The planning for Gustavus’ annual holiday production, Christmas in Christ Chapel, begins almost a year before the first performance.
The event, produced by the Office of Marketing and Communication at Gustavus, in combination with the fine arts and the help of numerous others, features three combined choirs, handbell players, an entire orchestra and band, and even dancers‒and those are just the performers. The number of people behind the scenes is even greater.
“For many people, this is the start of their holiday season,” Senior Director of Institutional Events in Marketing, Barb Larson Taylor, said.
Taylor has worked at Gustavus since 1994, noting that a few important changes have been made to the beloved Christmas event during her time here.
“Having Heroic Productions do the lighting has made it so much more dramatic from an audience perspective,” Taylor said.
Heroic Productions has made massive changes to the way audiences experience Christmas in Christ Chapel. Gustavus originally made contact with the AV company to rent lighting equipment but came away with a great partnership instead.
Heroic helped Gustavus produce its first-ever live stream of Christmas in Christ Chapel in 2014, and it has been part of the tradition ever since.
“Having the live stream, we double our audience,” Taylor said.
Having the cameras at the event is no small feat, as performers learned during a rehearsal on Tuesday night.
“With twelve cameras in the room, assume that one of them is always on you,” CEO of Heroic Productions and a Gustie alum from the class of 1977, Jon Young, said to the performers. “If you don’t know the words to one of the congregational hymns, the camera sees that.”
Those 12 cameras are accompanied by 25 Heroic team members and 2 lighting directors. It’s no small task to capture this massive event on camera.
Of course, the event isn’t easy to plan, either. The planning committee starts meeting in January, only a few weeks after the previous year’s performances have ended‒to begin putting together the details of the event all over again.
Each year the production has a theme, decided by the artistic director in conjunction with the planning committee. This year, Artistic Director Siri Erickson helped choose “Love Beyond Borders,” a theme to celebrate love that goes beyond our divided world.
The planning committee also helps decide the musical pieces, the scripture and non-scripture readings, where dance is going to fit in and the visual designs. Most of these details are usually set before summer break.
By fall, the team is just finalizing the details before performers start rehearsing to make the magic come to life.
“I think the challenge and the joy [of Christmas in Christ Chapel] is that you’re telling a familiar story and you want to find a new way to tell the story every year and a new way to have the audience experience something different yet familiar every year,” Taylor said.
This year in particular, the planning committee had a unique vision to help tell the story.
“Because we’ve had a longer relationship with Heroic, and because [Erickson] as the artistic director had some ideas visually that she wanted to convey, we were much more intentional in meeting with the Heroic lighting designers,” Taylor said.
One of the people helping to make those stunning effects happen is Matt Dobosenski, Assistant Director in Institutional Events and Event Technical Services in Marketing.
“I am the great and powerful Oz. I’m the guy behind the curtain that makes the magic happen,” Dobosenski said.
“During the early planning meetings I take all the creative ideas, and I’m the one who gets to figure out how to make them work or come up with alternative ideas. It’s all the unseen stuff. It’s awesome,” Dobosenski said.
With all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into Christmas in Christ Chapel‒from selling tickets to singing in the choir, parking cars to preparing food for the buffet‒it’s clear that Christmas in Christ Chapel will continue to be a key event for years to come.
“I think it’s a beloved tradition because of the emotion that the students put into their work, and the audience feels that. I think that because the students care so much about it, it’s a joy to work on,” Taylor said.