Justin M. Kiska is the President and Managing Director of Way Off Broadway Dinner Theater, located in Frederick, Maryland. He handles many facets of the operating aspects of the theater, in addition to being a playwright for some of the shows. This year, Justin wrote Christmas Tidings, a show filled with Christmas sentiments that has audience members of all ages howling with laughter. Justin shares with us the inspirations and philosophy behind his festive and family-friendly productions.
Tell us about your show choices, particularly your holiday offering, Christmas Tidings?
Each year, Way Off Broadway does five Mainstage shows, four of which are licensed Broadway shows. This season we did The Drowsy Chaperone, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, Hairspray, and Chicago. The fifth and final show of the year is always our Christmas show which is an original production written each year for the theatre.
The first Christmas show I wrote for WOB was 2005’s An Old Fashioned (Radio) Christmas. I have written every Christmas show since then except for last season’s Christmas Follies: The North Pole Revue. After five Christmas shows in a row, I thought it best to take a bit of a break because I didn’t want to repeat anything I had done, and I was a little burned out, and really couldn’t think of a “great” idea for the show. Now I’m back with Christmas Tidings this season, and have already begun some preliminary work on next year’s Season’s Greetings: An Empire Christmas.
How difficult is it to write a holiday show, and what do you look for when you write it?
With the show being an original production, you are starting from scratch. The show has never been produced before so there are no other productions to draw from and everything you do gets to be completely and totally original. That’s the case with any brand new show. But when you layer in Christmas – that also takes it to a whole new level. My philosophy with the Christmas show is that it has to be fun. Christmas is one of the most chaotic and stressful times of the year so for the few hours our guests are at WOB, all I want them to do is forget about the outside world and have a good time.
Holiday shows can be a lot more over the top. When I write a show, specifically the Christmas show, I like putting characters in that everyone knows. To do that though, sometimes, they almost need to be caricatures. While I don’t always come right out and say who some of the characters are supposed to resemble, people can just look at them and listen to them and instantly know who they are. In Christmas Tidings, you will see a bit of a spoof of the Real Housewives of (pick a city) and sisters who could be described as a cross between the Kardashians and Paris and Nikki Hilton. Of course, those are just some of the comedy bits. There are also much more “down-to-earth” characters as well.
Where did you get your ideas for writing your Christmas shows?
I have a bit of a tradition when writing the Christmas show. On the 4th of July, Way Off Broadway’s Creative Director has a big picnic out at his family’s house every year. After a day of eating, swimming, and volley ball, I head home, take a hot shower, then sit down at the computer and start writing the Christmas show for that year. Yes, Christmas starts very early for me. Throughout the year, I am also making notes here and there if I have an idea that I don’t want to forget. But the 4th of July is the day I officially start putting everything together.
The ideas for the show can come from anywhere. Someone can say something to me that has nothing to do with Christmas and it may spark an idea that then snowballs into an entire show. I know specifically where the original idea for this year’s show came from though. After a performance of Hairspray this past summer, I had gone out for pizza with Sarah Melinda, who was playing Velma Von Tussle in the show, a good friend of mine who has been a part of the WOB family for years, and is in this year’s Christmas show as well, and we were actually talking about ideas for the show. The idea came up, “What about a card shop where everyone’s wishes come true?” That’s all it took. A simple idea like that that I was able to run with, build on, and add a few surprises to.
The ideas for the Christmas shows really can come from anywhere at any time.
Did your ‘tweak’ your script during rehearsals as a result of you also being the director?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Going into rehearsals, which begin in September, we have a full script. Up until that point though, the cast hasn’t been involved yet. Once the cast gets a hold of the pages, they start to really come up with and build their characters and something funny that is said or done at rehearsal can very easily end up being writing into the show. It happens like that every year at Christmas. Being the director this year also made it very easy for me to make changes the minute something happened or when there was an idea.
How has your performance space impacted the staging and direction of your season’s productions?
Being one of the theatre’s owners, I am very well aware of our stage space and what can and cannot be done, so that certainly helps when writing the show. When we are doing a show like South Pacific, we need to figure out how to make everything work within our space. With the Christmas show, I can write the show to fit the space from the start.
Have you considered licensing out and sharing the shows you’ve written?
All of my Christmas shows have been written for Way Off Broadway. Not that I wouldn’t consider licensing them out, but that has never really been a goal. When I am not writing Christmas shows however, I write interactive murder mysteries. Talk about going from one extreme to the other. I do love writing the mysteries. Those characters are always way over-the-top and audiences love them. My mysteries are done here at WOB throughout the year as special events. But this year we began working with the Walkersville Southern Railroad who will bring in the mysteries for events they are having.
Working with them this year has been great. It’s allowed me to come up with a good working formula and beginning next year, we will start marketing the mysteries for corporate and private functions.
My next mystery coming up here at WOB is in March called A Taste of Murder: Curiosity Killed the Cook. It will be a spoof on all of the cooking shows that are on television these days. I have really had fun with themes for my past mysteries. I’ve done a take-off on American Idol, there was a class reunion, a fantasy fairytale mystery with all of the fairytale characters. This past fall we did one of the funniest mysteries yet, DEATH: It’s a Drag! The whole thing was set to the backdrop of a drag club.
What do you want the audience to come away with after seeing your shows?
I have said it many times, but I am not a person that believes all theatre needs to teach a lesson. What I want to do is entertain people. Pure and simple. If they can walk out of Way off Broadway with a smile on their faces having forgotten whatever the crisis of the week had been, then we have done our jobs.
Christmas Tidings plays through December 30, 2011, at Way Off Broadway Dinner Theatre and Children’s Theatre – 5 Willowdale Drive, in Willowtree Plaza, in Frederick, MD. To make a reservation call the box office (301) 662-6600.