December 7, 2020


Christmas from DePaul: A behind the scenes look at this year’s virtual event

Like many things in 2020, the university’s cherished annual holiday event will look a bit different. Christmas from DePaul is going virtual. To give the DePaul community a behind the scenes look at this year’s event is its producers, Tony Peluso and Jamie Davis. On this episode, they talk about the challenges they faced due to COVID-19, explain how DePaul’s campus was used to help tell the story of Jesus’ birth and share how DePaul’s students were involved in creating this year’s event, in front of and behind the camera.



​LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications, and thank you for tuning in to a very special holiday episode! 

On Friday, December 11th, at 6:00 p.m., DePaul students, faculty, staff, alumni and the Chicago community will get together for one of the university's most cherished traditions, Christmas from DePaul. But like everything else this year, the event will be slightly different. Christmas from DePaul is going virtual. 

I am joined today by Tony Peluso and Jamie Davis, Christmas from DePaul's producers. They are here to give us a behind‑the-scenes look at this year's event, to talk about some of the challenges COVID‑19 introduced to the production process and to explain what makes this event so special.

Thank you, Tony and Jamie, for joining me today and Happy Holidays!

TONY PELUSO: Thank you, Linda, and Happy Holidays to you also.

JAMIE DAVIS: Yeah, thanks, Linda. Looking forward to this.

LINDA BLAKLEY: For those new to DePaul, what is Christmas from DePaul and how long have you two been involved with this event?

TONY PELUSO: To answer your first question Linda, Christmas from DePaul is really the retelling of the birth of Jesus in word and song, as we like to say.

It's a very familiar story for most of us, of course. And like any great event, it all starts with a great story and we have a great story. And I've been involved with it since the very beginning, which is now coming on 15 years ago, when we first presented the concept to at the time Father Holtschneider, who was the president at DePaul. And it took about a year to get it from the first presentation to the point of saying, "Yes, let's do it," and it's been a labor of love since then for me. 

So, like I say, for 14 years now, we've been producing this, albeit this year it will be just a bit different, as you alluded to a minute ago.

JAMIE DAVIS: I think, like Tony said, Christmas from DePaul is the retelling of the birth of Jesus through song and readings, and I think that we've had the live event for many years and this year we've taken it to the virtual form. 

I got involved with the live event, I think eight years ago now, as a freshman in the lighting design program at the Theatre School programming the lights with John Culbert and stayed with that through my four years at the Theatre School and then took over for Shane Kelly as the production manager and have been doing it ever since.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What makes Christmas from DePaul so special and unique? Tony?

TONY PELUSO: I mean, for me it's not only the familiarity of the story, of course which we're all, you know, certainly familiar with, but I think its kind of the way we bring it all together.  And I think it is extremely ‑‑ it has always been extremely important to me that the story and the music work hand in hand to create what, up until now, was an immersive experience inside the wonderful church on campus. 

And I think it's not just what I would call a laundry list of familiar carols followed by some merit narration. It's the idea that together the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts, really. What we've been so successful with through the years is creating this immersive experience.

Obviously, literally emotion in the church but also where the audience can really feel like they're part of the story and follow the story and end with all of us together as the story ends.

JAMIE DAVIS: Yeah, I think Tony did a great job summing it up. 

I think for me ever since, like I said, a freshman in the Theatre​ School, just the sense of community that it creates and just being able to visually see the joy that it brings to people's faces when they come to see the show. 

I think Tony writes it in every year that this is one of the hottest tickets in the city, and, you know, it truly is; and it's a lot of fun to see the joy that people have as they leave the show every night. It's definitely the thing that's brought me back time and time again. 

I like to say now to all my friends because they keep asking, "Well, why do you keep going back to do this?" And I say, "Well, I get to do shows all around the world, and this is the one show my mom comes to see every year and it makes her smile, makes her cry. And it really kicks off the holiday season for everybody."

So, you know, that joy is just something that you can't do really anywhere else. And so I think the show really kicks off the holiday season and brings joy to people.

TONY PELUSO: If I can add one thing to that to kind of pyramid on what Jamie was saying is about that clearly in the past, because we've all come together inside the building and in the church, many of us not knowing each other when we first walked in, but I think by the time it ends, through the power of music and words and the visuals together, we've all become one family, you know, somebody who can ‑‑ a family that can relate to what you saw and heard, and I think that in particular what has made it so special. 

As Jamie said, you know, we hope to touch everyone's heart. We hope to maybe bring a tear at some point but also a smile. And when it's all over, I think everybody's kind of ready for a hug, maybe virtually this year, but definitely some kind of a hug.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So you both have a wealth of experience with this university tradition. How has it evolved over the years and how did you both become involved?

TONY PELUSO: Some 15 years ago I had an idea of wanting to do something with the university as a give‑back, quite honestly. 

And at the time, the dean of music was Don Casey. He and I had dinner one night here in Florida, where I live. And we kind of talked about this idea, a similar one that I had produced at Disney for many years when I was there. And I said, "But I think there's something we can do very special at DePaul and I'd love to talk a bit more about it, investigate it and put something together." So we did.

And I think, as I said, it took about a year and we presented the idea to, again, to Father Holtschneider and he said, "I really like this." He said, "I think this is something that could be uniquely us," which is what I said too, be uniquely DePaul. 

And I think from there it just began to grow. You know, I ‑‑ as a producer and a writer and a creative director, kind of all those roles together, has always been a labor of love. And it has evolved in that ‑‑ it's kind of funny, the first year, the university was very concerned about making sure there were going to be enough people to see this thing and they actually advertised it and bought ‑‑ you know, bought print ad and all of that. And I said, "Oh, that's great," and it filled, of course. 

But then from about year one and a half I like to say on, it was never an issue again. It was quite the opposite. 

As Jamie just said, it has become one of the hottest tickets in town, as you know Linda, certainly that, you know, we can accommodate in the church at least about 2,000 people over the course of three performances. And, you know, we've done as many as 14,000 ticket requests through the years for it. So it's evolved into one of those things that everybody wants to go. Everyone wants to be a part of it.

Yeah. I'd like to add two points to that.  

I think the first, you know, like we're saying, the holiday season is when everyone's supposed to come together, and we had definitely taken a cue from the very start of this that we wanted this to be DePaul‑centric. And we looked at things like the Disney sing-alongs that have happened and we really wanted to brand this Christmas from DePaul from "Our Home to Yours." And our home is DePaul. So, like Tony was saying, going all around the campus and showing it at these different locations. 

But then point two, from a technical perspective, past couple years we've looked at taking the live show and bringing it into a broadcast format. And when we did that, we looked at a couple other universities that have done similar things and a couple other big choirs that have done similar things, and we saw things that we really liked and saw things that we really didn't like, and so to continue the immersive experience in a digital format, technically we made a big push to not just have one or two cameras where it just cuts back and forth between those, because we've all seen those really boring choir shots where it's this big group of choir singing, and that's all you see for an hour and a half. 

So we brought in a group of video directors that are really experienced in cutting music, and they were able to really bring some dynamic perspective to the table and create this what feels like you're sitting in a concert watching it up on the big screen. So that was super exciting as well to, you know, continue the immersive experience that you get in the church and bring it into a virtual setting.

LINDA BLAKLEY: As I mentioned in my introduction, this year's event will be virtual. How are you capturing and preserving the traditional spirit of Christmas from DePaul in the virtual setting?

TONY PELUSO: I think, as we said, certainly true to the story as we all know it, that hasn't changed. And the musical selections that we worked very hard on all through the year to make sure that they support the narrative of the -- either as kind of a setup to what we're going to hear narration wise or as kind of a close to what we just heard. So we worked diligently to make sure that those work. 

This year, as Jamie alluded to, they'll be virtual. What we've also done -- you know, in the past you sit in -- you know, you sit in a seat, and you watch a 200‑voice choir on the altar, and it comes to life that way. This year we've kind of gone the opposite of that and that is we're all over the place. And what it's given us the opportunity to do is really showcase the university's heart and soul, but also the facilities if you will. 

So, you know, we recorded in iconic buildings and outdoor spaces throughout campus. And I think seeing the performers, as people will, in not normal places, right, Jamie? I mean, where we did this is what also makes it kind of fun and will make it different instead of a 200‑voice choir standing on choir risers. So that in and of itself is ‑‑ keeps the story true, but at the same time, I think we've taken advantage of how do we pick this theme called DePaul and the campus and really make that work to help tell the story, help propel the story, if you will.

What were some of the roadblocks you faced?

TONY PELUSO: Well, something called COVID, to start with, and probably the roadblock, but the biggest or largest roadblock. 

And it was ‑‑ in some ways it was a roadblock, but it also presented itself as a very unique opportunity, as Jamie started to talk about. We had this wonderful thing called campus and we said let the campus be the driver of how we help tell the story.  And I will tell you, and Jamie can explain this even better, but we took such great caution to make sure that what we did not only met but surpassed all of the potential pitfalls that we would have to worry about as far as working through the COVID‑19 protocols, and I am so proud of how we did that. 

And, again, being on a campus where no one was theoretically on for most of this time. And we brought people in one by one sometimes to record them in their own little room, in their own little bubble, if you will. 

And then the magic of putting that all together as we'll see, hopefully, in ten days is what really, I think, in some ways is just as magical as the story itself and how we did that. 

And, you know, it's one of those things that ‑‑ how does the saying go? “Necessity is the mother of invention." Right?  I don't think we would have ever thought about doing it this way had we not had to think about it. And we certainly did and everyone loves the new location.

And I really do credit Jamie here on the thinking through of logistically of how in the world are we going to do this. And then a couple of days before we were ready to start recording the instrumentalists, there was a roadblock. They said, “oh, there's the one building that is not ‑‑ is no longer available to us," which was the School of Music building, for a whole bunch of reasons. And somebody said, "Oh, my goodness, what do we do? We can't use the school music building. What do we do?" 

So we kind of did a little shuffle there and were able to actually take over a dorm that was used up until this year and not this year, and that became our recording studio. Instead of Abbey Road, we called it Fullerton Abbs. And, again, necessity is the mother of invention.

I think that really is probably the defining sentence for the whole project this year. And from the very first time that Jamie and I penned the letter or an email to Dr. Esteban, saying, "What do you think?" neither of us thinking he would ever say, "Yeah, I'm interested in it," he did. So that's how we got to this point.

JAMIE DAVIS: Yeah, I would have to agree with Tony.

I think the biggest roadblock was COVID. I think that was always very much so on the table from day one discussions all the way up until even now in postproduction into, you know, how we're going to communicate to the audience that's watching this, all of the steps that we took to prevent COVID appearing on set. 

And the planning that went into that was quite extensive, led by a multitude of people. I came up with, like, the first draft of things and then that went through various levels of approval, and constantly monitoring CDC and Chicago and all of the different health organizations, what their recommendations were. 

And then, like Tony said, you know, about five days before we were set to start all the instrumental recordings, I don't know if it was our ignorance in just not checking it before or someone changing their mind at the last minute, but the School of Music closes over the weekend to thoroughly deep clean so that when they get back on Monday, they can have their students in a clean environment. 

And we had planned on using about 14 rooms on the second floor, and came to find out that we weren't going to be able to use it over the weekend when we were going to have to do all of our instrumental recordings so that we could start the following week with all the vocal recordings, because, obviously, the vocalists had to have something to sing to. 

So five days prior to this, we made the switch over to University Hall and literally took over dorm rooms, and every instrument got their own room to play in. And so we were up on the fourth floor with light tables all over the place. And listening to the final mixed‑down version of this, you'd never be able to tell that we were in an old college dorm room and I think that's pretty impressive.

So, yeah, I'd have to agree with the COVID statement.

TONY PELUSO: And, Linda, that goes back a little bit to the difference in title this year. Christmas from DePaul, it truly is, because it's from everywhere on campus, from a dorm room to the magnificent church and I think, again, what makes it so very special.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What role or roles did DePaul students play?

TONY PELUSO: DePaul students have always been part of the process from the very beginning, of course, and part of the event and program.

Many of the people think of the, you know, in-front-of-the-cameras portion of that, of course, the performers themselves, the orchestra, the choir, the narrators and some stagehands and have always come from the Theatre School.

This year even more so -- and that was a basic tenet of when we presented the idea -- was that we want to utilize more students in different ways than we've ever done before. And this version certainly afforded the opportunity to do that. And, again, out of necessity as well as want. 

And Jamie can talk a little bit more about the detail, but in the past really the two schools that have supported the program mostly have been the School of Music of course and also the Theatre School. 

But this year we got to involve the College of Digital Media also, which has been a really nice add to it. And I think, again, Jamie, I'm going to kind of throw this to you here, but to talk a little bit about how we did involve and integrate them into the program also.

JAMIE DAVIS: Yeah. I think it was ‑‑ it was definitely a fun conversation to have. When we originally started talking to the three deans of the schools, Theatre, Music and CDM, we kind of pitched it as this is going to be an opportunity of - A, something that your students can do hands‑on in a year that they're not necessarily going to get a lot of hands‑on experience just because of social distancing.

And, obviously, Theatre School and Music School can't really do their live performances right now so this will give them something hands‑on that they can do and really, you know, show their parents and show their friends and family and just say, you know, "This is something I got to work on." 

And so we kind of took it and pitched it as, like, a Masterclass type thing. We brought in, like I said earlier, a lot of key video people. Charlie Alves was our video director. He works frequently with the Chicago Bulls and does big concert tours.  So Charlie came in and was able to work with students from CDM as well as Theatre School and really kind of show them how to use their skills that they're learning in school in a new way.  And I think that's something -- across all of those colleges, that's something, you know, really cool for the students that participated in it. 

Live events are not coming back anytime soon, as sad as that is to say, so this is kind of the industry that they're going to end up going into, and this kind of gave them a sneak peek at how that industry is moving forward. And from someone in that industry, I think that's a really exciting thing and something that I would have killed for if I was in school. 

So for everyone that participated, I think they got a step up into what they're going into, and I think that's really exciting.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So one final question for both of you. What was your favorite part about producing this year's Christmas from DePaul?

JAMIE DAVIS: There's so many to choose from. 

I think the collaboration between all the people we brought in was a lot of fun. We got to hear a lot of different perspectives that we otherwise would not hear.

I think the challenges that we faced were also a lot of fun. I like to be a problem solver. So coming up with solutions to all of these various problems that most people would never think of was a lot of fun.

And then just being able to, for me, get out and work again. You know, I work full‑time in the live event industry, so being able to go and actually produce a show after a year of not producing shows was a lot of fun. 

So I think all of that combined, yeah, like I said, just with working with the students and working with the people we brought in I think is a lot of fun, but I think the best part is yet to come, which is seeing people's reactions when we release this.

And I think for me it's about, if you will, kind of taking the words from the page and having them come to life, the personification of the story and the way we did the story, the way we told the story, if you will, this year, not on a stage in a church, but all throughout campus. And that, I think, is really gratifying.

And I think watching the students come outside of their normal comfort zone a little bit. And, "What do you mean we're not standing together on a choir riser?" I said, "Well, you're not.  Somebody's on a stairway. Somebody's on a grass field" or whatever it be. 

And I think ‑‑ and then watching the students start to light up about all that too, which is, “oh, wow, this is a little different.  This is kind of neat," you know? And I think that is particularly gratifying.

And, you know, I think I've always felt this since the first time we started Christmas at DePaul, now 14 years ago and I've always said that, you know, some day, you know, all of Chicago will feel like we all do about this and that it's not Christmas until you go to Christmas at DePaul. 

And while that was true for maybe around 2,000 people each time for the past 13 years, this year we're hoping that that 2,000 becomes 200,000 because of the availability of seeing it virtually and online wherever they may be.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you, Tony and Jamie, for your time today and for helping make Christmas from DePaul possible this year.  I cannot wait to join the rest of the DePaul community and watch it from my home.

TONY PELUSO: We're certainly glad we could be part of it. And from all of us involved in production, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

JAMIE DAVIS: Thank you, Linda. Looking forward to it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Christmas from DePaul will air online on Friday, December the 11th, at 6:00 p.m. Central Time. To join in the festivities, please register using the link on the DePaul Download website. 

I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to the DePaul Download podcast. And on behalf of DePaul's University Marketing and Communications team, have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.