TheatreWorks’s ‘Simple Gifts’ is heartwarming holiday fare

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Even 2020 cannot change the arrival of the holiday season. The word “holiday” in English means holy day, or a time in which people pause from work to celebrate religious and other culturally significant occasions. Celebrating holidays amid COVID-19 and all the other socioeconomic upheavals of this year, however, presents a curious paradox. Most holidays involve large indoor gatherings of people from different households and activities such as feasting, dancing and gift exchange. How can people celebrate the holidays when quarantine with its stipulated germ pods, social distancing, masks and travel restrictions leaves no other options than Zoom, the same technology employed for school and work? One compelling answer for keeping the holiday spirit alive comes from a rather unlikely source — digital theater. 

This December, the Bay Area-based TheatreWorks debuted its original holiday musical “Simple Gifts.” Billed as a “joyful, multicultural celebration of beloved holiday songs and traditions from many diverse backgrounds,” virtual carolers sing of winter celebrations from Hannukah, Kwanzaa and Noche Buena to Bodhi Day, Diwali and Yule on the winter solstice. Eleven actors and four musicians come together in the artistic vision of Tim Bond, Music Director William Liberatore and videographer Stephen Muterspaugh to create an audiovisual collage of resonant holiday moments. By naming the show after the well-known 19th century Shaker song covered by the likes of Aaron Copland and Yo-Yo Ma, Bond reminds remote patrons that turning our holiday stories over can bring love and delight even in the darkest of times. 

Candlelight permeates most of the video frames, personal holiday stories and even lyrics in Bond’s “Simple Gifts.” The show opens with a close-up shot of Liberatore playing the titular “Simple Gifts” with a singular lit candle atop the piano. A cross-fade to Velina Brown saying “there’s something magical about winter and holiday time” cues Michael Gene Sullivan and others enumerating what the holiday means to them — “the music,” “the food,” “tamales,” “latkes,” “my grandma’s ravioli.” While most of the ensemble perform songs with clear holiday ties, Michelle K. Jordan singing the Grammy-nominated R&B singer India Arie’s “I Am Light” literally underscores the triumph of light, hope and love that can persist beyond the holiday season. The first opening sequence features the remote ensemble from all over California holding burning candles, masterfully edited by Muterspaugh to stand side by side. According to Brown and Sullivan, the choral camaraderie showcased in “Simple Gifts” was a just feat of video production. 

“We would rehearse the songs by ourselves, we’d rehearse with Liberatore once but he would send us recordings of the backing tracks, our choral lines,” Sullivan told The Daily. “We just needed to go over that ourselves. We had ear prompts so we could hear the music even if we were singing a cappella. We could hear a click track so we’d all be in the same tempo and key.” 

The award-winning couple Michael Gene Sullivan and Velina Brown auditioned together for “Simple Gifts” after contacting TheatreWorks in August to ask them if they had any plans for a Christmas show. The audition process required prospective ensemble members to send in tapes of them talking about their own holiday experiences, memories that were meaningful to them around the holiday season, as well as singing a holiday song. 

“Part of my personal story was that I used to direct a Christmas choir,” Sullivan told The Daily. “[Velina and I] met in middle school, we were in a high school choir together and we wanted to keep it going after we graduated. We were in it for eight years and we won contests.”

Seasoned Bay Area producer, actress and career coach Velina Brown performs a lovely rendition of the holiday classic “The Christmas Song.” (Photo: TheatreWorks).

Brown added that their background in a Christmas choir ended up in the final piece, and the couple feature prominently in the choral numbers throughout the show. Brown auditioned with “The Christmas Song” and patrons of “Simple Gifts” are treated to her strong vibrato and smiling alto vocals on the heartwarming classic. Another Christmas classic in “Simple Gifts” is Bryan Munar on guitar and vocals for “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The Filipino actor accompanies his wistful performance with memories of his extended family in pre-COVID times celebrating Noche Buena with music, food and dance all through the night. The desire to gather with “faithful friends who are dear to us” quintessential to doing theater unfortunately was not realized in any capacity during the production process. 

“It was all very separate. We only rehearsed with Liberatore once in the studio. Then we went back to record our lines and vocal parts,” Brown told The Daily. “It was really important to me how conscientious they were being. [Michael and I] were there together because we were in the same germ pod.” Certified COVID Compliance Officer Steven B. Mannshardt worked closely with on-site technicians to ensure proper precautions and sanitizing occurred such that actors such as Brown felt safe recording their lines and vocal parts in the studio. The remote nature of the rehearsal process, however, meant that actors hardly ever interfaced with other actors. 

Brown noted that at one of their music rehearsals they did get to meet Sharon Rietkirk, fellow ensemble member and wife of the trombonist Tim Higgins. The second of two “Simple Gifts” couples, Rietkirk and Higgins perform together in the flirtatious “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” This 1947 song by Frank Loesser of “Guys and Dolls” fame supplants the widely known “Auld Lang Syne” in paying homage to the New Year’s Eve holiday. 

The musical couple Sharon Rietkirk and trombonist Tim Higgins perform Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing On Christmas Eve?” (Photo: TheatreWorks)

Concerning the musical representation of holidays in “Simple Gifts,” TheatreWorks veteran David Crane speculated that Artistic Director Tim Bond in conceiving the show tried to “pick deeper cuts or do a new take on an older song.” The biracial Jewish and Japanese “Simple Gifts” actor performs in two Hanukkah songs likely unfamiliar to most patrons: the Hebrew “Banu Choschech L’goresh” and the Ladino “Ocho Kandelikas.” Crane also speaks in the show about the Buddhist Bodhi Day celebration on Dec. 8, the celebration of Diwali and his grandfather Toshimi sweeping up red firecracker papers after the New Years’ celebration around his childhood home in Hawaii. While Crane does not celebrate Bodhi Day or Diwali himself, he appreciated how “Simple Gifts” encouraged him to articulate holiday stories from his own life. 

“I did not have the story pre-set, pre-planned in my arsenal of stories to tell when I auditioned. The experience of celebrating New Years in Hawaii were stories I had in my consciousness but had never strung them together. I was telling the whole crew [in rehearsal] and at our talkbacks after the shows how it was pretty awesome to be given the impetus,” Crane told The Daily. 

The actor-turned-educator reflected on how he found himself “tapping into that Event Post or Buzzfeed energy” in learning to play himself in the script for the show. Sullivan and Brown similarly acknowledged the novelty of performing one’s own story versus another character in a script. Though “devised” has become a buzzword to describe the plethora of innovative, virtual theater ranging from Stanford’s Gaieties 2020 and Cerulean to Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday and the Backroom Shakespeare Project, Brown hesitates to call “Simple Gifts” devised. 

“The stories that we told in our auditions was our contribution to Simple Gifts. For camera things in general, it really is an editor’s medium because when you record something, the director and editor figure out how to edit it. In live theater, it is the actor’s medium as the actors are in charge of how the experience goes. When I think of devised theater, I think of having a topic and people jamming on it as a group,” she said. 

“I would say [Simple Gifts] falls in the middle as we devised our stories individually, not as a group.” Sullivan added. “There was this one recording where I added this one extra bit and the Director rejected it because of timing. ‘Please stick to the original draft of your life,’ he told me. —  something to get used to, but it was a lot of fun.” 

When asked if they had any favorite performances by others in “Simple Gifts,” Brown and Sullivan initially struggled to answer: “We got to learn about other people’s families and traditions. It was a learning experience as you normally don’t get that kind of deep-dive into other people. In a piece like this, everything is just fascinating.” 

One such piece is the Christmas Truce of 1914, the miraculous story recounted by Will Springhorn Jr. of how hundreds of thousands of British and German troops struck a temporary truce amid World War I for holiday festivities. The image of soldiers on both sides of the war pausing their battery has a narrative echo in Crane’s story of the firecrackers, showing how personal and historic holidays alike can carry that simple gift of love and delight. Despite the pandemic, the people of “Simple Gifts” whose stories compose the emotional core of the show remain hopeful for celebrating the holidays and the eventual return of live performing arts. 

Crane becoming an acting teacher at the Oakland School for the Arts is a direct result of the pandemic, a window opening when the door on Broadway closed this March that has brought him great joy as he works with young adults on acting technique and devising shows. Brown and Sullivan meanwhile have been busy producing a radio play series “Tales of the Resistance” and the labor-oriented “A Red Carol” with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Looking ahead to the new year, the couple remain hopeful that TheatreWorks’ canceled shows such as “Ragtime” and “Guess Who Is Coming To Dinner?” will go up once it is safe to do live theater again. 

“If the weather’s okay, we’ll get together outside for Christmas dinner restaurant-spaced in the backyard,” Brown told The Daily. “Once the pandemic is contained, that’s not going to be our tradition for celebrating as a family.” Looking ahead to 2021, the couple remain cautiously optimistic that they can come back for TheatreWorks’ “Ragtime” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” canceled by the pandemic. Brown has also shifted to writing her long-running theater column “The Business of Showbiz” on a need versus monthly basis, noting “there is still so much unknown about what can be done safely next.”  

At the time of his interview, Crane was about to celebrate the seventh night of Hanukkah with his significant other in Hawaii. “I’m currently in Honolulu, we don’t have a menorah but we found a piece of coral and have been very carefully lighting candles on it. What’s next for 2021? I wish I could be like ‘come see my next show.’ I am so grateful to have Simple Gifts, to have been part of something again.” If Brown, Sullivan and Crane’s anecdotes of working remotely on the holiday musical are any indication, the power of song and story to bring people together even through a screen is a simple gift to enjoy by performers and patrons alike time and time again. 

Presented as part of TheatreWorks from Home, Simple Gifts will be livestreamed Dec. 10-27, with on-demand streaming available Dec. 28, 2020 – Jan. 1, 2021. Live post-show conversations with members of the cast will follow every performance. 

Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Natalie Francis '22 (A&L Staff Writer) is a Classics + English major still figuring out how to combine her passions for classical civilization, eco-criticism and musical performance. A California native, you will find her jamming out to an eclectic mix of Hadestown, Halsey, Frozen II, Wicked, Sarah McLachlan, Ariana Grande and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.