The first day of winter approaches, and Christmas shows are in rehearsal for the holiday season. This year, Seattle Public Theater is refreshing its holiday offering with a new play by local playwright Maggie Lee.
Lee considers this opportunity an honor. “Last fall, Seattle Public Theater approached me about writing a new family holiday show to take the place of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” she said. “It was a much beloved play that had been done annually for many years and was a longstanding tradition in the SPT community, so it was pretty daunting for me to think of writing something else to replace it.”
In response, Lee developed a new play entitled Flight Before Xmas. “I knew right away that I didn’t want to do an adaptation or spin-off of any of the usual holiday tales, like A Christmas Carol, or The Nutcracker, but instead wanted to come up with a brand new original story,” Lee said. “One of the things that I hate the most about the holidays is braving the airport to fly home—my family lives in California—so of course I ended up writing about that.”
The planes, trains and automobile ritual is not what most would consider a poignant piece of the American holiday experience. But, says, Lee, “There’s something about the mixed blessing and curse of holiday travel that really appealed to me, and I felt that it was a situation that a lot of modern families could easily relate to,” Lee said. “Stranding a bunch of strangers in an airport together on Christmas Eve was weirdly the best way to explore what the holidays mean to each of us, what makes us cling to tradition, and also what it really means to be a family.”
While many Americans consciously avoid or dislike airports, Lee finds them fascinating. “By their very nature, they are transitory spaces,” she said. “It gives you a kind of freedom from yourself because you know that you’re just passing through to somewhere else.”
With the increased scrutiny of airport security, it seems counter-intuitive to imagine freedom at an airport—but Lee thinks otherwise. “All kinds of things can happen at the airport that would never happen in your normal life,” she said. “Maybe you might talk to a stranger because you know you’ll never see them again. Everyone’s a stranger at the airport, which in an odd way actually makes for a weird kind of intimacy between the people waiting there.”
Intentionality is another aspect of airport life that Lee finds compelling. “Every single person is there for a reason, be it travelling for fun, business, family or whatever,” she said. “But each passenger is getting on a plane for a distinct purpose, and all those unspoken stories brushing up against each other while stuck in lines or crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in waiting areas is really fascinating to think about.”
So did Lee spend hours in airports in order to develop this play? “I did a lot of research about different holiday traditions all over the world to get some inspiration for the play,” she said. “There are some really fun and wacky stories from different countries, and some of them are a little dark and scary.”
Lee was willing to share a tidbit of one of these stories. “One of my favorites was about the Yule Cat from Iceland. It’s a fearsome beast that comes out every Christmas Eve, and it devours anyone who has not received new clothes as a present,” she said. “I have one character who is a young boy traveling with his cat in a carrier, so I felt that I just had to work that story into the play somehow.”
But Lee hasn’t felt the typical isolation of the “lone writer” while working on this project. “Seattle Public Theater has been very supportive in the creation of this new work,” she said. “We have been working hard on developing the play for the past year, and I am really looking forward to starting rehearsals this week.”
What kinds of surprises should the audience expect, according to Lee? “We’ll see if everyone makes it out of the airport in one piece!”
‘Flight Before Xmas’ runs from December 1 to 24, at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 West Green Lake Drive North, Seattle. For more information, visit www.seattlepublictheater.org/the-flight-before-xmas.