“Follow the story of a young bird named Max and his family as they begin their journey south for the winter. When Max gets blown off course and ends up at the North Pole, his adventure begins!”
Or at least so said the program that attendees received Sunday afternoon for “Lightwire Theater: A Very Electric Christmas” at the Weinberg Center for the Arts. The only thing that description left out? Max’s journey would be traveled entirely in the dark.
Such is the case for the Lightwire Theater performances. All doors are closed. All lights are off. And human-sized puppets come to life via nothing but florescent lights that convey almost as much emotion as an actual human being might. The reason for the black-out comes in the name of the illusion that puppeteers are expected to portray, controlling the characters as a range of Christmas songs and sound effects blast through the theater’s sound system.
Sunday’s performance was the third year in a row the Weinberg hosted Lightwire, and according to Barbara Hiller, marketing manager for the theater, only 29 tickets separated the house from a sell out only a handful of hours before the curtain went up. By the time it was all said and done, she speculated that those few would also be purchased.
It was the first time she was able to see the show for herself, sneaking a peak on the balcony from time to time. After the lights turned back on and the crowd — consisting heavily of children — shuffled out the exit, she noted how impressed she was with the performance.
“The illusion from the balcony was awesome,” Hiller noted after the show. “For a performance like this, it’s almost better, the further away you are.”
Ian and Elizabeth Blanco were two-fifths of the cast that Lightwire brought to Frederick. While the former joined the company in 2013 and played the role of the Nutcracker in Sunday’s show, the latter has been with “Electric Christmas” since 2015 and held down the role of Max, the story’s main character.
Their roles on the tour, which continues on the West Coast before coming back east right around Christmastime, expand far beyond the stage. Ian, on this go-around, also serves as the road manager, meaning he drives the cast and equipment to each tour stop, among other things. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is taking on the role of hospitality manager, ensuring that hotel and catering arrangements for the cast and crew are running on all cylinders.
Yet while playing multiple roles on tour might seem like a large undertaking, both agreed that perhaps the toughest part of working for Lightwire is leaning how to perform in the dark.
“It is definitely a challenge unique to Lightwire performances,” Elizabeth explained. “When you first start working in the dark, it completely blows your mind. You lose most of your depth perception, and you truly have to know the show inside and out so that you are able to move confidently across the stage. We rely on our fellow cast members quite a lot, as we have to work well as a team and develop strong communication with each other.”
“The darkness is definitely an element that mustn’t be taken lightly,” Ian added. “For everything you can see happening on stage, there is just as much you can’t see happening. It is all choreographed, and we all rely on each other to know where we need to be and when. It is difficult, but it develops a type of trust that you don’t find in other theatrical mediums. It’s frightful and exhilarating at the same time.”
Exhilarating is a word Steve Jakubczyk might have had in mind as he was making his way toward the exit after the show. Bringing his grandson to the performance, he reflected on his Sunday afternoon before heading back into the rainy, cold December weather.
“It was pretty good,” he said, “but my three-year-old grandson? He thought it was great.”
But alas: did Max’s journey end great? No spoilers here, but let’s just say the crowd cheerily clapped along to “All I Want For Christmas Is You” as the story wound down. Even so, there’s no mistaking how being on the road during the holiday season can present its share of real-life challenges, something even Max … or, well, Elizabeth noted while reflecting on this year’s tour.
“In some ways, being on the road makes the holidays easier, but it is hard to be away from family,” she said before noting at least one perk to her current lifestyle.
“I never,” she concluded, “have to untangle Christmas lights.”