By Julianne Mosher
Local theatergoers are saying “Bah Humbug” this Christmas because two of their favorite traditions will not be happening.
During the holiday season, families would gather to watch Scrooge confront the ghosts of his past, present and future. In another venue, little children would admire ballerinas in white tutus up on their toes. The Rat King would clash with the Nutcracker.
But because of the COVID-19 crisis, two staples in the Village of Port Jefferson’s art community — Theatre Three’s “A Christmas Carol” and Harbor Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” — have been canceled, leaving these two nonprofits hoping for a brighter 2021.
According to Jeffrey Sanzel, executive artistic director at Theatre Three, between 12,000-15,000 Long Islanders have viewed their production of “A Christmas Carol” over the last 35 years. Sanzel has portrayed the role of Ebenezer Scrooge 1,437 times. “This is the first time in 33 years I’m not doing a stage production of ‘A Christmas Carol,’” he said. “It’s a shame, but I don’t want to do anything to exacerbate the problem.”
In a pre-COVID world, the theater would run the show six days a week with anywhere from 50 to 60 performances per year. Around 30 local actors would take on multiple roles of Charles Dickens’ characters.
After speaking with the village, he and Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant considered an outdoor, socially distanced performance of the treasured production. Sanzel said they had it all figured out; it was going to be four 15-minute shows — a smaller adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” — with a minimal cast, at Harborfront Park.
“I got a cast. We went into rehearsal, and then the governor’s office told [the mayor], ‘No,’” he said.
Three weeks ago, the village received word from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office that they were not allowed to host an event outside that could draw a crowd. “I was all for it, and the actors were all set,” he said. “We were right down to discussing what they need to wear under the costumes when it’s below zero outside, socially distanced, in face shields.”
So, it was back to the drawing board. Sanzel and his team decided to create a free, virtual performance that will be filming this week. Titled “A Carol for This Christmas,” it will be available for viewing on Facebook, Vimeo and the theater’s website (www.theatrethree.com) in mid-December
“In a period of two days, I cast it, wrote it and went into rehearsal again,” he said. The 45-minute film will be set in a closed theater and features six actors playing the many roles in the story. The actors will be filmed socially distanced, in various parts of the theater, while wearing masks.
Sanzel said this would be the theater’s gift for the community. “This will be our contribution,” he said. “The actors have all donated their services because they’re just happy to be doing something.” He hopes that this event will keep the theater’s name alive and bring attention to an industry that is struggling hard throughout this crisis. “We want people to know that we understand what’s going on in the world,” he said.
This weekend would’ve marked the Port Jefferson Charles Dickens Festival’s 25th anniversary, an event that always kept Theatre Three busy. The announcement of its cancellation this year is devastating for the community, said Sanzel. “The Dickens Festival brings people into the village,” he said. “It’s a great weekend, and even if people aren’t seeing the show, they become aware of the show and buy tickets for the future.”
Amy Tyler Worrell, who owns Amy Tyler School of Dance up the hill on Reeves Road with her husband John, agreed. “People who are coming to town can go out to dinner in Port Jeff and then come see ‘The Nutcracker’ or go shopping,” she said. “Being able to go out to ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ gets people excited.”
Worrell’s studio is celebrating its 33rd year in the Port Jefferson community. Within the school is the couple’s nonprofit, Harbor Ballet Theatre, which puts on ‘The Nutcracker’ at the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School during the Dickens Festival. This would have been their 29th year.
“My family — my parents, my husband, my kids — all helped out with it,” she said. “But there are a lot of other families here who had the same experience. It’s kind of a letdown for them.”
When COVID-19 began in March, the studio needed to shut its doors and move to online classes via Zoom. They couldn’t hold their annual recital in June in-person, resulting in doing it online. During the summer, they found out they couldn’t hold their ballet in-person this December.
“The families say this kicks off their holiday season,” she said. “Some of the parents are in the show, some help backstage.”
And while ‘The Nutcracker’ is a family affair, it’s also a growing experience that students won’t be able to participate in this year. “We had seniors this year who have done the show since they were little angels,” she said. “It’s rough.”
In a pre-pandemic world, the dancers would audition in the late summer. Every weekend they’d rehearse for the big show. “I think what the kids are missing is being together and building something together,” she said.
Although things might look a little different for the arts this season, the hope is that the traditions will continue on next year.
“I think ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a story that resonates with audiences; from a six or seven-year-old, who comes for the wonder of the story … to a teenager who sees the frustration of the characters, to adults who look at their own lives and hope,” Sanzel said. “I guess the bottom line is when people look at the story and see that Scrooge can change and be better, so can we.”