“Christmas Heist” An Unqualified Success

While the audience began trickling into the Mueller Center at around 6:30pm on Thursday, December 10, 2015, and began settling in for the first performance of The Christmas Heist, I mentioned to Deana that, strangely, I wasn’t nervous at all.

About the same time the next night, I turned to her again and said “I don’t know why, but somehow I’m more nervous tonight than I was yesterday.” By the preshow on closing night, I was too tired to feel either nervous or excited.

All three nights, there were moments that stuck out to me that I’ll remember forever. The uproar of laughter at Officer Powell’s “Stick ’em up!” entrance in City Hall; the blast of sci-fi music as Act 2 got underway and Zach stepped out in costume; the shiver down my spine during the two minute “Merry Little Christmas” scene – a scene played with no dialogue, just glances and gestures; the even bigger laugh at a “TJ Hooker” reference; the audible gasps and even a “WHAT?!” during the final scene when the twist is revealed; and, for me, the most memorable every night  was the ~ the 3-5 seconds of silence in the middle of the “Catfight” scene.

No scene in the show had been more rehearsed, down to not just the blocking, pacing & delivery of the lines, but the space between them. I vividly remember reading the scene to Deana immediately after writing it, being really proud of it, and then really terrified, telling her “oh man, I might have to pull this back if we can’t find someone good enough to do this. But if we do… this’ll stop the show.”

It did.

And I can’t take any of the credit. These performers and crew stepped up and made this show what it was. And the audience equally so. As I told one audience member  who complimented me afterwards, look, I can write anything and get someone to stand up on stage and read it – but the actors bring their own performances, and the audience brings their own reaction and emotional involvement to it. That’s where everything that was great came from, and it has very little to do with me.

I am still, days later, humbled, grateful and honored that the audience reaction was as positive as it was, and that so many people turned out to see the show.

I’m still working out all my thoughts & feelings, not necessarily just about the show, but about what’s next. Never Been to Graceland is getting a pretty heavy re-write, and I have a few ideas for some shorts, but it’s all very much in a “wait and see” holding pattern. Some things came up in the show that I didn’t necessarily need to learn, but needed reminded of how important they are.

I want to tell stories that mean something, and The Christmas Heist means so much to me in so many ways (maybe I’ll talk about that another time) and so will Graceland… but I was reminded that I need to be mindful of not just saying something, but to think about WHY it’s being said – to make sure the pacing is right, that the motivations are clear, that the audience has a reason to keep watching and caring. Not just doing something for the sake of doing it (although there can be value in that as well, depending on what you’re aiming for.)

Expect some updates about next year’s plans here in the next couple weeks once I really sit down and reassess things. But for now, please enjoy this version of The Christmas Heist. It’s not the finalized version, just a mostly unedited view of the stage during the Friday & Saturday shows… but I hope you enjoy it.

Local playwright bringing ‘The Christmas Heist’ to Mueller Center

Note: Originally Appeared in the Hot Springs Star,  December 8, 2015

By John Taylor

HOT SPRINGS – “The Christmas Heist,” an original play written by Hot Spring native Justin Gausman, and produced by the Southern Hills Community Theatre, will be performed at Hot Springs Mueller Center, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 10 to 12.

The play, Gausman says, takes place in a fictional Rocky Mountains community called Pine Springs, just a few days before Christmas in 1987.

That’s when a group of nerdy and outcast teens (Alex, Kenzie, Shawna and Robin) discover that the mayor of Pine Springs is plotting with a shady businessman to close their favorite hangout – a motel called Gus’s – to make way for a new shopping plaza, to be built along a new stretch of highway being constructed through town, they plan a protest.

Meanwhile, a bank robbery in the adjacent county has everyone on edge, looking for suspicious strangers.

Just such a stranger, Ben, strolls into Pine Springs – and Gus’s – when his car breaks down.

The kids protest plans go awry. However, suspecting Ben to be the bank robber, they decide to kidnap him and force him to help them break into city hall and steal back proof of the mayor’s plans.

Things get even more complicated when cheerleader Kelly (Alex has a crush on her) decides she wants to help them. She happens to be the mayor’s step-daughter.

“The Christmas Heist is a play filled to the brim with 1980s throwbacks, holiday spirit, a ton of humor, a little drama and a big heart,” Gausman says. “But it’s not at all autobiographical. It’s completely fiction.”

A couple of years ago, Gausman says, he was inspired by the video game, Grand Theft Auto 5, which had a bank robber character in it. He wondered what would happen if this bank robber got caught in a small town, what sort of trouble there would be. The result of his imaginary exploration is “The Christmas Heist.”

The 1980s throwbacks come from Gausman’s fascination with the 1980s.

“I just have an affinity for 80s culture.” He particularly likes the work of screenwriter, producer and filmmaker John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink) and Chris Columbus (Gremlins, The Goonies) he said.

“I was born the year after the play is set,” he said, noting that his parents were teenagers in the 1980s. His mother is a Hot Springs native, and she met his father at Chadron State College. From these roots, sprang Gausman’s enjoyment of the music and movies of 1980s.

“The Christmas Heist,” Gausman said, is the first full script he has written, and his first fully original script for Southern Hills Community Theatre.

He also wrote a play called “The Christmas Radio,” where the beginning and end of the play were of his creation, but the middle was Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Gausman has produced two feature-length films in the “Jamie Klotz’s Diary” series and is in pre-production— he’s looking for a location, financial resources, and a crew; but no cast yet – for a film entitled “Never Been to Graceland.”

Schooled in Hot Springs, and active in drama and theatre as a Bison, Gausman didn’t go to college, despite an offer to attend a private film school, due to extenuating circumstances in his private life. After living in Rapid City for a few years, he decided to come back to Hot Springs in 2012 and has been heavily involved in the community ever since with organizations, like Save the VA, the Cultural Development Organization, and others.

He credits Betsy Savage for getting him into community theatre. He recalled community plays when he was a child – Jack in the Beanstalk in particular.

Gausman says that he likes to write movie or play-length scripts as opposed to books or short stories because he enjoys the format, and readership of books and novels is way down.

“I’ve written some novellas in the past, but people don’t read these,” he says. “I don’t have the patience to go all the way with a book or do short stories. I found my niche in screenplays and scripts. A movie or a play takes about a hour and a half to two hours to enjoy.”

“I like the visual medium, and the reaction, the immediacy of it,” he said. “When a crowd laughs at your joke, or is silent during a dramatic moment… you can’t get that in a book or a movie.”

The Mueller Center doors and box office, to purchase tickets at the door, will open at 6:30 p.m., and “The Christmas Heist” begins at 7 p.m. each night. Tickets are $8 for adults; $6 for seniors (age 60-plus) and children under 12; and children under 6 get in free.

Southern Hills Community Theatre, a 501c3, is a fully-volunteer non-profit community theatre dedicated to presenting quality, live,family-friendly performances. For more information about the play and the group visit the website, http://www.shct.org.

The Midway Point

Whew. Week three of six. Oh boy. Wasn’t it just a couple days ago that I posted the cast list for The Christmas Heist? My plan was to regularly document the behind the scenes of the production, and I have been recording interviews & behind the scenes footage these past three weeks and sharing photos on Facebook but… let’s just say I slipped here.

To be fair, we can blame Bethesda Softworks. Fallout 4 has all but monopolized my free hours at home. For the director of a show about outsiders who read comics, play D&D and play video games… you can see how this might be a problem.

cover photo
One of the funniest parts of the show – and there are many.

That being said, we’ve got a couple long weekends ahead of us (play practice this Thursday is taken over by the HSHS production of North Woods Nonesense, next week, of course, is Thanksgiving) so I’ll be finally editing together a bunch of behind the scenes videos.

I have to tell you, after auditions and that first week, we were… worried, to say the least. With essentially half a cast, we were scraping barrel bottoms to pull people from, calling in favors like no tomorrow. Then we lost a cast member due to some unfortunate circumstances.

In spite of some VERY good early rehearsals, the flow of the show had been missing. I’ll talk in more detail about this in some of the videos, but let’s just say our assistant director and producer Betsy Savage spent quite a bit of time on stage filling in while we brought in the rest of the cast one by one. Despite her (admittedly good & fair) suggestions, I remained incredibly stubborn and uncompromising about who we cast, and although I’m sure she was pulling her hair, I’m glad we stuck it out. With the cast we have, and between the November 12 rehearsal and this past Monday and Tuesday rehearsals, I’m not only not worried, I’m really excited to see this in its fully-fledged format, and even MORE excited for everyone else to.

Keep your eye on Skeeter Bite Productions this weekend for behind the scenes interviews & footage!

CAST ANNOUNCED – THE CHRISTMAS HEIST (Updated 11/18)

This cast was one of the hardest we’ve ever had to do. This is literally the first show in Southern Hills Community Theater history where we just did not have the ability to cast everyone we wanted to and everyone who turned out, and believe us, it was extremely hard and sad for us. That being said: everyone who did try out and indicated an interest in helping behind the scenes, we will need a strong supporting stage & technical crew on this production.

Please reach out to us if you want to help us operate the show and “learn the ropes” behind the scenes! And PLEASE try out for the next show, too! Just because there wasn’t a part for you in this one doesn’t mean there won’t be in the next! EVERYONE who turned out auditioned BRILLIANTLY!

There are a few roles whose actors have not yet been finalized but here is the cast of The Christmas Heist.

The Kids:

Alex: Isaiah Crossman
Kelly: Rachel Davis
Kenzie: Jordyn Carey
Robin: Zach Cox
Shawna: Isabel Meyer

The Adults:

Ben: Garett Jack
Sarah: Okoye Zimiga
Mayor Cooper: Angel Haskell
Gus: Jake Pannill
Officer Powell: Morris Nelson
Jack Bussard: Ike Ikonen
Phyllis Falkowitz: Kathe Holen