By Ken Downey | Correspondent
After watching, “A Christmas Carol” with her family, 15-year-old Angela Gibilisco, wanted to take the story and give it a religious twist.
“It was during the scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Past that I first imagined an angel appearing to a man similar to Scrooge and taking him to see what actually happened on the very first Christmas,” said Gibilisco, member of the youth ministry in St. Catherine Laboure Parish, Middletown.
Hence “The Heart of Christmas,” presented Dec. 29 by 24 youth ministry members, was born.
Originally, plans were to reenact the Nativity story, but when learning that children in religious education class put on a similar performance, the youth changed plans. Instead, Gibilisco enlisted the help of her friend and youth ministry peer adviser Mya Riley to write what they considered a religious “Christmas Carol.”
In the play, a Scrooge-like character named Michael is visited by his guardian angel and brought back to the first Christmas to experience what the holiday is truly about.
“I knew I needed a great writer,” Angela said. “I've known Mya most of my life and knew I could count on her to provide top-notch material for what I needed and extended the invitation to write and direct the play with me. While I helped to write three or four scenes, Mya really gave this play the spark I wanted.”
Added Riley, “I've been writing fiction for a few years now, but this was my first attempt at a script. It was also my first time collaborating with another person. … It worked out well, though. I did most of the writing, and she [Gibilisco] did most of the directing, but we helped each other out when we needed it.”
With an idea on paper, the production came to life with the help of youth ministry coordinator Theresa Gibilisco.
“The preparation going in the show was that of any live performance,” she said. “We had informal rehearsals … formal rehearsals, last-minute additions to the cast and support roles, and of course had to somehow transform our parish hall into a parish theater, which we did by way of very long curtains to divide the hall into ‘theater seating’ and ‘backstage.’”
Through it all, she said, “the kids learned to trust each other, trust the directors that it would all come together in the end.”
That sentiment was also apparent when Shakespeare’s biggest element came into play: drama. During the lead-up to the big day, the actor portraying Michael let it be known that he couldn’t make the performance, and the show was left without a lead.
The young Gibilisco quickly asked everyone she knew to fill in for the role, and when she turned to her younger brother, Anthony, 14, also a youth ministry member, he couldn’t refuse. “Without him, this play would not have been as successful or happened,” she said, grateful.
Theresa Gibilisco said she believed the youth, as well as herself, were inspired by God while creating the performance.
“The script and play instilled the lesson that there is more to life than what it seems. The biggest lesson learned was that all you need to be happy is faith, love and family,” she said. “Outside of the script, the teens learned that sometimes our own performance depends on the ability to trust others to pull their weight and know their roles.”
“The kids learned that there is so much more to Christmas than receiving gifts,” she continued. “The title, ‘The Heart of Christmas,’ forced each involved to wonder what the true meaning of Christmas is. The overall message was that we should, ‘give this Christmas away’ because the heart of Christmas is Christ, who gave his all for us, who are sinful and imperfect by nature.”
For herself, the youth ministry coordinator relied on her faith during the types of last-minute changes that befall most productions. “I truly sat back and watched the work that only God can do. … I fell back on prayer and let God work through those who were dedicated to the performance. I saw the magnificence of the Holy Spirit shine through [those] teens who had the drive to make this work and get the message out.”
The goodwill continued after the performance as well. After the show, Kevin Garrison from Blessing Bag Brigade NJ, which helps the homeless, gave a brief overview of the service his organization provides and how that mission tied into the theme of the play.
The youth group will be working with Garrison and his group next month in performing Corporal Works of Mercy.