When Mara Isaacs, the Producing Director at McCarter Theatre, asked you to take over and create a new production of A Christmas Carol, how did you begin to develop a new interpretation?
I went back to why Dickens wrote it in the first place. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as a reaction to the child labor abuses that he saw in the tin mining industry in Cornwall, England, back in the mid-1800s. Since that was Dickens’s first impulse, I’ve tried to create a clear representation of that world. The whole set was inspired by this very dark and dreary, poverty-stricken London that Dickens was writing about.
Is there a concept that unifies your interpretation? What inspired it?
The original intention was to show that Scrooge had the tools for his redemption around him all the time – he just did not know how to pick them up and use them. And that was inspired by one single line of Marley’s. In the bedroom scene, Marley says to Scrooge: “How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see I may not tell, for I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day.” To me that line says that ever since Marley died, he may have been sitting in that chair waiting for Scrooge to be able to see him, night after night. My concept is that Marley has been calling to him every day since he died. It takes seven years for Scrooge to understand this.
What do you hope the audience gains from seeing this production? Does this differ from what you hope the children in the audience understand?
If we all have some bit of Scrooge inside of us, if we all have some kind of a tendency to be slightly stingy or ungenerous to those around us, then watching this play will hopefully make you realize that you can be kind-hearted, and it will help the world.
The message is clear: be a generous spirit in life. I think you can learn that at any age, but you’ve probably been a Scrooge a lot more often as an adult. You’ve probably never been a Scrooge as a child, which is why the thirteen kids in the show make it such a magical experience for all the actors involved, who get to relive what it’s like to be pure inspiration and not have society cripple them.
You mentioned the thirteen children who act in the show as the Youth Ensemble. Could you speak more about their role as a part of the company?
I have found that the thirteen children in this production have always inspired me in a way that no adult cast can, and I think a lot of the actors that come back year after year come back in part because of the magic of these kids. And I don’t know what it is about Princeton water, but these kids are unbelievable. They’re talented, and they’re nice, and they’re generous, and they hunger to learn; and they have twice as much work with this and school. They don’t get to take time off from school, and they do even better on their grades – something about the focus of it and being in a professional environment and being treated like professionals. I never treat the kids like kids. The adults were never like, “ok, we have kids here, so we’ll talk to them one way and talk to adults another way.” No, we treat all of them like pros, and they all step up and give the performance of pros. My Tiny Tim for the past few years [Danny Hallowell] played Young Charlie for me in a musical that just closed [Behind the Limelight, about Charlie Chaplin]. He had major scenes and major songs and major dancing, and he was amazing. So, really, I’ve been amazed at the level of talent in the young actors of Princeton, and it’s gotta be something in the water, it really does.
Many theaters all across the world have an annual production of A Christmas Carol-
But ours is the best!
Yours is the best. So what’s special about this version? Why is it the best?
Emily [Mann, the Artistic Director] and Mara [Isaacs, the Producing Director] have put together a thrilling design team. We cast it very well because great actors love to work at the McCarter. And most importantly, David “Tommy” Thompson has written the best possible adaptation of this piece. He’s taken out what you don’t need, although you certainly benefit from reading [the novel], and he’s added back-story that gives such history to the characters. For instance, Marley never appears in the Dickens novel, except in that one scene when he sits in [Scrooge’s] chair, and here he appears throughout. He appears as a little boy teasing Scrooge in the schoolyard. He appears as an apprentice in Fezziwig’s store. He’s the one who seduces Scrooge into a world of greed and selfishness. So Tommy’s done an amazing job in giving back-story and support to the Dickens story, and I just think you cannot see the show without feeling for every person on that stage.
How do you go about introducing the cast to the play?
I always like to try and do something unique on the first day of rehearsal, and I came up with this idea on the second year of the new production: We read the entire Dickens novel every first day of rehearsal, but we insert our play where it fits. We read in the Dickens novel until we get to a scene from the Tommy Thompson adaptation. Then we read the scene. When that scene leaves off we go back to the Dickens. It works like a puzzle that gets everyone into the world of the Dickens and onto the same page, into the language, the Dickens tone, and it informs a different approach to the piece. So the first step is always directly into the Dickens and then we dovetail it with Tommy’s script. It’s a really cool experience.
What are some of your other favorite Christmas Carol traditions?
There is a very unique family that’s created every year with Christmas Carol. We have some old members of the cast that have been in the show before – those are the actors of Christmas Past. We have actors of Christmas Present who are new in that year, and we have the actors of Christmas Future, who are the kids who become inspired in incredible ways. The aspect of family, which is so important in the novel, is so important in the execution of the play as well. Theater is a ritual: it was born a ritual, it’s done as a ritual, and there are rituals backstage that keep the show ticking.
And you know, there’s a certain legacy for anyone who writes something of lasting importance. Dickens has a legacy to pass on, and anyone who reads A Christmas Carol or sees our production is part of that legacy. And there is a passing down even within the children who work on the show. They do a role and then graduate into a role that their big sister or brother has played. We have people that have played two different roles as they have grown older and older in the show, or inherited the role that their siblings retired from, and there is a legacy in that passing the production down from generation to generation, or at least age to age. Also, Tommy [Thompson] has written some really beautiful legacy moments in the piece itself. For instance, there’s a moment where Mrs. Cratchit teaches Belinda, her daughter, how to make the pudding. And the thing that makes that so vibrant is that she might not get a chance to teach Tiny Tim because he may not survive to that age when one learns how to make a pudding. The music box is a very obvious legacy element: Scrooge’s sister gives him a music box when he is a child, which he has long ago put away and forgotten about. He’s reminded of it as he looks back on his past, and he gives it to Tiny Tim, and the legacy is passed down. So there are lots of traditions and legacies present in the piece, and they also reverberate out into the cast and the production and the experience of A Christmas Carol every winter.