As Tulsa Ballet raises the Chapman Music Hall curtain at Tulsa Performing Arts Center for its 50th anniversary of “The Nutcracker,” volunteers Merry Lahti and Mackie Sutton will be managing children in the wings, directing and moving children on and off stage, and making sure the 140 children ages 7-14 in the annual seven matinee and evening holiday performances hit their cues.
Casting such a large group of kids each year might seem like a tall order, but the number of kids is currently fewer than when Tulsa Ballet’s “Nutcracker” debuted at the Brady Theater in December 1969.
In 1982, Sutton came on board to train “party children,” mice, soldiers and baby clowns, as well as angels, bakers and even rabbits. “We had two to three casts and worked hard to teach the choreography such that the children’s scene would be as clean and professional as we could possibly shape it,” she says.
Lahti’s “Nutcracker” days began when her daughter was cast as a mouse in 1989. She was a mom helping out in the dressing room, then was asked to coordinate volunteers, and over time her role has grown working on the instructor team that teaches all the mice their parts.
Lahti, a full-time Union Public Schools teacher, spends each summer planning the rehearsal schedule prior to mid-September auditions, as well as assisting with the company’s summer intensive. This year 150 kids auditioned for selected parts at Tulsa Ballet’s Hardesty Center for Dance Education for this month’s production.
“We accept as many as possible who are able to catch on quickly to the choreography,” Lahti says.
By mid-October, Saturday and Sunday afternoon rehearsals are in full swing, requiring 25 hours each for the party scene dancers. Rehearsals for mice and soldiers begin about two weeks later for up to 3 hours at a time, and 8-hour rehearsals for baby clowns from Thanksgiving through the first week of December. Final rehearsals for all cast members, including the Tulsa Ballet professional dancers, are held three nights prior to opening.
Lahti says typically 7- to 9-year-olds play mice, though casting also is done by size. Soldiers range in age from 8-12. Those two roles have 20 per cast, while eight play baby clowns. Party scene students, who are now taught by faculty of Tulsa Ballet’s Center for Dance Education, are more advanced, early teen dancers who must show more ballet technique. There are two casts of seven girls, a boy or two if possible, and of course, Marie.
“The highlights include seeing the children scale the challenges and develop into their roles,” Sutton says. “We watch them progress from timid children to confident cast members. I always tell them they’re making memories to be enjoyed for a lifetime. And I believe that is true.”
Since 2003, approximately 2,400 children have been cast in the production choreographed by TB Artistic Director . This year, honoring the 50th anniversary of “Nutcracker” in Tulsa, the Nutcracker Alumni Association was organized for those who have held any role in the production these past five decades. All TB “Nutcracker” alumni will recognized at the Dec. 21 production with a private dinner beforehand, “Nutcracker” T-shirts and mementoes.
As with any theater performance, although the intent is for each to run as smooth as glass, there can be hiccups.
“We used to have a ‘mouse on cheese’ character — young, age 4 or 5 — who rode on a large piece of ‘cheese’ at the beginning of the children’s scene,” Sutton remembers. “It was pushed by three mice who were carefully instructed to get the cheese and the baby mouse across the stage and back to me in the wings at a particular point in the music.”
During one evening performance, the three mice panicked about their next entrance cue, stopped pushing and ran off — leaving the little mouse sitting there, stuck. No one was onstage to help.
“All I remember is being flat on my stomach backstage, reaching with all I had to grab a piece of the cheese material to hook and drag it off stage,” Sutton says. “With the mouse on it. And praying no one saw my arm. Somehow it worked, and the show went on.”