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How the Public Theater of San Antonio made a midseason change to replace a 'problematic' show with something original and local

"Season's Greetings" is an original production of Alamo City flourishes and textures. But it wasn't always going to be the Public's Christmas-season show.

SAN ANTONIO — At the end of the summer, upon her hiring as the new executive artistic director at the Public Theater of San Antonio, Claudia de Vasco had a mission: Use the position at one of the region’s most historic theater companies to showcase the range of cultural diversity that makes up south Texas.

After just a few weeks, she’s already making good on her promise.

On Friday, the Public premiered its month-long run of “Season’s Greetings from San Antonio,” a holiday-themed show textured with local traditions, sounds and well-known faces. De Vasco describes it as a family-friendly production with laughs and warmth worthy of any Christmas classic, while also incorporating details specific to San Antonio.

The largely original production is structured as a barbershop-quartet musical revue running about two hours, telling the story of the fictional Dotz who return home to the Alamo City for a live Christmas special.

“They take us on this journey through music of traditional songs, new songs, pop songs,” de Vasco said. “And I have to say that it's just what folks look for at Christmastime.”

But it isn’t the Christmastime show folks were previously going to see from this small cast and crew. Originally scheduled to premiere last week was “Plaid Tidings,” a winter-season riff on “Forever Plaid” that contained some songs that concerned de Vasco as she looked over the ongoing season’s scripts upon her hiring.

“Immediately, I thought, ‘Oh no, this is incredibly problematic,’” she said. “And it's a subtle problematic, because it just flippantly treats various cultures. It kind of just makes them a joke, with no artistic merit.”

Right away, she knew what her first priority at the Public would be. Convincing her new colleagues a change was necessary, however, wouldn’t end up being the second. Others in the company told her they shared de Vasco’s concerns about those tunes in “Plaid Tidings,” a show which was scheduled in the first place because the Public’s options for small-scale holiday shows were already limited.

With leadership all on the same page, they first settled on the simplest course of action: cutting the outdated and insensitive songs from “Plaid Tidings.” As de Vasco discovered, they wouldn’t be the first theater company to improvise in such a way with the production.

But they did want to have the green light from the right people first.

“We said, ‘Let's come up with some options. Let's not just ask to cut it, let's think this through and give them a good idea to replace those songs.’ So we did. We came up with two songs that would serve the same purpose in the script.”

The team made the request of the show’s publishers, the middleman who would reach out for an OK from the rights-holders. It was mid-September, de Vasco’s first official week on the job and about a month out from when rehearsals would begin.

She was confident the Public would get a response and be able to move ahead with a tweaked version of “Plaid Tidings.”

“I honestly thought that they would come back with an answer of, 'Sure, cut the songs,’ or, ‘Replace the songs.' I was so certain,” de Vasco said. “And that's not what happened.”

Making a change

On October 15 – a little over a month before “Plaid Tidings” was set to take the stage – the Public sent an email to its subscriber base.

Citing the company’s intent to “operate and make decisions guided by direct anti-racism,” as well as an inability to reach an agreement on changes to the show, de Vasco announced the Public would go forward with a new winter production: “Season’s Greetings from San Antonio.” Tickets already purchased for “Plaid Tidings” would be honored for this new “original production.”

Having no show at all was never an option, de Vasco says. The Public wanted to honor its contracts with the cast and crew that had been hired. And while coming up with a whole new show a month out from opening night posed a unique challenge, it also meant recognizing what the Public had to work with, including a focus on something festive and a desire to innovate.

“As a response to the reason we switched the show out, we said, 'What if we really center this show on San Antonio? And what does it look like if we tried to represent several of the different ways people in San Antonio not just celebrate Christmas, but celebrate or spend the holiday? And let's include some stories from the community. And let's include cameos from people in the community.'

“And that's when we said, 'This is it. It's Season's Greetings from San Antonio.'”

The Monday before notifying the community about the change, the Public committed to it. They would devote their energy to an entirely new show, including an original narrative through-line, choreography and at least one new song, themed around Hannukah. The undertaking was an entirely collaborative one, de Vasco says, and the team was tinkering with the show even as it was being rehearsed.

Which is to say, it would have been much less headache-inducing to simply go forward with “Plaid Tidings.”

“It was really tricky when I first came in,” de Vasco said. “Because I said, 'I canceled the show,' they're gonna be like, 'Look at her coming in, canceling everything.' It is not an easy thing to cancel a show. I would not want to do it again.”

'There wasn't ever a moment of panic'

But the relatively small size of the production had its payoffs. For one, the Public didn’t have to pivot with an entire band; “Season’s Greetings” is entirely a capella. And because it’s a musical revue, de Vasco and her team avoided the aches and pains of switching gears into a narratively dense production.

The theater company also had the benefit of experience. Matthew Byron Cassi and Darrin Newhardt, two frequent collaborators who were already hired to work on “Plaid Tidings,” weren’t unfamiliar with being called upon by a San Antonio stage organization to help facilitate a change. They played substantial roles this time too, and are credited as co-conceivers on “Season’s Greetings.”

“There wasn’t ever a moment of panic,” said Cassi, who is also the show’s production director. “When the final decision was made we had already worried that this may be happening. So I had been brainstorming ideas and I immediately said, ‘OK, what about this?’ It was supported by everyone else and we were able to flesh it out. The transition was pretty smooth because the right team was in place.”

Cassi, who’s worked in various facets of the city’s theatre industry for over a decade, will be the first to say it’s because of the team’s unified mindset that they were able to organize a show at all without shifting the schedule.

“This collaboration is what I think theater should be about,” he said. “Working with actors and producers and authors and musicians and composers and all of us trying to find out what’s the best way to tell a story.”

That meant reaching out to the community to find out about their stories and traditions, incorporating personal touches into the show to subvert the notion that any given family’s way of celebrating during the holidays is the only way to celebrate during the holidays.

“Season’s Greetings” features everything from traditional hymns to contemporary carols, bilingual numbers and lullaby medleys from various cultures. Even after all that, Cassi sees room to make it even more kaleidoscopic in terms of representation.

“But also let’s not forget about last year,” he says. “For most of us, last year in this virtual Christmas or being very alone for the first time, really affected a lot of us. And we can’t forget that either.”

“The show really touches on this theme of coming back and coming together again,” de Vasco added. “And what that means during the holidays.”

Local perspective marks historic milestone

Anyone worried that other changes to the Public’s ongoing season are looming on the horizon can rest easy; de Vasco says the company has worked around the one problematic show it felt it had to address.

“Thankfully, the rest of the shows are good to go,” she said. “And we've cast most of the rest of the season and we're moving forward with the rest, and I'm really excited to announce next season in March.”

With that shift in attention to the future comes a new opportunity to pull the 99-year-old theater company into the 21st century. Broadway is undergoing a similar transition as it welcomes patrons back this fall after not only a pandemic, but also the start of an ongoing racial reckoning. “Hamilton,” “The Lion King” and “The Book of Mormon” are some of the big-ticket productions that have made changes to reflect changing societal attitudes, according to the New York Times.

De Vasco said a similar shift was underway at the Public even as she arrived.

“Everyone was on board that things needed to change, so I haven't stopped trying to reinforce that. Because I know with these inclusion and representation efforts, it can be a lot of talk and no action,” she said. “I’ve participated in so many conversations about racism in the theater and storytelling and inclusion, and the conclusion in situations like this is always, 'We shouldn't do those plays.' So here we had an opportunity. There's no sense in having another discussion where the result is going to be, 'You really just shouldn't do that play anymore,’ when we can really just say, 'You know what, we're not gonna do it. And it's OK.'”

There’s an added dimension to the feat de Vasco and the Public were able to pull off with “Season’s Greetings” in that it marks a major milestone: 700 productions at San Pedro Playhouse.

The impressive number is a testament to the role the location has played over the decades on the regional and even national stage. In between dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” for “Season’s Greetings” in her first year at the theater, de Vasco says she’s been learning about that history, which includes visiting productions from Mexico.

“It was even an international center for opera and for theater coming from outside the U.S.,” she said. “I mean, I don't know if San Antonians know that.”

She added the Public is planning extra programming to celebrate reaching 700 shows, which the community can stay up to date on by following the theater on social media.

In the meantime, she’s confident about her new employer’s ability to stick around for at least a few hundred more, fortifying San Antonio’s theater scene and deepening its local impact in the process.

“We're trying to go back to the roots, which is being a cultural center—not just for San Antonio, but for the region,” de Vasco said. “(One) that also features international voices. That was what was here first, and how exciting. Let's start doing that again.”

Tickets to “Season’s Greetings” are available here