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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

With A Lot of Help From My Friends

by Paula Gail Benson

Each year, I write a Christmas musical that is performed as a dinner theater at my church, St. Paul’s Lutheran in Columbia, S.C., during the first two Fridays following Thanksgiving. I thought I was ahead of the game this year. By mid-summer, I had worked out a story about a hobo storytelling contest during the Great Depression and developed roles that fit the folks in our company of St. Paul’s Players. I even had many of the musical numbers ready.

Then, one of my Players had a terrible accident, falling from a ladder and breaking ribs. He kept telling me he was working to recover, but those kind of injuries take time. By the end of summer, he regretfully told me that he would not be able to participate.

He encouraged me to cast someone else, but I’d written one key role with him in mind and wanted him to have the chance to play it. About that time, I went to Killer Nashville and, with friends, attended God Help Us!, a show starring Ed Asner in the title role at the Franklin Theater.
Libby Penland, Jillian Carey Bigony, Kristen Coulter, Brenda Byrd, Jim Jarvis, Reggie Hall, Tim Clark, Janie Fulmer
Among the group were Debra Goldstein, Nancy Sartor and her husband Dave, Marianne Donley, Carol Wright, and Carol’s husband Bruce Murphy. Marianne and Carol are members of the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and edit the group’s online quarterly. In addition, both are excellent short story writers. When I mentioned my dilemma with my Christmas production, they suggested I read a story that Carol had written for the group’s anthology, Untethered: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales of the Paranormal. Carol’s story took place during the Depression era and was called “The Man from Hooverville.” They encouraged me to consider turning it into a musical.
Janie Fulmer, Tim Clark, Margaret Davis

I read Carol’s story and liked it very much, but its main character was a thirteen-year-old girl. My company of Players were all adults.
Jillian Carey Bigony, Kristen Coulter, Libby Penland, Brenda Byrd
After returning home, I was consulting with a co-worker at the office when her brother stopped by to visit. He turned to me and asked if I was working on my Christmas production. After saying I was trying to, he said, “Well, I have a thirteen-year-old daughter and she would love to be in it.”
Libby Penland, John Arnold
If I made up this story, no one would believe it, but I’ve learned to expect this kind of “coincidence” to occur each year as I work on our production. Our producer for many years, John Henry, and I used to talk about it as divine intervention, proving that we were on the right track. Since John passed away two summers ago, I now imagine him sitting at God’s elbow, whispering, “You need to get Paula moving with this year’s musical.” Due to John’s estate planning, he continues with us through funding as well as spiritually. His faith in our efforts is a great sustainer and means more than I can say.
Jillian Carey Bigony, Kristen Coulter, Jim Jarvis, brenda Byrd, Libby Penland, John Arnold, Reggie Hall, Tim Clark
So, I asked Carol if she would trust her story to me and she graciously agreed. Her story had three characters: the young girl, her mother, and a mysterious stranger who seemed to come from the Hooverville. I asked Carol questions, like what was the mother’s name and could I expand the story to include other characters, residents of the town and the Hooverville? She agreed to my expansion and, as I shared drafts with her, she told me that I had developed it in ways she considered as she was writing the original story. Talk about a feeling of validation! There is no higher praise for a story adapter than having the original author say you captured her vision. I cannot tell Carol how grateful I am for her encouragement and support for turning her short story into the musical Always with Us.

This year, I truly experienced “if you build it, they will come.” Members of the company brought friends and family members to join us. Our cast increased to nine people, John Arnold (the mysterious man), Jillian Carey Bigony (the mother), Brenda Byrd, Tim Clark, Kristen Coulter, Janie Fulmer, Reggie Hall, Jim Jarvis (members of the town and Hooverville, which I named BeHooven), and Libby Penland as our thirteen-year-old Patty Shepherd. Margaret Davis made me believe I had some talent as a song writer. She helped me organize the music and took on a solo. Malechi Doren and William Paddock signed on as our accompanists and musical transcribers. Dean Long provided lights and sound and Billy Itter ran our spotlight.

Our audiences responded lovingly to the heartfelt nature of the story. We received some of the kindest compliments we have ever had.

In one last dramatic turn, our videographer had a stroke before she could film the production. Fortunately, she received the immediate care she needed and is recovering. (Thank you, Heather Coats, for the photos in this message. We love you and hope the healing process is speedy!) I found a group on Facebook and put out an urgent appeal for help. In true show business fashion, the show went on and we have it taped for posterity and for Carol, who cheered us on from a distance. We’ve held off our cast party hoping she and Bruce can come celebrate with us.

So, another opening, another show. This time, with a great deal of help from my friends.

Any theater groupies out there? PS thanks for our posters Susan Craft!


Kait said...

This is beautiful, Paula. What a wonderful story to tell a story! Congratulations, and please post about the cast party. It sounds like wonderful fun.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thank you, Kait. It always is such a true joy to participate in this process.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

What a great community! Will you attend Killer Nashville this year?

Paula Gail Benson said...

I feel very lucky to be part of it. I hope to attend Killer Nashville. Will you be there, Margaret?

Grace Topping said...

Congratulations, Paula, on another successful production. I am amazed at what you accomplish each year, Paula. It must be a real treat for the members of your church.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thanks, Grace. We all have a wonderful time. The best compliment I heard this year was people saying it really got them in the holiday spirit!

KM Rockwood said...

Always love hearing about your Christmas plays! I hope that, at some point, you get them collected and published.

Paula Gail Benson said...

How kind, Kathleen. I may just have to do that!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Yes, I'll be at Killer Nashville and so will Kaye George. Anybody else?

Carol L. Wright said...

Thanks, Paula. I can't wait to see the video! It warms my heart to know you and your players thought enough of my story to adapt it for your annual Christmas play. I'm so glad everything worked out so well. The making of the play is as interesting as the story itself! All the best.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Carol, we could not have done it without you! Thank you for lending us your beautiful story and trusting us to bring it to life.