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‘Traditions of Christmas’ keeps Broadway producer Laura Little coming back to Coeur d’Alene

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 14, 2019

Since 2011, Laura Little’s name has been synonymous with Christmas in Coeur d’Alene thanks to “Traditions of Christmas,” a Radio City Music Hall-style show she brought to the city from San Diego.

But “Traditions of Christmas,” which continues through Dec. 23 at the Salvation Army Kroc Center, isn’t the only reason Little’s name is widely known in the theater world.

Her resume includes producing or co-producing credits on “All is Calm,” “Come From Away,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “First Date.” Little was not the first in her family to be bit by the performing bug.

Her father, a Marine, sang, and still sings, in a choir. Just last week, the now 83-year-old performed in Washington, D.C. Little’s mother wrote play reviews for a California newspaper.

“The combination of the two got me very involved in theater,” Little said. When Little was 8, she attended a children’s workshop at the Carlsbad Library during which she played Happy in a production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Two years later, her father took her to see “South Pacific,” her first professional theater production. “I fell in love with it,” Little said. “It was at a dinner theater, and I remember it very, very well.”

Eventually, Little’s mother began taking her to the productions she was reviewing. In high school, Little acted in a few plays herself but quickly found she was more comfortable behind the scenes.

“I’m kind of an introvert, so being onstage was not my comfort zone, but I loved the theatrical company so I became a stage manager.” Little began as an assistant stage manager before taking over stage managing duties for shows like “Play It Again, Sam,” “The Crucible” and “My Fair Lady.”

Little said stage managing is all about details, coordinating with people and communication. “It was all about organizing, and then you learn how to run productions efficiently, which makes you a better director when the time comes to be a director,” she said.

At 17, Little followed in her mother’s footsteps and began reviewing plays for the Blade-Tribune in Oceanside, California. It all started one night when Little and her mother were at a production of “Of Mice and Men.”

Little’s mother didn’t feel good, so Little suggested she write the review herself. She began reviewing community theater, then eventually grew to review some of the professional theaters, like the Lawrence Welk Dinner Theater, in the San Diego area.

Though she took directing, acting and tech classes in college, Little said she learned the most about directing by writing those play reviews. “You see the same shows over and over again and you start thinking, ‘OK, I would do it this way. I would have had them enter stage right instead of stage left,’ ” Little said.

“You start going through everything in your brain, and that really gave me the bug for directing. By doing reviews, you learn about the right things they’re doing, but also the wrong things they’re doing.”

Little attended two junior colleges, MiraCosta College and Palomar College, after high school, with the plan to become a nurse. After finishing her prerequisites and before entering the nursing program, Little had to, after taking an advanced life support class, perform CPR on someone in a public setting.

After completing the CPR requirement, Little had a sudden realization: “Oh my gosh, I was just in a room with 150 people, and I was the only one that knew how to do CPR.”

With that, Little founded a CPR and First-Aid training company in San Diego. She still wrote play reviews and sat on theater boards, but much of her time was focused on her company. About four years later, she sold the company to her best friend and her husband, who still run the company to this day.

“Then doors kept opening for me in the theater world, so I kept stepping through them,” Little said. “I felt like if doors open, you’re supposed to be going through them.”

One of those doors was the opportunity to take a workshop on directing from Paul Russell, who founded Christian Youth Theatre with his wife. In the course, Little learned about blocking, sightlines and “the mechanical stuff of directing, not the emotional aspect of it.”

“He’s been a big influence in my family’s life,” Little said. “He took a chance on me, and his theater company took a chance on my daughter, and my boys were in theater for a short period of time. They were a pivotal part of our life.”

After the workshop, Little co-directed a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” with friend Jeremy Lapp. She then went on to produce and direct three productions of “The Little Princess” in San Diego and another production of “Joseph” after she moved to the Inland Northwest.

As a producer, Little hires the artistic team, including the director, musical director and choreographer, finds funding, figures out a marketing strategy and helps control ticket sales and giveaways. Most importantly, Little said, a producer’s job is to watch the audience.

“You pay attention to ‘Are they fidgeting? Are they getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the show? Do they look bored at any portion of the show?’ because then you know you might not have a winner on your hands,” she said. “It’s reading the audience more than always reading the actors.”

Over the years, Little has gained a lot of experience reading audiences. Little took the first show she produced, “Johnny Baseball,” which is about the Red Sox and the Curse of the Bambino, to Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle.

She had intentions to take the piece to Broadway but ultimately didn’t have enough confidence in herself or the production. “I didn’t feel like I had the right connections, and I wasn’t 100% positive that the piece would be successful,” she said.

But shortly after she chose not to renew her option on “Johnny Baseball,” one of the people who helped her with the project started working on “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s “Peter and Wendy,” and asked Little if she wanted to co-produce and train under them.

Little quickly agreed and asked “every question (she) could possibly ask” and attended every meeting she could to pick people’s brains and grow her résumé and learn how to produce shows on her own.

“Peter and the Starcatcher” opened on Broadway in April 2012 and ran through January 2013 before reopening Off-Broadway. The play went on to win a number of Tony Awards. Little also co-produced “First Date,” which starred Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez and played for five months on Broadway.

Little learned about her next production, “Come From Away,” at an event during which the writers of the piece about Operation Yellow Ribbon, when several planes were diverted to a small town in Canada after the 9/11 attacks, presented it to producers.

“Within five minutes of seeing it, I knew I wanted to come on,” Little said. But it was around this same time yet another door opened for Little. She was asked to help save Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre and had to decide between projects.

“I ended up with Summer Theatre because how do you let a theater that’s 50 years old die?” she said. But as luck would have it, once it was clear that the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre was going to survive, the producer who took over “Come From Away” allowed Little back on the project.

“It was a meant-to-be thing,” Little said. “Summer Theatre got the benefit of staying open, and then I was still able to work on the project that I really wanted to work on down the line.”

“Come From Away” opened on Broadway in March 2017 and in October 2018 became the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history. The show was nominated for and won several Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.

Little’s latest project, “All is Calm,” details the Christmas truce that occurred along the Western Front during World War I. Little was compelled to see the show, at Lake City Playhouse in 2014, because of her father’s military service.

“You walked out feeling joyous and you walked out feeling like you wanted to do something positive in your life or for somebody else,” she told The Spokesman-Review in November 2018. Little couldn’t shake that feeling and reached out to “All is Calm” writer and director Peter Rothstein about the possibility of getting the show to New York.

“Basically what I said was, ‘Why has this not been to New York yet?’ ” Little said in 2018. “He said, ‘No producer’s approached me about it.’ I said, ‘Well consider yourself approached.’ ”

The production made its New York debut at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in November 2018 and went on to win the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.

This month, it was announced that a New York Public Media film crew will film four performances of “All is Calm” at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis. The broadcast will be available in 2020 on PBS.

“It really is pretty surreal, I must say,” Little said. “It doesn’t happen very often. I feel really blessed.” In 2020, Little is setting her sights on bringing “All is Calm” to audiences in England, Belgium and France, concentrating on the shows she’s already connected to rather than picking up new projects.

Theater has been a part of Little’s life since she was a child, and she’s tied it to her personal life even more as her career has grown. She got married on the “All is Calm” stage on Wednesday, on the second day of filming for PBS, and she’s working with her daughter Jessi in “Traditions.”

Little also directed Jessi in “Cabaret,” at the Jacklin Arts and Cultural Center, and “First Date,” at the Coeur d’Alene Inn, this year. A few years ago, she also cast her youngest grandson in a Boise production of “Traditions of Christmas” as baby Jesus.

“His next role will probably be a tree or a monkey,” Little said with a laugh. “Traditions of Christmas” has truly become a family tradition, for those on and off the stage, since Little brought the show to Coeur d’Alene in 2011.

And after so much success on and off Broadway, it’s that familial nature that keeps Little coming back to “Traditions” and Coeur d’Alene year after year. “Pure joy, not only watching the audience, but watching the actors,” she said. “We have many people that are in the show that don’t do theater.

“They’re choir singers. They see each other once a year. It’s like family reconnecting. There are times when I just sit back and watch them all communicate together or play cards together backstage, and I was like, ‘Look at this atmosphere that we’ve created. This positive atmosphere that people are spending this great time together.’

“It’s nice to feel like you’ve had a hand in making that happen. So much joy comes from ‘Traditions.’ ”

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