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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Dalton Middle School drama teacher Courtenay Cholovich at Dalton Middle School on Dec. 16, 2020.

As six talented eighth grade thespians ran through the lines of a radio version of "A Christmas Carol," Courtenay Cholovich sat on the floor in front of the stage and listened intently.

Fifteen minutes went by, then twenty.

In an exquisite English accent, Carter Greeson yelled at ghosts as Scrooge into a microphone hooked up to a soundboard. The audio of the show will soon be broadcast on WUTC as a holiday special. An actual performance is scheduled later for just the students' families. The six performers were going through one last dress rehearsal.

In a red Dalton (Georgia) Middle School face mask, Cholovich held up one of her hands and the rehearsal paused.

"Let's take it back to where the family was talking to each other," she said.

The young actors nodded in approval and flipped their scripts back a page.

"I haven't interrupted at all because I literally have no notes," Cholovich said. "And you all know how hard I am to please."

The kids chuckled and picked up their lines. A few minutes later, the script called for the kids to let out "nasty laughter" and they all let out a loud, echoing cackle.

Cholovich let out a small laugh of her own, but quickly put her hand over her mouth so the microphones wouldn't pick her up.

All six students glanced at their drama teacher, smirked and kept on like young pros.

 

Keeping busy

Cholovich was born and raised in Dalton. After graduating high school in Whitfield County, she got her bachelor's and master's degrees in theater and performance studies. She then worked professionally as an actor and instructor for several years in New York City.

Three years ago, a position opened up and suddenly she was the drama teacher at Dalton Middle, her alma mater.

"I like to say that my life is very much like a Hallmark channel film," she said with a laugh. "Small-town girl moves up to the big city and life takes a bunch of funny turns, and she ends up back in her hometown."

In 2014, Cholovich got involved with a theatre production called "Fireside Mystery Theatre."

The show, described by Cholovich as a "macabre-style" narrative show, started in 2011 as a live show that would have a different theme each month. Eventually, the production moved online as a podcast and Cholovich joined as an actor.

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Dalton Middle School drama teacher Courtenay Cholovich talks to students during a break as they perfor a radio performance of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at Dalton Middle School on Dec. 16, 2020.

The shows were recorded live at a theater on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, ran anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes long and eight to 10 actors would play various roles. Cholovich worked primarily as an actor for the production until she moved back to Dalton.

"I wanted to stay involved, so the head writer and head producer invited me to try my hand at writing and I've been doing that ever since," she said.

Cholovich has worked on the show remotely over the last three years, but like most things, the production of the show was halted in March when theaters and businesses were shut down in New York City.

A few months into the pandemic, the New York Times featured Fireside Mystery Theatre on its list of "5 Podcasts to Bring Theater Into Your Home." The paper called the show "a delightfully stylized variation" of the classic old-timey radio tradition and easy to binge at a time when most Americans were stuck at home craving entertainment.

"We've had a pretty loyal fan base," Cholovich said. "As of about a year and a half ago we hit two million downloads, and I think it's still being discovered by more people all the time."

Even though "Fireside Mystery Theatre" has been put on hold, remote production is starting soon. Cholovich has booked studio time and will pitch in as both a performer and writer when the show picks back up. Since March, she has been a part of several other remote productions including "Tragedy: A Tragedy," which was put on by the Barking Legs Theater in Chattanooga.

The show pokes fun at the 24-hour news cycle in the age of geopolitical uncertainty and teases a sense of doom throughout the whole timeline. It was released "War of the Worlds-style," Cholovich said, and listeners were surprised in August when it hit the airwaves.

 

Bringing it all home

Back at Dalton Middle School, Cholovich said how important it was to have one last send-off for some of her students she first taught as sixth graders. Six students — Ellis Stephens, Lilli Sharp, Kinsley Stephens, Jackson Kersey, Eva Ashcraft and Greeson — were selected to put on the special production.

Cholovich said her work with "Fireside Mystery Theatre" and other productions have influenced her work at the school and kept her creative juices flowing. The school wasn't able to put on a fall production, so Cholovich instead produced a short film based on a Romeo and Juliet-influenced graphic novel.

The critically acclaimed podcast will start up again soon, but for now Cholovich is busy with her day job as drama teacher at the middle school she once attended.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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