By LOU PONSI     1/12/2023

Whether they are singers, dancers, actors or musicians, every performer will likely face a situation where they are forced to improvise at a moment’s notice.

For hundreds of performing arts students at Mater Dei High School, that situation came on the eve of the school’s annual “Christmas at the Corner” performance on Dec. 4.

Started more than 25 years ago by then Mater Dei rector, Fr. Steve Sallot, “Christmas at the Corner” is a festive way to kick off the Christmas season with performances by the band, choir, actors and dancers.

The highlight of the show is a live reenactment of the Nativity with narrators reading passages from the Bible.

“Christmas at the Corner” is always staged outside in Mary’s Grotto on the Mater Dei campus, but a rainstorm forced this year’s show to move inside in the Meruelo Athletic Center.

The move was a significant undertaking that involved quickly transforming the main gymnasium into a Christmas themed performance venue.

An all-day wrestling tournament took place in the gym on Dec. 3, giving the students and faculty a much shorter window to set up the gym and reconfigure the performance.

“In less than 24 hours, we made a shift,” Performing Arts coordinator Marisa Winch said. “Everybody had to change what they were doing.”

Everyone gathered on campus at 6 a.m. on the morning of the show and got busy.

“We were all bouncing ideas off each other to figure out what was going to work,” said junior Riley Lewis, theatre advocacy officer and member of Mater Dei’s Thespian Troupe 3464. “I feel like everyone was just very adaptable to change. Theater 4 (class) is all about company, so it’s kind of about having each other’s backs and supporting each other. So, it was really about having a company moment, where we were really tested and we all kind of had to pick up what was left for each other and work together.”

In 1993 and 94, Mater Dei staged a Christmas show at the Bren Center on the campus of UC Irvine, said Fr. Sallot, who now serves as pastor at Our Lady Queen of Angels parish in Newport Beach.

But that became too costly, so school officials decided to move the show to the Mater Dei campus, allowing for a more intimate performance, Fr. Sallot said.

“So, we decided to bring it all back to Mater Dei to bring the cost down and allow folks to be closer together,” Fr. Sallot said. “It included wandering carolers, a manger scene, dance and choir singing along with the guests, a reading of the “Christmas Story” and of course, Santa (one of the students) showed up and knelt before the live manger.”

The show was officially called “Christmas at the Corner,” a reference to Mater Dei’s location on the southeast corner of Bristol Street and Edinger Avenue.

The overall theme hasn’t changed much, Winch said, and now the show gives off a Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” vibe with performers dressed in Victorian era clothing.

With the show being moved to the gymnasium, many individual and group performances had to be re-choreographed.

“Moving to the (gymnasium), we had to change a lot of our blocking,” said Lewis, a member of the International Thespian Society.

“We usually walk through an aisle in the Grotto and there is not an aisle in the athletic center, so we had to kind of adapt to that. So, we had to enter from the side or walk back and forth.”

Sophomore Savannah Fregoso, a performer in Mater Dei’s Dance Conservatory group, played the role of Mary and performed a contemporary dance routine in the Christmas show for the second year in a row.

When the show was moved indoors, 45 seconds were added to the Fregoso’s original routine, extending the new routine almost three minutes long.

Fregoso’s skill and years of experience got her through the new routine without much difficulty.

“We had to kind of switch some of the choreography around,” Fregoso said. “Also, a benefit was that since we were on the basketball court, I was able to incorporate turns and little pieces of choreography. We
worked really hard, and we choreographed an extra 45 seconds. It worked.”

This wasn’t the first time “Christmas at the Corner” had to be improvised.

During the pandemic, instead of a live performance, students produced a video featuring a compilation of performers from every discipline.

Two years ago, a vendors’ bazaar was added to Christmas show, allowing current and former students, family members, teachers and friends of Mater Dei to sell merchandise.

The bazaar was also moved inside the gymnasium this year.

“I think it was a great experience,” Winch said. “It was definitely different. I loved it. I thought because of the rain and because of the change of venue, we might not get a lot of people. We had at least 1,000 people.
The vendors said they can’t wait to come back next year. So, I think the magic is still there and I am very happy we can put this together for the community.”