Christmas Stars to continue holiday tradition in new format

‘We really put this in God’s hands,’ says show director Jim Romenesko

ALLOUEZ — A holiday tradition that began in 1993 will continue this year, but in a different art form. Christmas Stars 2020 will not be a live stage show at Xavier Fine Arts Theatre in Appleton due to COVID-19. Instead, it will be presented as a one-hour “TV Christmas Special” available to stream.

“It’s been an exciting journey to create this production,” said Jim Romenesko, theatre manager and mainstage director at Xavier and co-director of Christmas Stars with Sue Hahn. “We are not just pointing a camera at the stage and recording a concert. We are truly creating a fully-produced Christmas special.”

Director Jim Romenesko gives instructions to actors Linda and Scott Felton, left, in the Dickens scene from Christmas Stars. The show, which began in 1993 and is staged at the Xavier Fine Arts Theatre in Appleton, will be presented as a “TV Christmas Special” this year due to COVID-19. Also pictured are John Biese and Bob Carroll. (Champion Video Photo | Special to The Compass)

Romenesko credits Champion Video of Appleton for “incorporating exciting camera work — special effects and other production techniques to make the show truly special for our viewers.”

A boom crane was used so the show features overhead shots and close-ups. The video crew used techniques to make it appear that large groups of singers are on stage together. They were recorded in small groups and blended in editing. The cast, which features an age range of 5 to 85, is approximately 120 in number this year, down 100 performers.

“Because of the whole situation with the pandemic, we didn’t cast any new people this year,” said Romenesko. “We had a lot of people who had concerns and opted out. We have people who have been in every show for 27 years and this is the first year they are not going to be in it. But we are using a little bit of existing footage of our choir sets because we couldn’t have those people together singing. So, technically, they are in it and we are giving them credit for being in the show this year.”

The challenges of producing the show were many, added Romenesko. Three licenses are required for each song to stream it. Scheduling recording was difficult due to COVID-19 quarantine situations.

“We usually didn’t know, until that day, if someone was going to be able to come,” said Romenesko. “In those tough times, people rise to the occasion. This isn’t a life or death situation, of course, but people really rose to the occasion. Other people stepped in. Our filming days were 14-hour days because we could only bring in three or four people at a time to record.”

Camera operators and directors wore masks as did performers while rehearsing.

“Then, at the last second, this is the real take, masks go in the pocket and away we go,” said Romenesko. “The cast members were so excited. They wanted to keep the momentum going. When we saw that less and less groups were doing (Christmas shows), we thought, ‘We really have to do this.’”

A familiar face returned to the show this year to share his audio skills. Kieran Wallace was a performer in Christmas Stars from age 5 through his senior year at Xavier. He is a graduate of St. Norbert College in De Pere and, in July, completed a master’s in music technology, production and innovation from Berklee College of Music, based in Boston. Wallace now works as an audio engineer/producer in Madison.

“I was able to help with some of the studio recordings because they were going to record some tracks ahead of time and have a studio layer underneath,” said Wallace, a 2014 Xavier High School graduate. “We wanted a level of authenticity to it as well. We didn’t want a manufactured, perfect sound.”

Performers wore microphones with a small digital recorder when filming scenes. Wallace combined the studio tracks with the voices from the microphones.

“I was able to assist Van (Vehrs). He is a whiz with the live (recordings) and has done some studio work,” explained Wallace. “With me being all studio, it’s been interesting to see how our worlds collide and see what we could get out of it. I’ve known him since I was a child, so it’s been fun to work alongside him; to see his process and share mine to see how we can make that work for the best outcome.”

The show is a family tradition for Wallace. His grandparents, Clarence and Delores Wallace, donated the funds to build the theater at Xavier. His parents, Brian and Catherine Wallace, and his five siblings, have taken part in shows.

“The show has a lot of meaning for me; growing up and performing on that stage,” he said. “It’s been a real blessing having parents and grandparents interested in the arts.

“I think my family will watch it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day,” he added. “Everyone is in it, even my dad, who, for 95% of it, has been backstage. We actually got him on stage. We are all in it this year, along with my sister’s husband. It may be for the last time.”

“Our show is a tradition for a lot of families,” said Romenesko. “It’s a little fire of hope in your heart that some things can still happen. That’s where the spiritual aspect comes in. I think a lot of people would have felt lost without it. We get letters every year from people who say, ‘We feel like Christmas really starts when we see the show.’”

The production will be streamed each day at 3 and 7 p.m. Dec. 11-15 and at 1 p.m. Dec. 11-13, 18-20 and 22-25. Tickets are $13 and contain a stream code for one performance. To purchase tickets, visit christmasstars.org or call the box office at (920) 733-8840.

“We really put this in God’s hands,” said Romenesko. “There were times, our very first meeting talking about how we would approach it, we just looked at each other and said, ‘Can we really do this?’ We’re very proud of the final product. We trusted and it really turned out to be a beautiful thing.”