To understand how an immersive, socially distant new production of A Christmas Carol came to debut at Greenport’s First and South restaurant this month, you first need to go back in time about a year ago — let’s call it Christmas Past.
Married theater pros Vanessa Leuck and Ethan Popp were preparing for an especially busy year. Leuck, a costume designer, was gearing up for the January 2020 opening of the future off-Broadway hit Emojiland, on which she and Popp were making their producing debut and which would go on to earn her designs an Outer Critics Circle Award.
Popp, a Tony Award nominated music producer, arranger and orchestrator, was juggling work on the Broadway and national tour productions of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical while looking ahead to the spring opening of Mrs. Doubtfire on Broadway and Back to the Future in London’s West End.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Broadway in mid-March, the family headed from Queens to their second home in Greenport, and there they remain.
“Between us, with the projects that we had planned, as well as ones that were running, we lost somewhere around nine shows,” said Leuck. “I thought we were coming out to Greenport for a month and then realizing that it was shut down and it was going to stay shut down for a long time — it was surreal. It was really devastating and took a few weeks to sink in. But when it did, we’re both fighters and we both love theater and the wheels were spinning in our brains.”
Fast forward to Christmas Present: Frustrated by their inability to get back to work in New York City, the pair has brought live theater to the North Fork. On December 9 to 20, they’ll present an original one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The star is New England actor Scott H. Severance, who has played Scrooge in the national tour of the production for the last six years.
The wraparound porch at First and South will serve as the production’s stage. Patrons will sit below on the restaurant’s heated, tented patio while enjoying a multi-course holiday feast. Only 20 audience members total will attend each show, seated at socially distant tables with their own bubble of between 2 and 8 people.
“We feel as though, within our isolation and staying safe, there is a need for entertainment — if only to soothe our souls,” said Popp, who also supervised music for the Broadway’s Motown the Musical, School of Rock and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. “Being able to bring something like this telling, in a COVID-safe way, to residents and tourists of the North Fork is incredibly near and dear to our hearts. Not only do we get to get back to the craft that we love, but we get to bring this story in this unique, special way to the place that we fell in love with so long ago and that has really, truly meant even so much more to us over the past nine months.”
The pair first came to the area 8 or 9 years ago after a friend gave them a wine club membership as a gift. After repeated return visits and after the birth of their son, Aldrin, four years ago, Popp said, ”it turned into the place that we knew that we always wanted to spend our weekends and holidays, where we can have a Christmas tree in front of a fireplace and yard in the back. Never knowing that 4 years later, our second home would literally become our second home.”
The pair had long talked about staging a theatrical production on the North Fork, perhaps at a local winery, but had never had the time to pursue the idea. “The area is so rife with culture, but one thing that we noticed that there wasn’t a lot of out here was theatrical entertainment,” said Popp. “But we also knew that many of the people we had met in the area really loved going into the city for theater — and that the people in the city that loved theater loved coming out here.”
An initial plan to stage a musical over the summer at a larger venue was scuttled by state COVID restrictions. Then, about six weeks ago, the idea for a more intimate, immersive show emerged. Severance, an old school friend of Popp’s, grasped onto the concept immediately. He wrote the book, with additional material from Leuck and Popp.
The show is set 50 years to the day after Scrooge’s redemption, and performed by “the storyteller,” a man who has a personal connection to the events (and whose identity shall not be spoiled here).
“I only wish we could have more people see it, but it needs to be small to be safe. And it’s going to be beautiful because of that too.”
“I love a good Broadway show. I love a musical or a play,” said Leuck. “But for me, my favorite styles of theater are immersive theater and dinner theater. The combining of food and drink and festivity and theatrical storytelling is so fascinating to me and immersive experiences where you actually get to live and experience the show, as opposed to it simply being presented to you, is something that Ethan and I had talked about always doing with work that we were producing together.”
In the same spirit of sharing, the show is teaming with Community Action Southold Town (CAST) to collect new, unwrapped toys, clothing and monetary donations at performances between December 9 and 17, and non-perishable food items on December 18 and 19. The production will also raise money for CAST by auctioning off fun extras like working your name into the show for a birthday or anniversary.
For Leuck, the message of A Christmas Carol is especially resonant this year. “The idea of children not having a holiday meal and holiday clothes is gut wrenching,” she said. “And anything that anyone can do this year is truly more meaningful and extra special because we’re all in this pandemic. And some people are suffering a lot more than others.”
“Hopefully the show will, for the people who can come to see it, brighten their long winter here and encourage love and happiness,” she added. “I only wish we could have more people see it, but it needs to be small to be safe. And it’s going to be beautiful because of that too.”
Performances of A Christmas Carol run December 9 to 20 with dinner performances on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays at 5:30pm and brunch performances Fridays and Sundays at 11:30am. Tickets start at $210 for a table for two and can be purchased at firstandsouth.com.