Street Christmas

Written and directed by Watseka resident Lauri Zumwalt, "A Street Christmas" will be performed on stage at the Watseka Theatre Friday and Sunday.

Christmas classics get a workout. There are a few contemporary standards: Little Ralphie and "A Christmas Story," and Macaulay Culkin's "Home Alone." But, mostly, we rely on the oldies: "It's a Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street" and versions of "A Christmas Carol" for TV or local theater presentations.

So, Lauri Zumwalt, an English and speech teacher at Kankakee Community College, took matters into her own hands. As part of a nonprofit drama club in Watseka, she decided to start writing her own original holiday productions four years ago. Her latest venture, "A Street Christmas," will be presented Friday and Sunday at the Watseka Theatre.

"This is our sixth year of doing this, but the first year we did 'The Music Man,' and the second year we did an adaptation of 'A Christmas Carol,'" she explained. "But after that, I started writing them. I don't write the songs. I go out and find the songs that will advance the story, but I develop the characters and write the story."

And then she directs, too.

"I usually have the idea for the next show by now. And I do already know what the next one [her fifth] will be," she said. "I'll start hunting for the right music in spring. And it's not just picking any song. This year we have everything from rap to ballet.

"I finish writing in July. We hold auditions in September. Then I adjust some of the characters to fit the talent. And we start rehearsing in October."

This week's practice has involved full run-throughs for the cast of 25. They're scattered across Iroquois County and one is from Paxton. According to Zumwalt they create a pretty realistic portrayal of homeless folks trying to enjoy "A Street Christmas," but she is quick to add: "Don't worry the show is not a big downer."

Zumwalt, 52, came to this role in predictable fashion. She was a theater major at Illinois Wesleyan University before switching to English to try to make herself more "employable." She started writing plays, though, back in high school at Normal Community.

"I was lucky to have a writing class offered in my high school. I was hooked and took every theater class I could."

She found a niche for her playwriting talents when Watseka's annual lighted Christmas parade — on the Friday after Thanksgiving — would go past the local theater, but there was no show being presented that tied into the holiday mood.

"We get crowds of 300 to 350, and we wind up giving a nice donation to the local food pantry," she said.

The curtain opens for the first production "around 8," Zumwalt said. "We wait for the parade to get over and then give folks some time to get here. They have hot chocolate and brownies first."

The Sunday matinee starts at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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