When it comes to the holidays, it is traditions – the people we spend time with, the places we go, and the special things we do – that create our most long-lasting and endearing memories.
In Cape May, “Yuletide Tales,” the East Lynne Theater Company’s annual holiday show, has become that kind of tradition.
Every winter for the past decade, Gayle Stahlhuth, Artistic Director for ELTC, has presented this unique one-person telling of stories, hand-picked and adapted from the rich treasury of American literature.
This year’s selections are “Snow Image” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), “9 Linwood Street” by Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), “Susie’s Letter to Santa Clause” by Mark Twain (1835-1910) and “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry (1862-1910).
For many years, the ELTC did not present a special holiday show. “We were coming off our busy summer and fall schedule,” Stahlhuth said. “And we felt like Cape May already offered plenty of holiday entertainment options.”
But, with gathering stories for the “Victorian Tales” series, which happens on summer Thursday afternoons at various Cape May B&Bs, and seeking out scary tales for the “Ghosts of Christmas Past” trolley tours, Stahlhuth had amassed an exceptional collection. “I had my own personal rolodex,” she said.
So, in 2005, Stahlhuth assembled a few of those treasures into the first “Yuletide Tales” and the show has now become a Cape May seasonal staple.
“I just look deeply into American literature,” she said, “and find stories that can be adapted and performed.”
Some, like “Gift of the Magi,” are well-known and well-loved classics. But others are less familiar, and Stahlhuth delights in bringing these discoveries to the audience. “There are so many terrific stories out there. So, each year, I make sure to include at least one that I haven’t done before.” This year’s premier is Hawthorne’s “Snow Image.”
With such a substantial collection of literature from which to choose, how does Stahlhuth pare it down to the ones she will present?
“The performance lasts a little over an hour – with no intermission – so it is important that each story flows smoothly into the next,” she said.
Having that rhythm in mind, Stahlhuth chooses the stories. “Even when they are different in style or tone from one another, they need to go together well.”
In true storyteller fashion, Stahlhuth plays every character in every story, and performs completely from memory.
Does that mean that every performance features a word-for-word rendition? “No, they’re not verbatim,” she said. “Each one has a different shift.
“If, one night, a character wants to talk longer, and it’s within the context of the story, then that’s what happens.”
Stahlhuth also explained that an important aspect of what she does is to really get inside of each character. “I literally ‘see’ every person I am doing and the place where they are.”
While skilled at adapting works of literature for the stage, she is always careful to maintain the integrity of the writer.
“I am respectful of each writer’s style,” said Stahlhuth, “and aware of phraseology and word choices that are pivotal to the story.
“It’s like playing a composer’s music,” she explained. “You don’t just throw in something that the person didn’t intend to be there.”
Since 1999, the company has held its performances at the First Presbyterian Church of Cape May, located at 500 Hughes Street. And, as for all the shows, staging for “Yuletide Tales” is not elaborate – red drapes, a wreath, a table and three chairs make up the set.
This simple approach serves both artistic and practical purposes. A basic set allows the audience to focus on what is happening on stage and become immersed in the stories.
And, because the stage is also the church sanctuary, sets from the Saturday night performance need to make way the next morning for Sunday services. “We don’t construct anything that can’t be taken down in an hour,” she said.
In fact, the space serves the company very well. “It’s quite intimate and the acoustics are fantastic,” she said. “And since it’s a semi in-the-round arrangement, with no center aisle, the actors are always looking at people.”
Stahlhuth said the church and ELTC have struck a very compatible partnership. “They consider our company part of their mission,”
East Lynne Theater Company will present “Yuletide Tales” four more times this season: 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, December 8 through December 10, with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Saturday, December 10. Tickets are $27 for adults, $17 for full-time students and military personnel and free for children 12 and under.