cindy and her mother.  Having given this a lot of thought, I concluded that Mary was not the type to break into a showtune at the slightest provocation. I convinced Josh to be "Joseph" because, as one of my piano students and even though he likes to flirt with the girls, he can memorize well. My "Angel of the Lord" was cast because she has beautiful blonde, curly hair.  (Sometimes you just have to go for a 'look'.)

This morning the big day arrived.  The pageant was going to be a part of our normal Sunday morning church service.  Amazingly, all the kids showed up with their costumes and lines learned.  The costumes were lovely, made of velvet with gold trim for the kings and tunics that looked SOOOO much better than bathrobes for the shepherds. The only issue I had with any of the costumes was the headdress for the "Angel of the Lord". It was a halo that, when viewed up close, resembled a golden spider web made of pipe cleaners that would often have a spoke or two bent or severely distorted. The kings were elegantly portrayed by two boys and one girl –another nod in the direction of the avant guard.

I took up a post in the front row, in case anyone forgot their lines and gloated, I mean, BEAMED, at my friends who seemed appropriately impressed. All of the kids sang or pantomimed actions as the Christmas story was narrated by Susan, the best young reader of the bunch.

I noted how professional the kids looked.  Mary was appropriately shy and yet proud to be kneeling in front of the manger and her baby doll Jesus.  Joseph kept sneaking looks at the "Angel of the Lord with Great Hair," but he knew his lines. 

I could almost hear the congratulation of my 'friends' and I began feeling that I had escaped the inevitable "Christmas pageant curse" when it happened. The most reliable Wiseman, John, bowed on cue before Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus doll, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and adorned with the same tacky, gold pipe cleaner halo as the Angel of the Lord With Great Hair.

John arose after offering his gifts of coffee grounds and sand disguised as frankincense and myrrh to the baby doll and turned to leave. I noticed that my very reliable king tried to straighten up but then swung to the left instead. Thinking that his crown must be slipping, I motioned to him to straighten it.  As he swung around toward me, I realized that it really wasn't his crown that was making him seem lopsided, but instead, it was the baby Jesus stuck to his head by that tacky halo!

I watched him try to save the scene by swinging back around to the right in order to keep himself between the audience and the baby Jesus, now hanging by one spoke. That move did save the audience from the horror of destroyed allusions as to the holy birth and gift giving procedures.  I can't say the same for the cast on stage. 

The kids definitely noticed and tried so hard to stay professional. But the shepherds were the first to go, melting into giggles before the holy couple. I will say that my brilliant casting of Mary held up as she bowed her head while laughing but looking reverent.  Joseph had missed the initial baby snatching because he was winking at the Angel of the Lord, but once he noticed the baby dangling off John's crown he let out a loud snort. Had I used some of those barnyard pets I think the snorting could've been taken for an animal noise but, NO, I had to go 'Real." Even Susan, my reader, had stopped being able to form sentences. 

Since no one in the congregation had caught on to the dangling Jesus doll they were confused by the laughing cast. Here is where having a reputation for being 'artsy' and 'avant guard' paid off. I turned around to the congregation and said, "And so Jesus was born, not amid silence and hushed whispers, but joyous noise and rejoicing.  The End."

If I were more of a Christian and less of an actor, I might admit to my friends that the "Pageant Curse" had gotten us after all, but why take away their joy of Christmas this year?

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Kristin is making her Broadway debut as "Sarah" (flute, piccolo and sax!) in the John Doyle directed production of COMPANY! Kristin was Miss Ohio and (read more...)