Charlie Brown (Tison Buck) tells Dr. Lucy Van Pelt (Rachel Lowe) that he doesn't have the Christmas Spirit. Lucy suggests he direct the Christmas play.
Chattanooga Theatre Centre's Youth Production brings the TV classic to life
For those of us who grew up reading books with reprints of Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” characters, Charlie Brown is an institution, a heartbeat of our childhood that remains intact. Even 50 years later, younger audiences are drawn to the television movies like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” without having read a comic strip. Such is the power of Schultz’s stories of Linus, Lucy, Snoopy—and Charlie Brown.
At the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, the television special and its beloved characters is being brought to life onstage by a group of fortunate young actors. Over 100 kids auditioned for the show, a huge turnout for a youth theatre piece featuring only 11 roles. Luckily, the show is double-cast to double kids’ opportunities. The CTC didn’t want to scare them away by advertising the show as a musical, either, and downplayed that aspect for those auditioning.
Director Scott Dunlap says, “Just children’s voices singing is perfect. We wanted to de-emphasize it for them so we didn’t scare them off.”
The main challenge, Dunlap insists, was getting the message across with two different age groups of kids. “The younger cast didn’t have to work to figure out the rules or hold back at all. The older kids have to make sense of it to do it. It’s really interesting to see the differences.”
But what is the appeal of a 50-year-old story with moral values, religious themes, and, more importantly, no iPads or cell phones?
“Surprisingly for me, even, it’s made me focus on what Christmas really is about,” says Dunlap. “It’s extremely nostalgic, yet also surprisingly moving. I’ve really been affected. This is not a school play, not a church play—instead it’s a group of kids from the community, and if the audience really listens to what they’re saying, Schultz’s words are really moving and thought-provoking.”
In 1965, the television show almost wasn’t what it became. There was no Vince Guaraldi jazz track (which the CTC has recorded for consistency in the shows) and, notoriously, studio executives wanted a lisping Linus, who quotes from the Bible to tell Charlie Brown what Christmas is about, cut out of the program. It turns out those studio executives were wrong. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has stood the test of time and continues to touch people with its simple message, which can get lost in today’s culture of uncertainty, mistrust, and conditional love, something that is not lost on these young actors.
“At the first rehearsal we sat down and I asked the kids, ‘Why do we keep telling a story that seems futile because we keep missing the message?’” says Dunlap. “We were all kind of stumped—and then one child said, ‘If we say it and it’s real kids in front of people I think they’ll get it’ and I said ‘I think you’re right.’”
For people familiar with the TV show, seeing the live show will be familiar because the script is exactly the same.
“Literally everything the kids say is word-for-word like the television special,” says Dunlap. He laughs. “There are things you don’t notice when you start working on the play because they were in a cartoon. Suddenly props disappear or reappear and you wonder where they come from. To make animation come to life, you begin to realize the challenges.”
Sets and costumes have been taken back to Schultz’s drawings, as opposed to the cardboard-like quality of the television special. “We take it back to what he was imitating in his drawings,” says Dunlap. “We found clothes that look like the clothes, but things with texture. We tried to bring that flatness into a three-dimensional world. I mean, the hairstyles are strange live, so we were going back for inspiration about 1959-65 to what would a little girl look like at that time. It can get creepy if you dress like a cartoon coming to life. That’s the danger when trying to replicate an impressionist.”
The biggest takeaway for the audience will probably be the nostalgia of what it was like as a child to be in Charlie Brown’s shoes, says Dunlap.
“Having it be live and having it be children, you do realize that seeing it as a child, as Charlie Brown is experiencing it, would be hateful,” he explains. “The Charlie Brown story really does go back to being a ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’—he is the one who changes. When you see a real kid go through it, it’s very meaningful and makes it more real. That’s one of the great things that live theatre does.”