An Original Spin on Christmas

From Savoy Star, December 7, 2006
By Erika Nelson, Savoy Star Editor

This December, real-life dancers and animated characters will share the stage at the Parkland College Theatre.
The two will come together in the Christine Rich Dance Theater’s original play, “Dear Santa”; a theater and dance extravaganza that dance studio founder and director Rich describes as, “a little ‘Nutcracker,’ a little ‘Wizard of Oz,’ ‘a little ‘Wicked,’ a little ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and a little ‘Toy Story’ all wrapped up in one.”

While the production has become the vehicle used to combine dance with digital animation, the idea for such an endeavor came from Maria Mobasseri, the department chair of Parkland’s computer science and information technology program.

The production is just one of many initiatives of the Parkland College staff to try and spark an interest in the computer science field among young females.

“Because a lot of dancers, by nature of the area, are female, we thought this way we could get the female dancers exposed to the technology,” Mobasseri said. “The idea is that dancers will be exposed to computers and will want to find out how this works.”

Mobasseri, whose daughter takes dance lessons at the Christine Rich Studio, said a Parkland student’s animation project gave her with the idea of pairing dance with computer science. She e-mailed Rich and the two began to brainstorm ideas, and the end result was the script for “Dear Santa.”

“We go from live acting into an animated section, and back into live action on the stage,” Rich said.

In subsequent years, however, Rich said she would like to see more of an interaction between the dancers and animation.

“Next year it’s on the table to incorporate more of an interaction (between the two),” Rich said. “It takes so long to render (animated segments) that they wanted to focus on a few things spectacularly. We’re looking at this year as a year-in-progress; we’ll come back next year with a full production.”

Rich said animation will give the overall production a contemporary, entertaining twist.

“It makes for an engaging show,” she said. “Today’s audiences are able to multi-task with different streams of information. I’m excited to be able to put together an entertaining show that taps into that.”

And along with tapping into new realms of entertainment, “Dear Santa” will be a learning experience in many ways for the dancers and actors involved.

Mobasseri said Parkland’s staff will be intentional about following up with the dancers by holding meetings between the performers and Parkland students to discuss the computer animation aspect of the production.

“The dancers will be able to ask questions about how we do certain things with animation,” Mobasseri said. “I’m hoping the girls will be interested in the computer science field, as they will be interacting with the animation on stage.”

And the connection with the studio already seems to be working, as some dancers have enrolled in Parkland’s workshops and Mobasseri recently received an e-mail from a dancer wanting to pursue a career in computer science.

The involvement with the Christine Rich Studio is just one of many ways to Parkland staff has attempted to connect young females with computer science.

The college staff has also worked with Brownie troops, the Boys and Girls Club and local women’s shelters. For the past two summers, Parkland has held workshops for girls focusing on topics such as building and designing web pages and game making, and has applied for grants to help fund female-only workshops.

“The computer area is portrayed as such a geeky kind of field,” Mobasseri said. “And the media doesn’t help with this stereotype. In movies, computer scientists are portrayed with a certain type of look, but when you actually know (the production) side of it, you open up doors and spark interest in females.”

Along with exposing females to the idea of a career in computer science, the partnership between the Christine Rich Studio and Parkland College will open a new window of opportunity for Parkland’s digital media program, as it is the first time students and faculty have looked at combining entertainment with dance.

“Who would have thought that computers could be in dance?” Mobasseri said. “I’ve seen it in a few performances, but not of this level, (and) I know that this is an area that is growing.”

And while working with the Christine Rich Studio offers Parkland College the chance to connect dancers with the computer sciences, Parkland students involved with “Dear Santa” have the added benefit of working on a production that has been co-written and directed by Tony and Emmy award winning Broadway actor, Ben Vereen.

“Our students are very excited about the production and Parkland is excited that a production with such importance is going to be shown at the Parkland Theatre,” Mobasseri said. “When (our students) go to interviews, they can take this with them. It’s good experience and good resume and portfolio building.”

Rich had asked for Vereen’s assistance on the production when she choreographed an honorary piece for an award he received from the Black Theater Alliance. Vereen agreed to help, and made a trip to Savoy in August to give the script of “Dear Santa” a look.

“He read the script through one time, and without referring back to it, memorized virtually every line and began tightening scenes and changing characters,” said Rich. “He gave an overhaul that left us with a delightful, entertaining script.”

While Vereen’s involvement in “Dear Santa” is a resume booster for dancers, actors and animators alike, Mobasseri said working with a co-writer and director of Vereen’s stature will help to raise the community’s awareness of the different opportunities available to students at Parkland College.

“To have a production that is being co-directed by Ben Vereen – and on the education side has our digital media program involved – is a cool thing for the community to see,” Mobasseri said. “We’re hoping to have more of this so the industry world can be exposed to the fact that this type of work is going on at Parkland. It opens up a lot of doors for a lot of people.”

“Dear Santa” will be at the Parkland College Theater at 2 and 7 p.m. on Dec. 17.

Rich said the production features a diverse cast, ranging in age from four years through adult.

The cast includes trained dancers, seasoned actors from the community theater scene, and new-comers that have been “discovered” along the way.

“We have a great lighting designer who specifically designs for dancers; we have outstanding costumes; a wide variety of music; some highly entertaining dance scenes that include acrobatics, and a big battle scene where the toys have come to the rescue…,” said Rich, offering highlights from the production without giving too much away.

Tickets for “Dear Santa” can be purchased by calling 355-9265 or stopping by the Christine Rich Studio, located at 1402 Regency Drive West in Savoy.

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