Theatre Aquarius may be bringing back elements of last year’s popular holiday show, but don’t call their latest iteration predictable. Artistic Director Mary Francis Moore has made sure the show is full of surprises- for audiences and the cast alike.
Hamilton’s regional theatre company initially staged Home for the Holidays last year when many pandemic restrictions were still in place. Focusing on a smaller production with a local cast was just good business sense, according to Moore. But it also represented the vision that Moore holds for the theatre, which she took over artistic leadership of in July 2021.
“It was my first time, as Artistic Director of Theatre Aquarius, creating a show.” Moore recalls. “And because I taught in the Theatre Aquarius Theatre program many years ago, I knew the astonishing talent that was in the city; many of whom had trained in this building. And I knew that there were these artists who had worked all over the world, but were from, or living in Hamilton. . .I wanted to come out loud and proud about Hamilton and celebrate who we were.”
The show was an overwhelming success for the company with multiple requests to repeat the performance again for this year’s holidays. But Moore had other plans in mind.
These other plans will take to the mainstage of Theatre Aquarius beginning on Wednesday December 7. Entitled A Hamilton Holiday, the show builds upon the success of last year’s production with a focus on celebrating Hamilton and the people who live here.
To keep the focus local, Moore once again enlisted the help of local performers, with three new actors joining three actors who performed in last year’s production. Each performer is expected to sing and perform on instruments throughout the production, meaning that every person onstage has to bring multiple talents to the table- some of which were a surprise, even to her.
“One day, someone in the cast pulled out a trumpet. And this was someone I had known for over twenty years. And I was like “you play the trumpet?!” Moore laughs.
Some members of the cast also write their own music that have been integrated into A Hamilton Holiday. These original songs will be performed alongside more traditional and better known holiday tunes.
It’s not just the cast that are sharing their talents. Moore notes the work of an assistant director with experience as a choreographer, allowing this year’s production to feature choreographed performances that didn’t exist last year.
“There’s a lot of baton passing- not just with instruments, but with ideas and emotions and impulses,” says Moore. “It truly is this really organic process.”
Emily Lukasik, one of the performers in both Home for the Holidays and A Hamilton Holiday, echoes that the creation process is truly organic. Performers arrive for the first day of rehearsals with no script- only the understanding that they are playing themselves onstage and expected to share personal stories and memories with audiences. They’re led through prompts, brainstorm sessions and writing exercises to draw out key ideas.
Lukasik likens the process to speed dating. Cast members have a very short amount of time to build up trust, open up to each other and share stories. Not everyone knew eachother beforehand. Ideas are tested in real time and fine-tuned. Not all make it into the final version of the show.
“At first, I felt very vulnerable with the idea, because you’re playing yourself onstage.” says Lukasik. “Ultimately, [it’s] so much more fulfilling, because it’s so authentic and that’s what I always admire in theatre is authenticity. So as big and scary as that feels, it’s so rewarding to get to share parts of yourself with the audience.”
Many of the prompts and concepts for this year’s show were about Hamilton, urban myths about the city and how it came to feel like home. Other prompts centered on the concept of ‘spirit’ or ‘soul.’ For Moore, the ideas are key to creating a sense of belonging and a sense of community, which aligns with her vision for Theatre Aquarius. Through the creation process, Moore found that while many of the actors in A Hamilton Holiday have worked in acclaimed productions and theatres, “they just want to talk about their family, or living here.”
For Lukasik, this meant sharing the details of her family’s pierogi nights in last year’s production. This year, she’s excited to share details of her family’s annual Christmas party, which involves carolling at a local nursing home.
“It’s like eighty people in this one room at the nursing home that all come and sing songs. And then there’s more singing back at the house.”
While some of the traditions shared during the show involve Christmas, even more involve family, friends and memories of December activities. Songs are more connected to the memories that actors have chosen to share than they are a specific holiday. Whether audiences attend A Hamilton Holiday as part of a Christmas tradition or not, both Moore and Lukasik have the same hope for those in attendance: hope, joy and to bring a little light.
“It’s more about ‘what does it feel like to belong’ and what are those moments where we’re in communion with music and community and to make ourselves laugh.” says Moore. “That’s what we do.”