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- Remarks from the Chair — welcome to the school year!
- A new look for the Rand Lobby
- Donor Profile: Anna Norcross '09 stage manages in other venues
- Alumnus Doug Kraner '79G creates Gotham
- Professor Megan Lewis takes students to the South African Grahamstown Festival
Welcome to what promises to be another busy and inspiring school year for us.
We have plunged into another busy season that will showcase the talents of some amazing students, faculty, and staff, as well as a slate of guest artists we are really thrilled to welcome to the department.
This year, we are happy to have back with us Shakespeare & Co’s Tony Simotes, who is directing The Merchant of Venice. It is going to be an impressive production, I know — in part because it is featuring one of our incredible alumni, Stephen Driscoll ’72, in the role of Shylock. If you know Stephen or read our profile of him a few years ago, you know he got his start in the business playing that role 50 years ago, and we’re thrilled to be a part of Stephen’s return to his artistic roots.
A little plug here: The opening performance on October 25 will be a benefit performance for which Stephen has assembled a truly spectacular hosting committee, many of whom we hope to have in house on the day of the event. If you’d like a chance to say hello to Stephen AND support the Department of Theater at the same time, I hope you’ll consider purchasing tickets to our benefit!
In addition to this amazing duo, we are welcoming back a quartet of talented women: director Sheila Siragusa, performer Lena Cuomo, lighting designer Margo Caddell, and costume designer Andrea Lauer are again teaching in the department this year and our students are thrilled to be taking classes with them again.
And last but certainly not least is the new face in the crowd: Kim Euell, a wonderful writer and teacher who is the Visiting Artist in Playwriting with us this year. We have been bringing playwrights to work with our students for some time now, but thanks to the University’s support we now have an official Visiting Artist program and we are so excited that Kim is here to kick it off. Stay tuned for an interview with Kim in the next issue of Stages.
Among Kim’s charges this year is advising the UMass New Play Lab, and that offers me a good lead-in to our season. In short, we have an incredibly varied, exciting season planned and we hope you’ll check it out and maybe come visit us to see a show. Like musicals? Check out A New Brain. Want American classics? We’ve got Tennessee Williams for you. Or perhaps you prefer contemporary works like Dead Man’s Cell Phone. If you’re an alumnus or alumna of the department, you should have that red lifetime pass that gets you into our shows for free, so use it, folks! (And if you don’t have one, email our PR director so she can get you one!)
When you make it to the Rand, be sure to check out the gorgeous furniture designed by alumnus Doug Kraner (we have a story about his work on Gotham below as well) and built by our wonderful craftspeople in the department scene shop—with a specific shout-out to Michael Cottom and Brandon Hall. They’re stunning pieces and we couldn’t be prouder to have such beautiful work gracing our lobby. (You should read the story below for more details.)
Anyway: I really hope I get a chance to shake your hand and welcome you back to UMass Theater this year — so much is going on and I’m thrilled to share it with you all!
That’s it, that’s all from me, folks!
Penny (with Casey and Scout)
When he’s not designing the world of Gotham (see below), Doug Kraner '79G is beautifying the Rand Theater lobby. If you attend a show in our theater, you’ll notice that the teal box office hut has disappeared in favor of a sleek mahogany counter and cabinetry, with matching benches and ticket boxes a few feet away.
The design comes courtesy of Kraner, whose involvement came out of a lunch meeting with chair Penny Remsen.
“Penny … told me about her plans for the theater and renovating the theater itself, and I asked her what was going to be done about the lobby area,” Kraner recalled. He’s unclear several years later whether Remsen invited him, or if he invited himself — but either way, he made plans to come see the space and offer some suggestions about what to do with it. The visit resulted in the designs for the pieces in the lobby, which were then built by the scene shop.
Kraner was happy to help, in part because of his feelings about the Fine Arts Center. “It’s never been an easy building to love, but I actually do really love that building. I’ve always liked the Rand Theater. I always found it great fun to sit stacked up,” he said, adding, “It’s great fun to complain about the building, and when I was working in its windowless corridors 16 hours a day I complained about it too, but in my heart I loved it, so I was happy to give back a little something, too.”
Among the things he appreciated about the Fine Arts Center was its “sculptural” quality, so he was pleased to hear that the sculptural qualities of his designs fit well into the lobby. Ironically, Kraner hasn’t seen the finished pieces in the flesh yet — work has kept him too busy to make the trip out, although he mused about taking a drive our way one weekend and sneaking into the building.
“I can’t wait to see them!” he said.
Graduating Year: 2009
Major: Theater and History
A favorite UMass Theater memory: "I remember that my greatest triumph, academically, might’ve been when (former faculty member) Paul Walsh gave me a 99 on a paper—he doesn’t give 100s, he’ll only give up to a 99. It was a short piece I’d written for the first dramaturgy course, and it was on empathy and the idea that theater is about fostering empathy among different people."
Why do you donate to the Department of Theater? I donate to UMass because I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities the theater department gave me - from training on big department shows, to supporting small productions we created on our own, to helping me grow as a person. I take the UMass community with me wherever I go, and I hope many generations of UMass theater will join this wonderful community in the years to come.
Anna Norcross uses her theater training to do good
When a colleague referred to Anna Norcross as organized and unflappable recently, Norcross was flattered not just by the compliment, but because she saw it as a reflection of what she called “the Julie Fife skill set.”
Although she’s not currently working in theater, five years out from graduation Norcross finds herself frequently drawing on the values and skills she learned from department production manager Julie Fife, who was a mentor to her as she learned the ropes of stage management in the department of theater.
“Theater is by nature a collaborative effort, but UMass does a particularly good job of encouraging each of us to feel like we have a place in that collaboration,” Norcross said. She is employed at a hospital and volunteers with two Boston-area agencies, and her duties range from scheduling appointments to helping organize field trips and symposia. With her understanding of collaboration, it’s been a natural jump from theater to doing the kind of work that depends on bringing people with disparate skill sets together in pursuit of a common goal.
After Norcross graduated with a double major in History and Theater (where she concentrated on stage management and dramaturgy), she worked for about a year at Stoneham Theatre, working as house manager, company manager, child wrangler, and even on a load-in at one point. She credits the department’s do-everything approach with her success at that job.
“It was easy for me to walk into the theater and say, 'OK, whatever odd job that you have that you would like somebody to do, I’m up for it',” Norcross said.
Stage managing non-profits
She realized she was ready to try something else, however, and now works fulltime scheduling new patients in the hematology department at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She also devotes much of her time to working with non-profits, including two in particular. For five years, she’s been with The Move, a group that brings groups from urban areas to volunteer at farms to raise awareness about food justice; she is grant coordinator for the group.
The other is Global Oncology (GO), which uses the expertise of Boston-area medical professionals (including those at Dana Farber, Massachusetts General Hospital, and others) to improve oncology research and care for cancer patients around the world. For GO, which she learned about because she works at Dana Farber, she serves as volunteer coordinator.
“I liked them and just sort of hung around and became the stage manager behind the two co-founders. They ultimately gave me the role of volunteer coordinator because I was just sort of in all the meetings and reading all the emails and just helping to pull everything together,” she said.
For both groups, she’s done event organizing, “which I find very easy.”
“Making sure that everything’s arranged, that we’ve thought about the venue, advertising, the food and needed materials, making sure everyone’s on the same page, making sure everybody knows the goals and what part they’re going to play and knows that it’s 8 o’clock and they’re supposed to start their speech now—all of that is pretty second nature to me at this point,” Norcross said.
More generally, though, she sees her value to both groups by serving as the hub holding the spokes in a wheel, making sure that everyone’s communicating and working effectively toward the same goal. Norcross said she started college shy and sometimes hesitant to step in, and that the work she did in the department made her someone who is comfortable bringing people together. She credits UMass, and Fife, specifically, with teaching her how to communicate effectively in groups and through email.
Theater, it can be noted, was also indirectly responsible for introducing her to her husband, whom she met while on exchange in Ghana during her senior year in college. They were both scoping out the theater information board at the university because, although not a theater major, he had decided to take theater as an elective. They married in Ghana a few months ago, and he is in the midst of the visa process so he can join her in Boston.
There’s another link between theater and what Norcross does nowadays. It’s behind her study abroad in Ghana, her interest in the volunteer groups she works with, and her love of theater — and that’s her long-standing interest in connecting to others across cultural barriers.
"I’ve always felt like the role of theater is not just to expose people to different lifestyles or people different from themselves. It's about encouraging an emotional connection, not just an intellectual understanding," she said. “This idea of creating empathy can come through in many forms. Theater is a very strong medium for it. Theater is one of the ways we can create relationships between people who are fictional or who are real but would never actually come into our lives as a full-blood human being."
That belief is something that comes into play for her particularly in her work with GO. “There’s a lot of helping people communicate across cultural barriers and also helping people to understand the situations of their colleagues,” she explained. Often, oncology professionals in different places are working with different resource levels or within different cultural paradigms. GO’s work is often about finding ways to share information that allows everyone to fully understand what’s going on in each place and how they can collaborate.
UMass, said Norcross, was good at helping people be “willing to step up and participate fully, and also to try to understand each of the other disciplines. You know your own strengths, but UMass, I think, is particularly good at making sure you understand that everyone has a different skill set, that everyone’s contributing something else.”
Easily the most buzzed-about new television series of this fall is Gotham, the before-Bruce-was-Batman take on the classic comic book universe of the Dark Knight. If you caught the premiere on Sept. 22 or watched the trailer online, you’ve gotten a glimpse of the rich visual universe of this new Gotham, and it’s a gritty, shadowy place brightened with splashes of theatrical opulence. That striking look, which has been remarked upon favorably in a number of reviews, is thanks to UMass alumnus Doug Kraner ‘79G.
Kraner is a production designer, the person who establishes the visual tone of a film or television series. What a show's color palette is, what the architecture looks like, what period-specific details a show has — these are all questions tackled by the production designer. Kraner comes to the field through a career path that has moved from scenic design in theater to film and television art direction, and then into production design for features and television. His successful collaborations with director/producer Danny Cannon lured him into the Batworld. And although he is now decades out from his time in the department and in a different—albeit related—field, Kraner still calls on his UMass experience for his work.
From Scenic Design to Production Design
Kraner came to UMass to study design as a graduate student. After UMass, he taught at SUNY Stonybrook, then worked on and off-Broadway in New York for several years. Then he was invited to work as an art director on a PBS program about Mark Twain and, he said, “fell in love with the process.” For a half-dozen years, he worked as art director or set decorator. Kraner said he had the good fortune to work with talented production designers “who took me along for the ride” on films like The Untouchables, which he art-directed. His first solo production design venture was Dominic and Eugene.
His work on Gotham came out of a long-standing professional relationship with producer/director Danny Cannon, a director/producer with a long list of feature films and television credits to his name.
“I did a film with him years ago, a little thriller called I Still Know What You Did Last Summer,” Kraner said. Then Cannon asked him to be the production designer for the pilot of a show called Dark Blue. When the show went to series, he asked Kraner to stay on, but Kraner turned him down because he wasn’t interested in working on a series at the time. Cannon called him back, however, for The Forgotten, another series. “I finally relented and did 17 episodes of that series,” Kraner said. That led to doing the pilot of Nikita, the pilot of Tin Star—which never went to series— and eventually to Tomorrow People, which “folded into Gotham.”
Kraner’s worked with other director/producers, but he considers Cannon a “visionary.”
“It’s really a privilege to be teamed up with somebody (like him), especially in television, where really getting it right visually is not always considered the most important thing. But it is with him, so that’s why I’m here, and that’s why I’m doing TV,” he said.
Kraner’s committed to the series for its run. Though a long-time Los Angeles resident, he has uprooted himself to the East Coast while he works on Gotham. He lives in Manhattan, but he skyped in from his office at Steiner Studios, overlooking the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
“I like being here because I even have a Gotham sort of view!” he said, turning his computer to offer a glimpse of a crane-filled vista with the Manhattan skyline in the distance.
The Gotham police precinct
Doug Kraner designed
The look of Gotham
Creating the world of Gotham was about acknowledging the existing Batman mythology while offering a fresh take on it. Gotham is a prequel that tracks James Gordon, described by Kraner as “the only good, non-corrupt cop on the Gotham police force” before he becomes Commissioner Gordon. Along the way, the show introduces viewers to Gotham’s underworld, which includes among its colorful characters some who will grow into Batman’s most powerful adversaries.
“There’s a body of expectation out there about Gotham City and what its environs and its characters look like,” Kraner said. “Our challenge is to put something out there for the public that is exciting and stimulating, and not only doesn’t disappoint, but comes up with new territory and stories and characters that are exciting enough to hold the television audience on a weekly basis.”
The challenge is that the series is stepping onto territory trod in feature films, which had significantly larger budgets and much longer shoots (a year for a feature, vs nine days for an episode), and despite the differing limitations and time and budget, has to meet the expectations created by those films.
“Gotham City is a world that is corrupt, that is sort of falling apart at the seams, that is disintegrating because of the corruption and the bad leadership. … The representation in a metaphoric sense is a city that is dark, a city where the sun seldom if ever shines, that is always bleak, and that is saturated with dark colors,” Kraner said. “Danny as the most influential person on the team strongly felt that Gotham should not subscribe to any period, that it’s a city where period is subjective and never clearly identified. However, in many ways Gotham is rather like New York City was in the mid-70s, when the city was really struggling with some of the same issues that I’ve just described.”
Accordingly, the production borrows elements from the mid-70s to late-80s. As Kraner outlined, that means there are cell phones but no smart phones, computers but no laptops, TVs but no flatscreens.
As Kraner explained it, usually the tasks of a production designer are different for a pilot than they are once a show goes to series.
“The pilot episode is supposed to establish not only the key characters and where the story is going, but it’s supposed to establish the look of the show — and that means the photographic style, but it also means location… and that means sets. It demonstrates where the show takes place and what that looks like,” he said.
Most pilots are largely shot on location — a studio doesn’t want to commit money to building sets until it knows the series is happening. Once you do go to series, Kraner explained, sets become more efficient. “They’re not paying enormous location fees, you shoot better and faster on stage, and you can move from one thing to the next more quickly.” For example, Kraner worked on the pilot of Nikita, and then once the piece was picked up, he went to Canada and oversaw the creation of the sets to be used for the rest of the series’ run.
In the case of Gotham, things went a little differently — the show is so hotly anticipated it went to series right away. Still, the decision-making on what to build ran along similar lines: “wherever the company thinks you’re going to have the highest page count per episode.”
“If it’s a cop show, often times that’s the police precinct, so on most cop shows you build the police precinct. If it’s a hospital show, on most hospital shows you build the hospital. Then if you have regular characters, maybe you build their home, or if they hang out at a specific place, you build the place where they’re going to be,” Kraner explained.
Given James Gordon’s job and relative importance in the series, he said, “of course the first thing we wanted to build was the Gotham City police precinct.” You can see some images of the place accompanying this story.
Kraner also made mention of Fish Mooney, a new “arch-criminal” in the Batman universe played by Jada Pinkett Smith, who’s getting her share of attention in the previews of the show. Her place is a theatrical location with crystal, patent leather, and luxurious color, a striking contrast to some of the other locations.
Doug Kraner, left, poses with set dresser Tim Joliat '87, who worked on the pilot with Kraner (photos courtesy of Tim Joliat)
Roots at UMass
Asked to share what advice he’d give current students looking to build an artistic career, Kraner urged them to take arts and humanities courses beyond theater — literature, fine art, performing art — and to travel, watch films, and experience as much as possible so that they can draw on that body of knowledge when making their own art.
“Knowing as much as possible about the history of all of these things will give them the foundation to create new and exciting things of their own. Without that foundation, the work can be very thin, and lacking in depth and complexity,” he said.
Though many years removed from his time at UMass, Kraner remains grateful for what he learned here.
“The training that I got at UMass made for an amazing groundwork that I still come back to with virtually every design decision that I make,” Kraner said. “And even more so, in the process that I use to get to those decision. What I learned at UMass was that none of these choices about the direction that one takes a given project in are choices that come out of thin air. They’re choices that are made in a step-by-step manner, about how the project is conceived and researched and interpreted and what the dramatic goals are, and out of the dramatic goals, what the visual goals are that will facilitate that.”
UMass taught him how to create a framework for making thoughtful artistic decisions, and how to do so in collaboration with all the other artistic disciplines within the project. His professional experience, he said, taught him the management, time and budget skills to implement it successfully, but the groundwork came from UMass.
He counted himself lucky that his collaborators on Gotham work the same way. “We all understand what each other is talking about. I don’t know where they learned it, but I learned it at UMass!” Kraner said.
This summer, faculty member Megan Lewis fulfilled a decade-long dream of taking a group of students to South Africa's Grahamstown Festival. Lewis discovered the festival as a graduate student 20 years ago and has become a passionate fan in the years since. While she's taken individual students before, this summer was the first time she was able to bring an entire class, which included students from UMass and other schools, and undergraduate as well as graduate students in a variety of fields — not just theater.
In the podcast below, she talks about her first discovery of the festival, its appeal to her, and what it was like this summer to travel to the festival with this group, which also included fellow faculty member Judyie Al-Bilali as her co-instructor. After this successful pilot course, plans are full steam ahead for a second outing in the summer of 2015, which will be helmed by Lewis and dramaturgy graduate student Paul Adolphsen.
Click below to hear about this year's event and visit Lewis's weebly site for more about next year's plans if you're interested in coming along!
Updates, we got’em — so let’s get to ‘em.
The first thing we want to let you know about is a project called Nobody’s Girl at the Academy of Music in Northampton. It’s chockfull of UMass personnel from the writer (professor Harley Erdman) to the cast — if you live within driving distance, buying a ticket pretty much counts as supporting your alma mater.
The director is Sheila Siragusa ’00 ‘03G, who is currently pulling double duty as an adjunct faculty member AND alumna of the department, and she had this to say:
“…So many UMassians are working on Harley’s new play Nobody's Girl at the Academy. The play is the grand re-opening of the theater after a huge renovation. I'm directing, (professor) Penny Remsen is on lighting design, (alumnus) Tom Shread is on sound design, (alumna) Pam McCaddin ‘14 is doing projection design, and alums Scott Braidman, Sam Rush ‘97G, Keith Langsdale ‘07G, Mark Teffer and Claire Kavanagh are performing in the show. Current students are involved as well. Macmillan Leslie is in the play and assistant directing, and Kat McNall is co-stage managing.
Harley sent a link to the Academy event calendar about the project if you’d like to buy tickets: http://www.academyofmusictheatre.com/event-calendar/?event_id=245
And or a good article on it, see:
Those of you who listen to WAMU (Albany) will soon hear Harley in an interview about the piece, and he did a TV piece on WBGY's "Connecting Point" a while back that you can watch here: http://connectingpoint.wgby.org/2014/01/academy-of-music-1940s-scandal/
UMass was also well-represented this summer at Shakespeare & Company. Faculty member Chris Baker noted that in addition to artistic director Tony Simotes, who is guest director of our upcoming production of The Merchant of Venice and stage combat instructor with us this semester, we had alumni alumna Concetta Russo ‘13 in a very funny production of A Servant of Two Masters, for which alumna Devon Drohan ‘14 did the set and Luke Reed ‘13 did sound design and original music. Additionally, alumna Alissa Mesibov ‘13 was the dramaturg for what Chris described as “Tony's fun, gumbo-flavored A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Greg Boover ‘13 was in Romeo and Juliet (Luke also acted and composed for this production.)
Believe it or not, there are actually enough UMass people left over to be engaged in other projects as well. Here are the ones we know about:
Sound design professor Amy Altadonna started the school year in New York, where she opened two new plays: “The first, called Bastards of Strindberg, is produced by the Scandinavian American Theater Company at The Lion Theater at Theater Row. It's an evening of four new one-acts playing on themes of class and gender in Miss Julie. The plays are woven together by dance pieces with music composed by me and my collaborator, Danish recording artist Anette Norgaard. It's a piece that speaks strongly to women today and I'm very proud of the work we did.
The second play is the world premiere of Dry Land, playing on the main stage at HERE Arts Center in the west village. It tackles themes of sexuality, pregnancy and abortion, and is an intensely honest, complex piece. The main characters are high school girls on the swim team, and our young actors absolutely own their roles. It's another stunning piece directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt with her company Colt Coeur, where I am an artistic associate.
The New York Times published a piece on our playwright in the week leading up to our opening."
Rob Corddry ‘93 is part of Mark Duplass’ new indie web series, Wedlock, which will be available on a number of video-on-demand platforms.
Alumna Jane Cox emailed us: “I'm sure you'll get a kick out of hearing that I will be presenting (fellow alumnus Justin Townsend ‘97) with his Hewes award at the ceremony in October!! It's an All Penny Remsen World.”
Because he doesn’t have enough going on with his new play, Harley Erdman also has book news: “A book I'm co-editing on Spanish theater in adaptation has been contracted by Tamesis Press (UK) and will appear in July 2015. It will feature an essay by Gina Kaufmann about our UMass production of Marta the Divine, as well as one by me about our production of Suitors. My anthology of plays by 17th century plays by Spanish women is coming along, and is slated for publication by the University of Toronto's Other Voice series — likely to appear 2016.” Harley is also working on a new opera with Amherst College music faculty member Eric Sawyer, based on local author Barry Werth's widely known biography The Scarlet Professor, about Newton Arvin, Smith college professor who was prosecuted for possessing homosexual "pornography" in 1960.
Student Ryan Hill let us know, “I just finished up an amazing summer in the California Sierras helping start up and run the theater program at Gold Arrow Camp! I found the camp through an online search and couldn't be happier that I did. Over the summer we played improv games and created and performed dances that the entire camp would do together. It was awesome to see how theater and performance could have such an immediate positive impact on the campers and I can't wait to go back next year!”
Karen Kessler ’88 is a part of A Red Orchid Theatre Ensemble in Chicago. In the fall of 2012 she directed the world premier of The Opponent at A Red Orchid. In July of 2014 she and her company mates moved the show OFF-Broadway to 59E59 Theaters in New York.
Keith Langsdale ‘07G let us know that the feature film, The God Question, in which he plays the lead, Stephen Kendrick, was selected for the Northampton Film Festival and will be shown Oct. 11. The film was shot in the Pioneer Valley and much of it centers around the University of Massachusetts here in Amherst. The film also recently played at the Woods Hole Film Festival.
Mark O’Malley ’07 was appointed to the faculty in the theater and dance dept. at the University of Colorado Boulder where he is teaching lighting and video design for dance in the BA, BFA, and MFA programs.
Alumnus Bill Pullman ‘80G is heading east again — he’ll be appearing with Holly Hunter and Richard Chamberlain in the New Group’s production of David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones. And its release date is still a ways off, but Independence Day 2 will include Pullman as well.
Leslie Stainton ’85 published a new book, Staging Ground: An American Theater and Its Ghosts (Penn State Press, 2014), which, she explains, “tells the story of one of the country's oldest and most haunted of theaters, the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The UMass Theatre Department even makes an appearance!”
Alumna Liana Thompson ‘09G emailed us to get help on a project she’s working on, a survey of dramaturgs and their career paths. Here’s the information:
I am seeking Dramaturgy MFAs to participate in a survey of Dramaturgy MFAs and their careers.
I began designing this project a few years ago, due to a sense that a lot of young dramaturgs were struggling to gain a career foothold and were frustrated. I am hoping that the results can help young dramaturgs in two ways: 1 - help them think broadly and creatively about what their career paths as dramaturgs could look like; 2 - help them understand some of the realities/practicalities of pursuing a career as a dramaturg.
The survey is multi-faceted, asking about both your education and your career. Taking the survey should be a fairly streamlined experience; you shouldn't see many questions that aren't relevant to you. Given the amount of information I am trying to collect, I am told that it takes 20-30 minutes to complete. I greatly appreciate all of you who are willing to set aside some time to take it; the more people who take it, the more useful the data will be to young dramaturgs. The survey will be open until October 31st.
You can access the survey at: http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/1505426/DramaturgyMFAs
If you know other Dramaturgy MFAs (from UMass or from another program) please pass this survey along to them. I could especially use help reaching out to alums who graduated 15-20+ years ago, who may not be connected to LMDA. I am equally interested in those who have stayed in theater/academia and those who have taken an alternate career path.
Thank you all in advance for your time and your input. Please let me know if you have any questions.
Liana Thompson Knight
Alumna Ilana Ransom Toeplitz is working hard in New York City. She directed and choreographed a benefit concert performance of Reefer Madness starring Alan Cumming and other stage luminaries, assistant directed the recent Broadway revival of Violet, which also featured the work of alumna and dialect coach Kate Wilson and is associate director of a national tour of A Christmas Story.
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