UP THE CHIMNEY!
In high school, I wrote and directed a Dickensian children’s Christmas play featuring sibling rivalry, greed, sexual wantonness, and retribution. And all the dialogue rhymed.
It was a direct response to not being voted president of the Thespian Club. I had paid my dues the year before as club treasurer. And had proven myself as student director of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. So before the election, everyone assumed I would be elected president. But on the day of voting, the Machiavellian drama teacher allowed the Drama Class to vote. Which was a major election violation since they were a separate entity, and most of the Drama Class students weren't actual members of the Thespian Club. And since I wasn’t in that class, and my opponent was, those class members all voted for her. I fumed at the injustice.
But I wasn't mad at the new president. She was a friend. And had also paid her dues as star of Gamma Rays. And I realized that without the responsibilities of the office, I would be free to start my own committee. Which would be The Committee To Let Kelly Write And Direct His Own Holiday Play And Stage It Anyway He Liked Without Adult Supervision Or Censorship. Which, of course, I funded with a bake sale. I was also motivated by the fact that we weren't doing an official school play that fall. And that the year before, we’d only done one play. With an all-female cast, and drab costumes. We had many wrongs to set right.
This production also established the writing and casting method that I would use in most of my future projects. I held auditions on a Friday in our school’s little theater. And I was so flattered that people actually showed up that I decided to cast everyone. So that weekend, I wrote the play. And created a special character for each actor. And on Monday, had it ready for our first read-thru. And to compensate for my presidential loss—I guess I was still a little sore—I cast myself as The Narrator of Up The Chimney!
The story involved girls being sucked up a chimney, so I guess that’s where I got the title. I think I was also subliminally influenced by the title Up The Sandbox, even though I’d never seen the B. Streisand vehicle. Maybe it was a premonition that one day I’d be working with the star of Russ Meyer’s Up! And maybe that’s why so many of my future projects would end with an exclamation mark.
The fun of doing Up The Chimney! was assuming we could even do it. Imagine staging Wicked on a bake sale budget. I sketched a design for our set. And got the cast to help create it with butcher paper and non-toxic poster paints. The school owned these hollow 3-sided plywood towers. They were about eight feet tall, and three feet wide on each side. And we used three of them to create a dual set. A tower was placed on each side of the stage. And we attached strips of paper taped together to form a solid backdrop. And on the backdrop we painted a living room. And we cut out a square hole in the bottom center to simulate a fireplace.
In the story, a greedy girl waits for Santa to come down the chimney on Christmas Eve so she can steal his bag of toys. Her saintly sister catches her in the act. And they both get sucked up into the chimney, and are transported to an Oz-like netherworld where the good sister is punished for the greedy sister’s crimes, and held in a jail cell with hooker-ish inmates, awaiting her punishment at the hands of the quirky, yet menacing, Chimney Sweep.
For our one-and-only performance, we bussed in a kindergarten class from a nearby elementary school. And during the scene transition, when the girls get sucked up the chimney, we turned out all the lights, and I had the cast scream bloody murder, as if they were being sucked down into Hell itself, as they tore down the butcher paper set. It was unsettling, even for an adult. So the five and six year olds sat frozen, too terrified to cry. But when the lights came up, they got to experience the magic of being transported to our fantasy world up the chimney.
Which was basically another butcher paper backdrop. With paper connected from the side towers to a third tower located upstage center. And this newly revealed backdrop created a concave V-shape. And we strung up horizontal rows of clear Christmas lights in the corner to create flashing jail cell bars; a triangular disco prison cell.
In the story, two tart-ish female prisoners persuade the bad sister to open the door to their cell. But when the good sister intervenes, she is caught by the guard. And given a life sentence of cleaning chimneys with the quirky, yet menacing, Chimney Sweep. In one of my rare compromises, I changed the sentence to just one year because the cast thought a life sentence would seem too harsh to our young audience. Not that our kindergarteners wouldn’t already be numb by that point.
One asset our production did have was a well stocked Drama Department costume room. I’d taken the two actresses who played the prisoners—they were both blonds—and managed to find white go-go boots, sequin halter tops—stuff like that—and managed to give them a Nancy Sinatra/Cookie Mueller vibe. And the whole project turned into a women-in-prison drama disguised as a magical children’s Christmas frolic.
To soften the blow, I baked cookies with almond extract. And after the show, served them to the children with Hawaiian Punch. And sent the children home to their parents with a sugar buzz, and a healthy fear of the adult world.
[from the upcoming Videoteur.]