Penny Shaw brings renewed Christmas spirit to life in the Hilltowns Players’ production

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Playing the part of a poor person, Penny Shaw wrote and is directing the musical “Deck the Halls.”

BERNE — A new Christmas tradition is about to be born.

Everyone knows the Victorian staple by Charles Dickens in which hard-hearted Scrooge takes a ghostly guided tour of his past, present, and future and decides to change for the better.

And most Americans know the Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which Jimmy Stewart played a despondent George Bailey — on the verge of killing himself until an angel showed him how awful his town would have been without him.

The Hilltowns Players has brought Scrooge to life in recent years — in the play “Bah, Humbug!” — and was planning this year to stage “It’s A Wonderful Life.” But only one man showed up for auditions.

Enter: Penny Shaw

The longtime actress who also sews costumes, makes playbills, and paints scenery evolved into a director and playwright during her decades with The Hilltowns Players.

[Listen to Shaw's interview on the Enterprise podcast.]

She has written “Deck the Halls,” which combines some of the elements of Dickens’s classic — the softening of a hard heart through a Christmastime journey — with some of the elements of Capra’s 1946 film — using angels as a guide.

But Shaw adds elements all her own, including a female businesswoman who needs to understand the needs of others with female angels as guides.

She combines original songs with holiday classics in a heartfelt renewal of Christmas spirit.

“Deck the Halls” tells the story of Halls, a businesswoman whose greed leads her to instruct her second-in-command, Jones, to lay off most of their employees — just before Christmas. Joan refuses and is fired.

She leaves to find two homeless people in the park, Annie and Bob, who tell her to give Halls a second chance. Jones gives Halls a deal: She will stay as Halls’s employee and do her bidding, but the two must be together for 24 hours.

 

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Warming themselves around a burn barrel, homeless people gather at Christmastime. At center is Penny Shaw, who wrote and is directing “Deck the Halls,” playing this weekend on the Berne-Knox-Westerlo stage.

 

Always a performer

Shaw grew up on a farm in Michigan, where her family members were not only hard workers but also as musically inclined as she was. She loved to sing, and learned piano from her mother and guitar from her father. Shaw was also drawn to entertaining others, putting on skits with stuffed animals for her siblings.

Shaw met her now ex-husband, a native of the Hilltowns, and moved with him in 1980 from Michigan to the Hilltowns. In 1982, when Shaw was 24, she saw an advertisement in the newspaper for auditions by a new group, The Hilltowns Players.

The organization had only been recently formed by Mitch Haverly, the Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School music director at the time; Arlene Lendrum, the sports booster president and longtime school board member; Anne Whipple, a Parent-Teacher Association board member; and John Foster, a high school science teacher.

All of the founders, save Haverly, have since died but the troupe they founded has continued to put on plays, year in and year out for 35 years.

These founders wanted to offer the chance to perform for those who had graduated from high school and could no longer act in the school plays. It would also offer entertainment to those living on the Hill.

“They didn’t have a lot of performing arts available up here; Proctor’s would be the closest one,” said Shaw. “And they thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have something like that available performed by community members for community members?’”

They held a production of “Li’l Abner” that summer, and Shaw got the lead female role — the beautiful Daisy Mae. The play is based on Al Capp’s satirical comic strip, featuring hillbillies in the poor mountain town of Dogpatch.

The Hilltowns Players, now a not-for-profit troupe, performs a fall show at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School auditorium. In the spring, the players travel to various churches and other venues to perform. They previously held a talent show as well, but struggled to put on that alongside their performances.

“We were doing double duty,” said Shaw. She said that they have discussed bringing it back in the summer when there are no shows.

Their traveling performances involve transporting the set pieces in a trailer from place to place. Shaw said the cast will go to new venues beforehand to if they can to get an understanding of the stage and the space, but sometimes that’s not feasible.

“You just have to roll with it … ,” said Shaw. “It’s fun, it’s a challenge, it really is.”

Shaw has two degrees; she first received one in communication art and, later in life, another in early childhood education. Her communications degree helped Shaw when she made playbills for the shows.

One year, while doing a production of “Brigadoon,” the Hilltown Players brought in a director from Schenectady.

“We had a parting of ways halfway through our rehearsal schedule,” said Shaw. She said the director would often instruct the cast to do one thing and then another, leading to his eventual departure. Shaw was then asked to step into a new role. That was her directing debut.

Becoming a playwright

Shaw has, over the years, evolved as a playwright, using the Hilltowns Players as a canvas for her work. In turn, the local troupe has had a chance to perform original productions, which are shaped by Shaw as rehearsals unfold.

“Deck the Halls” is the sixth show Shaw has written for the Hilltowns Players. Her other shows include her first musical, “Beulah-by-the-Sea,” as well as a children’s play and a Civil War romance. The performances serve Shaw well, as it is preferred for stageplays to be performed before they are sold to a publisher, she said.

Shaw first became inspired to write when she was reading stories to her children and acting them out, and she began to think perhaps she could do the same.

Shaw also caught the writing bug when she visited her grandmother in a nursing home, where her grandmother would tell her, “I ain’t doing nothing; they won’t let me do nothing here.” And so Shaw asked if could record her memories.

Her grandmother agreed, telling Shaw to ask the questions and put the stories down in a book. When Shaw completed her work, she brought the book to the late Frieda Saddlemire at the Berne Library, who told her that it lacked dialogue.

“Bring these people to life, have them talk to each other,” Saddlemire said.

“That helped me … ,” said Shaw. “Come to a play, and the story is told through dialogue.”

Eventually, Shaw would take a correspondence course on children’s book-writing as well.

The first play she wrote was a children’s play, “Not Your Average Fairy Tale,”  featuring a tomboy princess, a fairy godmother dressed like Dolly Parton, and a Big Bad Wolf who continues to steal a chicken.

Shaw wrote “Deck the Halls” two years ago. “I wasn’t ready yet to present this play,” she explained.

Shaw had written a story and comprised the melodies for her songs, but had not yet printed the sheet music; instead, the show uses her handwritten notes.

But now the play has come to life and this weekend, play-goers on the Hill and off will have a chance to see it and catch the Christmas spirit.

****

“Deck the Halls” plays on the Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School stage at 1738 Helderberg Trail in Berne on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 17 and 18, at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, Nov. 19, at 3 p.m. Tickets are $12, with a $4 discount for students, seniors, veterans, and those in military service.

 

More Hilltowns News

  • Berne-Knox-Westerlo has published its reopening plan on its website. Governor Andrew Cuomo will determine the first week of August whether schools will reopen statewide. 

  • A state audit has revealed that Knox Town Clerk Traci Schanz failed to deposit more than 300 fee collections within the legally required timeframes and made reporting errors that left the town with an unremitted cash balance of more than $3,000, according to a report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller.

  • Knox and Berne have each signed an agreement that allows Berne’s dog-control officer, Jody Jansen, to shelter dogs in Knox’s kennel while Berne renovates its own Switzkill Farm kennel. 

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