The holiday season isn’t short on heartwarming stories, and one of the most enduring favorites just happens to be true. Back in 1897, a young girl named Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the New York Sun newspaper, asking its editor to tell her definitively if there was, in fact, a Santa Claus. The reply, written by Francis Pharcellus Church, went on to earn a place in legend.
Over the years the letter and its response have inspired multiple retellings, including movies, cartoons, and one of the most tear-jerking scenes in Sam Elliott’s career. Starting December 13th, Rantoul Theatre Group will present a stage adaptation of this perennial favorite, written by playwright Pat Cook.
Rantoul Theatre Group is in the midst of what they hope will be their own heartwarming holiday story, putting on their first show since the loss of their previous home in Grissom Hall at the former Chanute Air Force Base. Grissom Hall was shut down three years ago, leaving RTG effectively homeless. As anyone involved with community theatre will tell you, having a space in which to perform is absolutely crucial — not just to attracting an audience, but to having a sense of security and identity.
With a new space in which to put on their show, Rantoul Theatre Group is forging ahead, full of hope and holiday spirit.
Two of the people helping to make this comeback happen are longtime members of RTG. The first is director Jessica Holmes, who has been a member of RTG since 2000 and has, in her nearly 20 years with the company, directed and acted in numerous shows. She has also served on RTG’s board as its President and, currently, its Treasurer.
“We performed [Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus] seven years ago,” Holmes told me, “and it still makes me smile and get misty-eyed.” Futhermore, Holmes said she loves this play because “Christmas just brings out the best in people.” Having worked with Holmes on a production several years ago, I can attest to the fact that her love of both company and community runs deep.
In addition to speaking with Holmes, I also posed some questions to Karen Hughes, a Yes, Virginia cast member who is known for her consistently good work on various stages in the Champaign-Urbana area. You might have seen her as the wise-beyond-her-years neighbor in J.W. Morrissette’s production of Wait Until Dark or as a particularly gifted high school student in Gary Ambler’s staging of The Sparrow. I myself had the pleasure of directing Hughes twice, first as the tempestuous Abigail Williams in The Crucible, and later as a (sort of) murderous maid in The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.
The following is our conversation about the much kinder, much gentler Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus and her work with (and hopes for) RTG.
Smile Politely: First, what is your history with Rantoul Theatre Group? How long have you been involved, and in what capacities?
Karen Hughes: I became part of the Rantoul Theatre Group in the fall of 2009, when I auditioned for The Iliad, the Odyssey, and All of Greek Mythology in 99 Minutes or Less, directed by Amanda Hammel (now Amanda Polk). Five actors played dozens of different roles. It was the first play I had done in a long time, and the other cast members (Avis Hasler, Aaron Polk, Ryan Summers, and Sam Schieber), the director, and everyone else I met who was involved with the group were tremendously kind and warm and welcoming. Grissom Hall, RTG’s home for most of its existence, was a wonderful place. It all felt magical. After that, I auditioned for almost every show RTG produced.
In the fall of 2010 I joined the board of directors and have been on it ever since. I’ve never directed a show, but have served as assistant director for three of them. At RTG, everyone involved with a show is encouraged to participate in building/decorating the set and finding props and costumes. Each cast works together on almost every aspect of show production, and by the time a show closes, everyone has become a family. I know that’s true for every community theatre, but there has always been something special about RTG. It’s hard to put into words how much it means to me. RTG is so welcoming and inclusive; it really does represent the Rantoul community. I feel like it’s easy to overlook us because we are small and don’t have many resources. But it’s important to me to show people that Rantoul as a whole and RTG specifically both have a lot of awesome talent and creativity to share.
SP: Can you tell me a little about the venue where RTG is currently performing?
Hughes: Ever since we lost our home at Grissom, it’s been difficult to find a performance space we can use consistently. Yes, Virginia will be at the former Kessler’s Sporting Goods building on Sangamon Avenue in downtown Rantoul. We are very fortunate that George, the owner, was generous enough to let us use it.
SP: What, in your opinion, made this show the right one for RTG’s “comeback?” What makes it a good fit for RTG’s actors and audience?
Hughes: We wanted to do a Christmas show, and this was one that we did seven years ago. From a practical standpoint, it has a small cast, and we were able to use several of the actors who were in the production we did before (Cynthia McEntire, Kevin Renfro, Ryan Summers, and myself). The set and costumes are simple. Jessie Holmes loves the story and volunteered to direct it. From a more sentimental perspective, it was a show that was warmly received seven years ago, and its story is sweet and hopeful and gentle without being overly saccharine. Yes, Virginia seemed like a natural fit for our actors, since several of us were familiar with it already, and our audiences historically have enjoyed Christmas shows. Even if they haven’t heard of this play specifically, many people will recognize the title from the famous New York Sun editorial. It’s a story that both children and adults can enjoy.
SP: What are RTG’s hopes for this production and for its future?
Hughes: In an ideal world, we would love to find a permanent home. In the short term, however, we want to start producing shows more regularly. In order to do this, we need people who are willing to direct and audition and help with all of the backstage tasks that every production needs. Building up a strong, dependable group of people will take time. Hopefully this show will inspire new people to be involved.
Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus
Rantoul Theatre Group
112 Sangamon, Downtown Rantoul
December 13th + 14th, 7 p.m.
December 15th, 2 p.m.
Cover photo from Rantoul Theatre Group poster. Cast photo from Rantoul Theatre Group Facebook page.