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.

Voice of Our Veterans – South Dakota State Veterans Home (Documentary; 52:10)

I’ve been working on this project for the past couple months and while the original plan was to intersperse Ken Burns-style documentary segments with the history of the State Veterans Home between each of the topics discussed by the residents of the State Home during the oral history sections, I was given a deadline and had to cut all of that and focus strictly on the interviews. The pacing is, of course, a little slow due to the nature of the interviews, but it was a great honor to meet these men who served their country.

Some of their stories had me rolling, some had me contemplating the purpose of war, but all were compelling. One gentleman, a WWII vet, came prepared with a pre-written biography and many off-the-cuff stories, many of which had to be left out unfortunately for time’s sake. I will probably release those later on as they are too good not to be put out.

Filmmaker documents Save the VA Campaign – Hot Springs Star article

July 16, 2012 11:45 pm  • 

HOT SPRINGS – The announcement by the Department of Veterans Affairs last December to close the Hot Springs VA created a sense of unity within the community of Hot Springs, likely never seen before.
Immediately following the VA’s announced plan, hundreds of community members came together to form committees, organize rallies and begin work to create a counterproposal to ensure the Hot Springs VA would continue to serve veterans in what has commonly been known as “The Veterans Town” for more than a century.

A key player in this united effort is 2007 Hot Springs High School graduate Justin Gausman, who is currently working on producing a full-length documentary about how his hometown has united to protect and save its 105-year-old VA Hospital.

Gausman first became involved with the Save the VA Campaign as a member of the Public Relations Committee after moving back to Hot Springs from Rapid City this past winter. Some of his early contributions to the effort were his creation of the campaign’s official Facebook page and subsequent documenting and filming of the “Veterans Welcome Home Ride” held on Feb. 25.

He said the idea for creating a full-length documentary of the town’s fight came about during an early PR Committee meeting when local writer Mary Goulet spoke of writing a book featuring testimonials from veterans who had been treated at the Hot Springs VA. Gausman said Goulet immediately supported his idea to also create a similar-based documentary.

Gausman, with the assistance of local photographer and videographer John Davis, began working on the film late this past winter, during the “Vets Ride” in February by producing segments that have already been shown publicly at various Save the VA events and on-line through YouTube.

Karen Meston, another active member of the Save the VA Campaign, said Gausman’s work thus far on the campaign has been instrumental in bringing the message to the masses.

“Justin’s documenting of the Save the VA efforts has been really beneficial to those people who have not been able to attend many of the events we have hosted,” she said. “His work on Facebook and through YouTube makes it available to so many more people. He has been a great to work with – when he says he is going to do something, he does it. He understands the mission, and that it’s all about The Veteran.”

Despite the importance of all his work to date, Gausman said his previously filmed segments represent only the beginning of what he has planned for his full-length documentary.

“I want to be able to capture the emotion of the community and the veterans that have been treated at the VA – the anger and the joy,” Gausman said. “It’s about how a community has come together; against all odds.”

“We’ve accomplished something here that you won’t find anywhere, including Washington D.C.,” he said. “People are working together on this now who before hadn’t even wanted to talk to one another.”

While he said he plans to take an objective look at the VA’s proposal, and that of the campaign’s counter-proposal, there’s no denying the sense of pride he feels for what his hometown of Hot Springs has accomplished thus far during the process.

“The town is up against a VA director who seemingly has made up his mind,” he added. “But I am going to look at this objectively. They came up with a plan that they thought would help our veterans. But it doesn’t. We have a better way.”

As Gausman has discovered, the production of a full-length documentary is no small task, and the funds to accomplish such an undertaking are vast.

This is why he has enrolled his film project with the website indiegogo.com, which according to the site itself, is “a crowdfunding platform where people who want to raise money can create fundraising campaigns to tell their story and get the word out.”

Much like the similar-based website Kickstarter.com, which recently assisted another local filmmaker Skye Ogilvie with her film ‘Drifter’, the website indiegogo.com matches up donors with worthwhile causes in a near endless list of categories from film, health, music, education and more.

Gausman has set a modest campaign goal of $15,000, which he says is really a shoestring budget for what is needed to produce, film and edit a quality documentary. But he is determined to make it a reality, regardless of how much is raised.

“I have been working on this documentary for nearly eight months now and have invested hundreds of hours and dollars into it,” he said. “But I need a real kickstart so I can execute my ideas properly, which include travelling to areas in which others VA’s have closed, such as Grand Island, Neb., and Miles City, Mont., to get the stories from veterans and former staff impacted by those closures.”

Gausman said he is currently using a borrowed camera, so in addition to funds for travel, he also needs to upgrade and acquire equipment to complete the project.

Just a few days into his www.indiegogo.com/theveteranstown campaign last week, the website had helped Gausman raise $135 towards his goal.

The campaign is set to conclude on Aug. 7 so there is still plenty of time for those interested in supporting the film to log-on and contribute what they can to his efforts.