In a season of arts traditions brought low by COVID, several arts groups have been tirelessly preparing to ensure not all traditions are lost this season. Being able to be together in some way, listening to holiday music, or taking in a favorite annual show or new production may bring just enough holiday cheer to audiences, and those who make it all possible, to get through this COVID Christmas and other December holidays.  

“So many positives have come out of this situation,” said Erin Payton, executive director of the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association. The group has continued their Monday Enrichment Series online and Payton is receiving feedback that, while people are feeling isolated, this provides connection and is how attendees are now receiving culture and arts.

“During the holidays, people feel isolated even more,” Payton said. “To give them cheer during the holidays, we’re adding an extra level of connection. 

To provide that cheer, Nineteenth Century is presenting The Three Baritones who will sing holiday classics from opera to Broadway on Dec. 14. The performance is open to association members and non-members. Payton said there is “so much interest this year” in their programming and since they can have audiences of 100 at their virtual events, it is equivalent to in-person attendance of days past. 

Through the magic of theater, audiences can travel to early 17th century England where Shakespeare’s contemporaries are attempting to write a play, “Christmas Comes but Once a Year,” courtesy of Oak Park Festival Theater (OPFT). The virtual show of the same name, penned by George Zahora and directed by Barbara Zahora, OPFT artistic director, is live streaming on Dec. 12. George’s comedy also includes scenes at a present-day university in the UK with academics with differing agendas.   

While OPFT did not put on summer or fall plays, this production is a way to reconnect.

“Like many theaters out there, we want to stay in touch with our audience and our supporters…” Barbara said. “We want them to know we’re still here and thank them with something fun that will take their minds off of some of the things they’ve been dealing with all year long.”  

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, another virtual theater experience is being planned, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play.  

“I actually didn’t choose the show because it was a holiday play. I chose it for the story, which I think resonates so much today,” said Linda Burns, play director and OPRF teacher. “It’s about how we need to take care of each other as a community, that the most important contributions we make are in our personal connections with each other, and that, ‘No one is a failure who has friends,’ as Clarence says at the end to George.” 

The show will live stream on Dec. 11 and 12 and includes “an ensemble that brings a few dozen characters to the stage” performed as a 1940s radio broadcast.  

“The current state of the world is why it is so important for students to continue to participate in the arts, even in Zoom. …,” Burns said. “With the isolation and disconnection they currently have from school, I think this outlet is particularly important for them right now.”

Students through adults are finding that connection in what is probably the most ambitious holiday production locally – Sing We Joyous. In its 15th year, this Christmas show, which is usually held at First United Church, Oak Park, is pulling out all the stops for a virtual show in 2020. The recording premiers on Dec. 12 and will be available for viewing afterwards.

Created by Bill Chin, executive producer and music director, and directed  by his wife Beth Albrecht, performers include the Oriana Singers, City Voices, Pro Musica Youth Chorus – all groups where Chin is the artistic director, the OPRF Marching Huskies Drumline, the Sing We Joyous Orchestra and other musicians. Faithful fans will find the familiar sing-alongs and annual humorous twist to the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” One new addition is a shadow puppet telling of “The Gift of the Magi.” Beth’s daughter, Gracie Albrecht, designed and engineered the puppets over a couple of months.

Much of the show’s magic takes place in the Albrecht/Chin’s Oak Park home. 

“We are in full Sing We Joyous mode at our house,” Albrecht said in mid-October. “We call the attic the Music Factory and our basement has become a video recording studio. In fact, yesterday we had a dozen Pro Musica kids recording video on our porch during a thunderstorm for ‘Mr. Santa’ and ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. I love, love, love making this show.”

Mouse costumes are sewn in the dining room; spoof commercials are recorded in the living room. While the home is production central, Chin said the show is a gift to the entire community.

“I’m gratified and humbled to know that Sing We Joyous is an annual tradition for a lot of people in our audience,” he said. “It’s an annual tradition for us, too, so we wanted to keep it going, and provide a musical gift to all of us. And by all of us, I’m including the performers, for whom this is as much a tradition as it is for others.” 

“We also employ professional musicians, and we wanted to be sure that we were able to continue providing them with sorely needed income in these difficult times,” Chin said.

Barbara Zahora agreed that performing artists need a boost right now. 

“For the people we’ve been able to give a little bit of artistic expression to, they’ve been immensely grateful,” she said. “Speaking for myself as an actor and director, it means the world because now we’re so limited; we’re so shut down. It’s easy to get rather hopeless about that. …” 

“It’s been very hard on actors,” said Zahora. “In addition to being unemployed, they just feel isolated and literally in a box by themselves. If we do some of these [virtual performances], we’re still in boxes, we’re still limited, but we’re able to connect with each other and connect in a small way with the people who come to see us all the time.”  

For show information and tickets, check out the following: The Three Baritones, Dec. 14, 1:30 p.m., nineteenthcentury.org; “Christmas Comes but Once a Year,” Dec. 12, 7 p.m., OakParkFestival.com; “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play,” Dec. 11 and 12, 6 p.m., oprfhs.org/theatre/current-theater-season; and Sing We Joyous, Dec. 12, 7:30 p.m., oriana.org. For other virtual holiday shows, such as the Sounds Good Choir and Pro Musica Winter Concerts, see the Journal’s Holiday Event Guide in the Dec. 2 issue. 

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